Monday, November 09, 2015

Foreign Policy and Illegal Immigration

In late October of 2015 I heard a story on NPR. In it, the woman was telling the sad tale of a man who had made his way from El Salvador or Honduras or some other Central American country, through Mexico, and finally to the United States. At some point he was sent back, having to return or be taken all the way through Mexico until he got back to his homeland. Eventually, he arrived back at his own home. Within 24 hours of walking in his front door, the thugs that had threatened him in the first place and forced him to seek asylum in the North came and shot him in the head.

The woman telling the story then declared that he died as a result of this country’s policies.

Now, I didn’t get to hear the first part of the story, so I have no idea where she got this information. Somehow, she knew about this one guy who came all that way and had to go all that way back. Then, one solar day later, he was murdered by somebody for some reason. Pretty specific detail as well, seeing that she knew he was shot in the head.

Who was this guy? What had he done to piss off those thugs? Who were they? How did she find out about it? And her last statement might even raise up the possibility that this poor man’s murderer(s) might have been a US Marine, or a white police officer, or an ICE agent, or a covert operative from the CIA. After all, it was US, as in the U. S. that killed this poor fellow. My guess is, we killed him just by turning him away and that somebody local to him did the dirty work.

I dispute this claim. I believe, if this fellow’s neighborhood in El Salvador or Honduras is rife with thuggery of this nature, then it’s the fault of the local authorities for failing to properly police the situation. Unless she is suggesting that it’s the responsibility of the United States to make sure this fellow’s neighborhood be made safe. I suspect, however, that this same person telling the story would insist that it’s not the responsibility of the US to be the world’s policeman.

Actually, what she seems to be suggesting is that we ARE supposed to be the world’s policeman, so long as the world comes to this country. Unless, of course, she doesn’t believe we should police the people who come here illegally. I don’t know about you, but I’m confused.

One side of the debate insists on framing this as the other side being against immigration, conveniently forgetting all about the word “illegal.” Somehow, they’re not illegal, they’re just “undocumented.” That allows them to declare the other side as racists. I might be tempted to buy into this idea if that other side were also trying to drive out non-whites who were here legally. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, so the argument doesn’t stand up to logic. And even if they were (or are), it still doesn’t make what is now illegal legal.

Whether you call them illegal or undocumented, the fact is indisputable that they’re here without proper documentation, thereby making their presence here illegal. So why is it all right for those laws to be broken? If they’re bad laws, why don’t we change them?

The immigration laws, any immigration laws in any country, are based on two concepts; national sovereignty and citizenship. In most places, you are a citizen if you were born there. There’s some fluctuation in certain places, but generally if you were born in Greece, you’re Greek. Born in Japan, you’re Japanese. And so forth. Maybe you’re not racially Japanese, maybe your parents came there from Scotland but now live in Japan and you were born there. There might be room to think that you’re also British, or maybe just British, because of your parents. But if your parents came from Scotland and you were born in Japan, you’re not Brazilian. Are you still with me?

So the people we’re talking about didn’t acquire proper documentation, didn’t wait in line at the border, didn’t go through customs, didn’t show anybody a passport. Therefore, they are here – what’s the word? – ILLEGALLY!! Very good, class.

So, therefore, if you still think that’s all right for them to be here in spite of the fact that they broke the law in doing so, what is your solution? Should people not have to show passports or acquire visas to enter the United States? Should people from certain countries or certain economic strata or certain races be allowed to bypass those things? If so, then why don’t you hound some congressman to submit a bill making it … you must know the word by now … LEGAL? Then, the debate would be about whether or not such a thing should or should not be legal.

But while it’s illegal, law enforcement has a responsibility to enforce the law, does it not? If there was a law that everyone had to wear purple socks and you kept wearing green ones, you would probably fight for a law that said any color socks were fine, right? Sure beats paying all those fines, or being on the run. In green socks.

Bottom line is, either we should have borders and limitations on who can cross them, or not. It would be an interesting experiment to just declare that the United States of America no longer has borders. Anybody may come and go as they please. Who wants that? Let’s have a show of hands, please. Although, you’ve got to admit, we have some pretty plain and formidable natural borders. A big, wide river, two oceans, the Gulf of Mexico … just leaves that imaginary line to the North, I guess. What if Canada wanted a border, but we didn’t?  And how about Alaska?

Which kind of brings us back around to the original point; that people from all over the place are coming here. How many people from here ever go there illegally? Hell, how many go there legally? Is there a big community of American expatriates in Honduras? I didn’t think so. Why is that?

Because this country is known for some interesting things that we’ve gained over the years. Things like peace, prosperity, security, equality, and freedom. All, very cool things. And at the same time, we tend to let people decide morality for themselves. Sounds like a great place to live. Can’t say that I blame anybody that wants to come here.

What would be REALLY cool would be if their countries were like that, too. Then, they wouldn’t have to come here. They could stay where they are, and be happy, healthy, prosperous, free, all that great stuff. So, how could their countries get a little closer to being like this country?

Let’s look at an example; Germany. After World War One, the rest of Europe (mostly England and France, really) wanted to stomp Germany into the ground. It’s kind of traditional. European countries have been doing that to each other for centuries. If it hadn’t been for Woodrow Wilson – a man much reviled by modern hard-line Conservatives, by the way – that’s probably exactly what they’d have done.

Instead, Wilson promoted the idea of a League of Nations, that would do the dirty work of helping countries resolve their differences. A noble idea, pretty badly flawed in some ways, and doomed by the refusal of the very country that Wilson was President of to join it themselves. But, it was an idea rooted in a very important and daring concept; compassion.

Remember that only twenty years earlier we had fought and won the Spanish-American war. We never sent troops to Spain, but we did kick theirs out of Central America once and for all. And the day-to-day operation of most of Central America and some of South America was taken over, not by the United States government … but by the United Fruit Company. Better known as Chiquita bananas. Some of the history can be seen in a Wikipedia article:

This became a model for future international affairs, for good and for ill. The USA went to war, but followed a pattern of not behaving as conquerors. Instead, at the end of World War Two – which many scholars believe was a direct result of the way the Axis powers were treated after WWI – the US led the way toward a different relationship with the defeated Axis powers. This time, instead of putting the nations of Germany and Japan under their thumb, we helped them rebuild.

Japan wasn’t that difficult a project. Their leaders wisely surrendered before we could lay waste to their country. Something about being the first and only victims of nuclear weapons might have had a little to do with it. But Germany and the Nazi’s insisted on fighting literally right up to the door of Hitler’s bunker. Germany, and most of Europe, had been bombed back to the stone age.

In both cases, the losing country was handed a constitution and instructed to sign it without question. But Germany needed a lot more than redirected leadership. They needed homes, food, businesses. So President Truman and Secretary of State George Marshall came up with a bold, daring plan. The, er, Marshall plan. Much better at doing things than naming them, I guess.

This was all couched in language about American security, but really it was nothing more or less than an act of compassion. We broke it, we fixed it. Not that we didn’t have an excellent reason for breaking it, but broke it so thoroughly that they were left incapable of fixing it. In the end, responsibility for protecting themselves was taken over by us. Everything else was up to them, and since they signed the constitutions we handed them, that meant the will of the public held sway. Just like here, governments came and went, the people were represented, and a free market economy was allowed to prosper.

The end result is that both Japan and Germany grew to rival us as economic powers, a situation that we all enjoy today. And we only had to leave thousands of troops in these countries for … er, well, they’re still there, as a matter of fact. And nobody’s talking about taking them out any time in the foreseeable future. It’s given thousands of our people solid employment, maintains the peace in Europe and East Asia, holds the commies at bay, and frees up the Japanese and Germans to crank out Volkswagens and Hitachis. Looks like a win-win all the way around.

So why couldn’t we have done that in Afghanistan and Iraq? You mind the store and raise your kids, we’ll watch your backs. Call it conquered, or occupied, or whatever you like. It’s a proven system. You can suffer under our thumbs as much as the Germans and Japanese. And go ahead and be Muslim, or Sikh, or Zoroastrian if you like. You could do a hell of a lot worse, and have for millennia.

The only thing they’d really have to be leery of is getting sucked in by the infamous military-industrial complex. Remember Central America? It’s amazing how things like this swing back and forth. Used to be, the Marines would go in and settle a place down, and then a big company/companies like Chiquita would go in and manage the situation. Plantations, single-focus economy, all that sort of thing. Kinda what Haliburton continually gets accused of doing.

Around 1965, President Johnson sent Marines in to settle things down in the Dominican Republic. There was a huge cry of outrage over it, too. Accusations of a whole Chiquita-Halliburton-kind of thing, being warmongers just as the whole Vietnam protest was heating up. So Johnson and Sec. of Defense Robert McNamara (former CEO of Ford Motor Co.) helped develop a different plan; from then on, it was left largely to the corporations that wanted to control a place (and whatever it put out) to do their own dirty work.  The government involvement was limited to diplomacy.

For a reference on this, I highly recommend a book by John Perkins, called “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.” Mr. Perkins is a native of Tilton, NH who spent much of his adult life working for a consulting firm based in Boston that few outside of the boardrooms have ever heard of.

His job was to go around and help decide things like who was going to win the next civil war or phony election or whatever. He did the sort of thing that was done in the semi-recent James Bond movie, “Quantum of Solace.” After deciding he felt just terrible about it, he started a kind of New Age doohingy (Imagine whirled peas!) and wrote this book that nobody wants to admit exists, but your library or a decent book store might be able to get for you. Or just Google it. Amazon’s probably got it. I found out about it from a radio interview he did.

But my recommendation for Iraq and Afghanistan would be much closer to the Marshall plan. Say what you will, I got the impression those Iraqi people liked voting. How about all those blue fingers attached to smiling faces? And, fine, keep Halliburton out. Just have the Army corps of engineers rebuild the infrastructure. And a few big bases, with buildings built to last, as if we were going to stay for a very, very long time. Don’t worry, we’ll prosecute anyone that messes with your women. We’ll even help paint your mosque.

After all, that’s what we do. We are the one, single, solitary country in history that does that sort of thing. We don’t conquer people, we liberate them. Then, we do business with them. Clearly, nobody else can be trusted to do that. France? Hell, they were in bed up to their eyeballs with Saddam Hussein. Russia? Yeah, right. England? Check with the Irish on that. And isn’t that where the whole Balfour Directive came from, that created the current roster of “countries” in the Middle East?

Because where all these terrorists and suicide bombers and Isil (Isis? Al Quieda? New York Mets?) recruits come from is desperate people. Not the leaders, of course. The leaders are the ones who want the desperate people to slit somebody else’s throat besides theirs. No, no, not me!! Go get, er, um, the Americans! Yeah, the Americans. They’re the ones buying all the oil. They’re the oppressors, not us guys with our foot on your necks. Go get them rotten bastards. And bring me another iced tea before you go, wouldja?

As for the countries that we haven’t sent troops into, we should start applying serious pressure on their governments to change their ways. There’s too many fiefdoms and dictatorships in the Middle East and Central America, and there should be consequences. We should stop handing billions to people who mistreat their populations just so they’ll let us land planes there.

There is danger to that, of course. Many of these dictators, etc. won’t want to play along. They’ll go to Russia or Iran or somebody else less interested in being compassionate and let them land their planes there instead. Our response should be to make that as difficult as possible, working with the friends we already have.

To the Sheiks and El Presidentes and other tin-pot demi-gods, the path to friendship is simple. You want to be King? Fine, be King. England’s got a King. So do Norway and Denmark. Japan’s got an Emperor, even. They have no power, but they’ve got big, fat paychecks and fine houses and their faces on the coins and everything. They smile and open Parliament, and then go to the Summer house in the Hamptons and drink margaritas.

But let your people vote, and make things, and profit from the black stuff in the ground and the yellow stuff in the trees. Let them go from being destitute and poverty stricken to being fat, having cable TV, sitting in barcaloungers. Let them fight obesity instead of starvation. Let them drive their VW’s and Toyotas to the Mosque and hang in the parking lot after, talking about how good that chicken pie supper was last week and how their kids’ grades suck. Yeah, let them have schools, and stores, and all that good junk. Instead of suicide-bombing your armored caravan, they can hang at the mall.

To the wise rulers who take these risks, trusting their people and showing them compassion, the United States is prepared to be lavish in its support. Your country can be a shining beacon of prosperity and opportunity, which will really piss off your neighbors that went with the Russians. Their people will be looking longingly across the border at those BMW’s and blue fingers and ask each other why their Sheik is so damned stupid.

A friend of mine recently pointed out that the 9/11 terrorists weren’t desperate, malnourished people. I think he misses the point. They were radicalized in the same crucible, but they had the where-with-all to get here and do that. A lot of it was paid for by those people who wanted their disaffected starving brethren to slit somebody else’s throat.

Really, the only solid alternative to my recommendation above; modified Marshall plan, and diplomatic pressure; is the “Fortress America” concept suggested by Eisenhower Sec. of State John Foster Dulles. In that plan, we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and start a free-trade, mutual defense pact with the rest of North and South America. We stay in our hemisphere, and your hemisphere can go wherever it wants in whatever hand basket you can find.

I’ll admit, there’s something to be said for the idea. But I prefer the one that has us reaching out in compassion and helping others achieve what we’ve got. It’s hard work, requiring constant vigilance. Or, at least a semi-interested occasional glance. Maybe helping the next poor Honduran from getting his head blown off won’t help this country, but it’s a good thing to do. And, it would keep that poor guy/gal/kid/trans-gender giraffe from having to swim the Rio Grande.  It would actually make the world a better place.  People wouldn't have to come here to escape squalor.  Wouldn't that be better?

Let's face the fact, the very poorly kept secret; there are people in this country that benefit from illegal immigration, and it's NOT the illegal immigrants.  It's businessmen who like having a large pool of workers who can't unionize and can't ask for even minimum wage.  And these rich businessmen shovel money at both sides of the aisle.  Do you seriously believe the Democrats ignore the logic of enforcing the immigration laws out of compassion?  Or that the NOTHING that the Republicans have done since Reagan gave 3 million illegals amnesty is?  No, it's so that Archer Daniels Midland and Wal-Mart and the other big money players can pay low-skilled laborers a starvation wage.

Twenty or so years ago, I supported NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement.  I believed that it would benefit the people of Mexico and other underprivileged countries.  Turns out, the country most benefited by NAFTA was China.  That's because we have restrictions on goods shipped from China.  But because of NAFTA, we have no such restrictions on goods shipped from Mexico.  So China sends ships to Mexico, loads cheap goods made by near-slave labor onto Mexican trucks, and sends them here.  Think about that next time you go to Wal-Mart.

So I believe we need a major re-think on foreign policy.  We need to push our government to pay attention to somebody besides the billionaires that fund their campaigns.  We need to insist on a foreign policy that helps people, here and around the world, instead of lining the pockets of the arms makers and everybody else that profits from the status quo, at the expense of billions of people around the world.

And yes, we need to be strong, and we need to flex that muscle, but we should flex it in the name of that which helps people.  We in this country are the product of a crazy experiment about republican democracy.  It seems to work pretty well.  When we declared our independence, just about every country in Europe was a monarchy.  Now, even the ones that have monarchs are actually run by governments modeled after ours.  But with so many making so much off the third world as it is today, who but us can lead the way to help them improve their lot?

We need to take a hard look at the countries where the illegal immigrants and terrorists are coming from.  If they're right in looking to us, to join us or to hurt us, it's because we're not doing anything to help improve their lot right where they are.  May I be bold enough to suggest that maybe, just maybe, we SHOULD be the world’s policeman? Or at least, our brother’s keeper?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Music rant

This might become a series, but can't say yet.  There's certainly enough material for it.

Back about 1983 I was living in Sacramento, California.  As it happens, the California State Fair is held there, which makes sense as it's the state capital.  San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are all bigger and more important, but Sacto gets the fair.  Yay.  So, I went.  And, as I was unemployed at the time, I went several times.

I grew up in New England, where there's all kinds of fairs.  They last usually 4 days.  California's lasts a month.  Lots and lots of cool stuff to see and do.  One of the things is a big stage, and there was music every day and every night.  I heard that Bill Graham was promoting the stage that year.  I got to see Santana, the Police, Huey Lewis and the News, Greg Kihn, and a number of other great acts, all for the price of admission to the fair.

My favorite of all those acts was an afternoon session by Ronnie Montrose and Mitchel Froom.  Now, one of the things that's always impressed me about Rush is how much music three guys can make.  Montrose and Froom went one better.  No vocals, which made it easier, but those two guys made a lot of great sound.  And Montrose only played guitar!

This was in the early days of MIDI, and maybe even before, I'm not sure.  Froom was surrounded by a bank of keyboards and boxes, and at one point stepped out from behind it, with incredible music cranking away, and played what looked like a digital trumpet; it had three buttons on the top, a dial in the front, and he blew into it.  Way too cool!!  The biggest shame of it is they never did a record.

From that day on I kept an eye out for the latest musical technology.  In the later '80's when I got back to NH I started collecting some stuff.  I had a budget of zero, so it was all used and obsolete, but worked just fine.  If you've ever heard my CD, "Rough Edges," most of it was done on a Tascam 4-track cassette machine owned by the band I was in, Tribute, and the sounds came from a Yamaha DX7, a Roland Juno 106 and a Yamaha drum machine, all controlled by a Roland MSQ-700.  If you're a synth gear head, maybe you're impressed now.  Lots with little, in a nutshell.

All that stuff is long gone.  About 1999 or so, T. C. Sweeney talked me into forming a band, and I've been oriented toward live guitar playing ever since.  Which I love, btw.  Nothing better than working with live people.  But for about 10 years before that, I rarely played live.  I spent most of my musical life after the end of Tribute hiding in a hole making little demos.  If it wasn't for Jonathan Sindorf and the Hidden Place Coffeehouse, I'd have probably never played out at all.

So now I'm back out playing, and I'm also back to writing, and it's time to record.  Actually, I never really intended to stop writing and recording, but the Tascam 4-track gave up the ghost years ago.  So for the past several years I've been looking at the new developments in digital recording.  And here comes the rant for which this is the long-winded intro.

Advice to my musician friends; NEVER recommend a piece of Tascam recording gear to me.  I rented an 8-track digital recorder for a month once.  Didn't get one lousy note recorded.  Had the manual, read it cover to cover, went online and sought advice, tried and tried and tried to plug it in and hook it up and figure out the confusing menus on the little screen, and ended up with bupkis.  Bupkus?  However you spell it, I got nutt'n.

When I took it back and told the young man at the store what I ended up with, he had the audacity to ask if I wanted to rent it for another month!  No, I don't want to grtzn frtzn rent the grzzl frakk thing for another khtthkn frzzgrn month, you &%$#@ ...

So my dear friend, Rocko now owns a Zoom R-16.  He's the drummer in one version of the Red Hat Band, the version that does all the original material.  Perfect.  I'd been looking around at digital multitrack recorders, and I've owned a few pieces of Zoom equipment, and they're always pretty easy to use.  I had been thinking about an R-24, but Rocko decided to save me $400 and bought this one first.

He immediately loaned it to me!  But first, he warned me that he'd had very little luck figuring out how to use it.  Basically, all he'd managed to do with it so far is use it like an old-fashioned tape recorder.  You could hook up mics and guitars and get tracks laid down, but that's it.  He couldn't figure out how to add the on-board effects or access the on-board drum and bass programs, or any of the other bells and whistles that came with it.

No problem.  He still had the manual, and I would take the time and figure out how to make it do its tricks.  Zooms are user friendly.

Note to Zoom; when you put that phrase on your packaging, Hoser is spelled with an H.

I come from a day when "portable" meant that it had wheels.  There was nothing wrong with that.  I think it's wonderful that you can now put almost infinite capabilities inside a box no bigger than a pack of cigarettes.  Unfortunately, when you do, it equals the pack of cigarettes in usability.  The R-16 is only as big as it is because it has 8 sliders.  So, you've got a small 8-channel mixing board with a pack of butts attached to it.

My recommendation is that you put all this marvelous technology in a device big enough for banks of buttons and switches, with clear markings as to their purpose.  Large, readable print would be nice, too.  You should also include a 21" high-def television screen for showing what the hell's going on in the pack of butts all the 1's and 0's live in.  Then, put wheels on it.  Charge an extra hundred bucks if you have to.  If it actually works as advertised, you will find me in the long line of old geeks waiting to buy one.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Explaining Trump

First off, I have the solution for campaign finance reform. At least for this election cycle. Here it is.

Hold the Democratic and Republican national conventions next week, and nominate Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Then, make them debate once a month on pay-per-view. Not only will they not need to spend a dime on ads, the money raised could probably make a serious dent in the national debt.

You're welcome. Moving on.

Second thing; the object of this is NOT to endorse Donald Trump. And, it's not to explain his popularity. The purpose of this is to explain him, his thinking, his whole point in running. It's a good point, it's a great point, you'll love it, all the polls say that you'll just think it's fabulous, when I posted this you know what happened? My numbers went up! People who are reading those other blogs, they're asleep! Hispanics love me. Love me.

Ahem. Sorry.

Jeb Bush has been, as I write this, taking shots at Trump for not being a real conservative or a real Republican.  Personally, I think this plays in The Donald's favor.  When he raised his hand at the first debate (being the only one at the time who refused to promise not to run as an independent candidate if he lost the nomination) I think his answer should have been; "Because I'm an American, not a Republican."

News outlets, and other candidates, take great pleasure in replaying old footage of Trump saying that he supports abortion, gave money to the Clintons, and on and on.  What people, media and political people in particular, tend to forget is that, until recently, Trump wasn't a politician.

When you're a politician, you've probably been one since you did it as an amateur.  You were the class treasurer in 5th grade.  You went out on your bicycle and canvassed the neighborhood for your favorite candidates and causes, years before you could vote yourself.  You made it a point to disagree with your Dad at the dinner table about some issue or other.  And you kept a calendar, marking off every day until you were old enough to run for the state legislature.

That would describe everybody currently in the race on both sides, with the probable exception of Carly Fiorina, Dr. Ben Carson, and Donald Trump.  These people had jobs, and lives, and probably didn't pay any more attention to politics beyond making it a point to vote.  They cared, they stayed in touch, they watched the news, but they also led busy lives.  They didn't worry about carefully crafting everything they've said since they were 12, in case it came up in a future campaign.  Trump was just another working stiff, a real estate mogul and part-time television celebrity.

Abortion?  Lots of women want to have them, the Supreme Court says it's all right, why not?  Sure, he supports abortion.  Clinton?  Hey, I want a foot in the door.  When I call, I want them to pick up and not let it go to voicemail.  If pressed, he'd have probably said in 1989 that he was against slavery and segregation, and for the free market.  So, you think you can come down another $100,000 on that building lot, or not?

When he started seriously thinking about running for President, that's probably when he started seriously thinking about policy.  And the more he looked, the more he realized that what they need (this is Probably Trump-think, btw) is a businessman.  People have been saying it for years.  Career politicians have, well, made a career out of maintaining the status quo, keeping everything on an even keel, and by all means don't DO anything!  Don't shake things up!  As the great songwriter, Bruce Cockburn, once said; the trouble with normal is, it always gets worse.

So if Donald Trump is so liberal ... then why isn't he running as a Democrat?  Because the field is so strong?  A scandal-ridden high-school class president clearly out of her depth, a geriatric banana-wacky who is NEVER going to be President and knows it himself, and "hoof-in-mouth" Biden.  An intimidating group, to be sure.  Oh, wait, I know; he's afraid President Obama will ignore yet another part of the Constitution and run for a third term!

If I were to hazard a guess - and that IS why I'm writing this - I would suppose that he might have looked at the issues in greater depth, and decided that maybe his earlier stands were ill considered.  Then, maybe he took a hard look at recent history and, like a good businessman, evaluated what works and what doesn't.  His conclusion, in this hypothetical situation, would apparently be that he's actually more of a Republican than a Democrat.

I think he's deadly serious about wanting to become President.  He isn't willing to cheat, but he believes he has a good shot, and a much better one than any of the "experts" think.  It used to be that a particularly successful General, like Eisenhower or Zachary Taylor, could get by the argument that they had no experience in government by pointing to how accomplished they'd been in their other endeavors.

So why not a businessman?  Are the politicians doing so well that nobody could do better?  Who, in the world of business, has the credentials to challenge the political class on their own turf?  Who has the accomplishments AND the name recognition?  Warren Buffet ... Bill Gates ... maybe a couple others ... and Donald Trump.

So should Donald Trump be President?  Well, that's the question we're all asking, isn't it?

Thursday, July 30, 2015

For Emily

I don't know about you, but I've sometimes wondered what I'd be like on the worst day of my life.  Now, I know.

It was a Thursday night.  I was getting ready for bed, under the assumption that I was going to get up at 5 am and head for work like any other day.  Like I had that day.  Then, Lynn called upstairs.  "Rick!  Get dressed and come down, now!"

A chill went through me.  The first thing I thought of was; Emily.  Something's happened to Emily.

We quickly decided to take two cars, in case one of us had to camp out while the other came home, for whatever reason.  I prayed the whole ride, while keeping one eye on the rear view mirror, because the Blazer Lynn was driving has some issues and I didn't want to lose sight of her.

There are three stages, it would seem.  There's the initial shock, when you're getting and absorbing all the information.  Then there's The Long Slog, when you're waiting for the inevitable.  Finally, there's The Long Slog 2.0, in which you get the past completed and start moving on.

Have you ever been in a room full of mourning teenagers?  It would almost be amusing to observe if you weren't going through it with them.  They don't know what to say, or what to do.  Then again, they're never supposed to.  Their friends aren't supposed to be lying there like that.  What has happened is supposed to happen to their great grandparents.  It's supposed to be expected.  It's not supposed to be one of them.

When we went to Lisbon to pick up the car, I could see it all.  The car was parked in a little lot up on a hill.  Coming down the hill, I could see across the river at the town hall and fire station.  She'd gone there to visit friends.  She got the urge to go out on her long board and cruise around the parking lot.

Did you know that they ask you to write something down, that they can then read in the OR when they do the organ transfers?  They actually read it out loud before they start.  I don't know if anyone but Dartmouth/Hitchcock does that, but I think it's an incredibly generous thing to do.  It keeps it from becoming just another job, where you disassemble a broken thing to repair other broken things.  I don't remember exactly what Lynn wrote, but it was perfect and I had nothing to add to it.

We're both proud and humbled by the fact that, entirely on her own, Emily chose to check the 'organ donor' box on her driver's license.  We both had done so ever since the option was available.  So far, five people have benefitted from receiving both of her kidneys, her liver, her pancreas, and her heart.

I have seen the hand of God everywhere, throughout this whole agonizing process.  I've felt it on my shoulder, and felt His warm embrace holding me up with I could not stand on my own.  When we finally meet face to face, I plan to sit down and ask Him about this whole thing.  I respect His opinions and decisions, most definitely, but I do have some questions.  I believe that He is active in this world, but not necessarily that everything that happens is His doing.  I also believe that He grants us free will.

I firmly believe that He knew what was coming.  He saw it when she walked out her friend's door and grabbed her board.  He knew what was going to happen when that man got into his pickup to drive home.  He knew it when she was born, and when the man in the truck was born.  I'm sure that during some battle between the Phoenicians and some warlord millennia ago, somewhere in the back of His mind, He was aware of how many days it would be before Emily Sharon Clogston would zig when she should zag.

But I don't know if He planned it; if, somehow, it was something He wanted.  There might be a thousand reasons for Him to want that.  I certainly hope the five people who received her organs are grateful to Him.  Some people are talking about it as if He did it on a whim, like He wanted another soprano in the choir, or somebody to show Him a move on that board.  Or, to spare her from something that would suck even worse than getting hit by a pickup.  They take comfort in that, and I'm cool with that.  Heck, it's a possibility.  Just because He sees all of time and space doesn't mean He can't improvise.

The burning question in the back of my mind from that first moment has been; did she know the Lord? Oddly, I find that I have a peace with that.  It was her decision, of course, but I've been getting lots of reminders that she used to come to church with us, insisted on taking communion, had favorite hymns, went to youth group.  And the couple that ran that group are pretty sure that she sought a relationship with Jesus.  It's a little scary, because the last couple of years she's been backing away from all that.  But He would never back away from her. So, I think we'll meet again.

Now, those of you who aren't Christians may be privately rolling your eyes.  That's your privilege, of course, but remember; you're betting your life that it doesn't matter.

The outpouring of support has been amazing.  Her story made the front page of the Caledonia Record, and a really nice piece it was.  I could go on and on about what an incredible person she was.  I could also go on about how aggravating she could sometimes be, but it's all consistent with the fact that she worked very had to be as unique as she could be.

At one point, she was determined to become a veterinarian.  She always loved animals.  The cats in our house were all hers.  A few of them would not have survived as long as they did without her.  I can remember her diving into the shrubbery in front of the church, through all the stickers and cobwebs and everything, to fish out a scared and starving kitten.  We named him Junie, after the juniper bushes she crawled through to get him.

When she was little, she wanted to be one of the mermaids at Weeki Watchee Springs in Florida.  She couldn't have been more than 5 or 6 when we went down there to visit family, and she just thought that was the coolest thing ever.  She loved swimming and just hanging out in the water.  Lots of people have been sharing lots of Emily stories, and they always bring a smile.  I suppose any time someone that young dies it affects a lot of people.  When it's someone in their 80's or 90's, most of the people they know are already gone and it comes down to family.  There are so many more people in your life when you're 18.

Even so, it's beginning to appear that Emily Clogston is leaving a big hole behind her in a lot of people's lives.  And, happily, just about all of it's positive.  If she ever pissed anyone off, it's because she inherited her grandfather's tendency for seeing everyone as equals.  Like him, she could talk to the Governor the same way she'd talk to a bum on the street.  If you're the bum, it's great.  If you're the Governor, however . . . Yeah, she was never real big on people who are real big on themselves.  In retrospect, Grampa Sonny was probably better at the tact thing.

To some of her friends, she might well have been the only friend they had.  Or the first.  She hung out with a lot of people that any would consider misfits, and make them feel like they were worth something.  Which, of course, they are.  But her radar seemed to be tuned to find the one person in the room that had no friends.  She understood that, often, those are the most interesting people.

Now, in saying all this nice stuff about Emily, I don't want her siblings to think that we loved her more than them.  I have been very fortunate in the fact that all four of my children are incredible people, of whom I am very proud.  I certainly can't take much credit for that.  I second-guessed every decision I ever made regarding them.  And yet, by some miracle, they're all smart, loving, talented, hell, they're even good looking!  They get it all from their Moms, of course.  Good job, Lynn and Tracey.  And, sorry about the quirks they inherited from me.

When we first saw her that Thursday night in the hospital, she looked rough.  Blood all over her face.  Even when they cleaned her up and took her to Pediatric ICU, her face was all swollen.  It took a couple of days for her to really look like herself again.  The doctors made it clear from the beginning that there was little to no hope, and they weren't even considering surgery.

They did a profusion test on Friday, in which they injected her with a radioactive dye and gave her an MRI.  It showed that there was a minimal flow of blood to her brain.  Therefore, they could not officially declare her brain dead.  That was an important point, because it presented some options.  We could have asked right then that she be taken off life support.  She'd have lain there until her heart stopped.  The worst thing with going that way would mean some of her organs would not be usable for transplant.

We decided to wait another 48 hours and let them do another profusion.  It meant two more days of agonized waiting for the inevitable.  On the other hand, it gave us two more days with our daughter, and two more days for her friends and ours to come and pay their respects.  And, it would also mean that, when officially declared brain dead, more of her could be used to help others.  In the end, it was tough, but it was worth it.

There were times when I'd swear I could almost see her standing there in the room.  It was clear that she wasn't too happy about this situation over which she had no control.  After a while, I could no longer feel her in the room.  Or, maybe she'd just settled down.

On Sunday, they did the second profusion and confirmed that there was now no blood flow to the brain.  An operating room would be prepared, and they could harvest her organs.  I find that a particularly ugly phrase; harvest her organs.  I can only think of a big combine grinding its way through a field of Hammond B-3's.  Or some guy in black robes with a scythe.

It turned out that they weren't going to be able to get her into the OR until after 11 pm.  Around 9, things started to go awry.  Her blood pressure was dropping dramatically, and sitting on the sidelines we could only watch while doctors and nurses hustled in, plugged in new equipment to supplement the regular ICU stuff.  And try and make sense of what they were talking about.

At one point, one of them came and explained to me (the only layman in the room, as Lynn's an EMT) that it seemed her body was sick of waiting and was trying to leave before it was time.  They did a bunch of stuff and watched a bunch of readouts, and things began to level off again.  At one point during a lull in the action, I went around the bed and took her hand.  I told her, "I haven't asked you for anything, but it would be a good thing if you would hang on just a little while longer."

I'd gone a few times over the four days and held her hand or brushed her brow.  Spoke a few words, maybe.  Lots of people that came held her hand, gave her a kiss, talked to her, and that's good that they did.  But I knew that she most likely wasn't aware of anything, and there just didn't seem to be any point.  I'd be pretending to do something.

After that, things straightened out and she rolled easily across the finish line at almost midnight.  I'm certain it had everything to do with the doctors and nothing to do with me, but I just had to talk to her one last time.  We watched as they wheeled her out to go to the operating room, and then we came home.

When her brothers were little they cornered me once and asked me point blank which one of them I loved more.  As I recall, I laughed.  I tried to explain to them that love isn't something I know how to measure.  You just love.  There's different kinds, in that I love their Mother differently than I love them, or my guitar, or pizza.  But no amounts.  You love.  Actually, I can measure my love for pizza, depending on the toppings.  And, I love my kids lots more than pizza.  Surely a lot differently.

The service was absolutely one of the most beautiful experiences of my life.  I hope to never have another like it.  My other three, Alex, Tyler, and Cathleen, are all under direct orders to outlive me.  They have each promised to do their best.  That goes for you, too, Uncle Paige, and all the rest of you cousins and nieces and nephews.  And Autumn, and the rest of the extended family that Emily gathered around her.  I never realized I had to make such a request, so I recommend your children get the message, and soon.  And give them a big hug, too.

Emily and Cathleen have a different Mom than Alex and Tyler, but they've known each other right along.  Still, it was Emily who took it upon herself the last year or so to deepen the connection with her brothers and get to know their Mom, Tracey Cassidy.  I'm glad she did.  In spite of occasional protestations to the contrary, family seems to have meant quite a lot to her.  And all her friends were, of course, part of that family.  If any of you are reading this, you still are.  Come by any time and say hello.

One of the interesting blessings in all this is that there's nobody to be mad at.  Reports indicate that either she hit the pickup or swerved suddenly into its path.  The driver wasn't drunk, just heading home from work.  He was a senior NH State Policemen, with EMT training.  It happened in front of two buildings full of potential first responders.  And I'm certainly not mad at God, because I have a little glimmer of how much He loves Emily, too.  Lots more than even I could.  Probably about the same as he loves me.  It's nice to not have anger gnawing at me.  It was about as pure an accident as it could have been.  We honestly feel bad for the poor fellow that hit her, and we pray for his comfort.

A number of people have been cornering me lately and asking why I stopped posting on my blog.  I had no idea that so many many people were reading it.  So, I'll start writing for it again, I suppose.  And I'll begin with this.  I also mentioned to a few in passing that I was writing this, although I had no idea of what to do with it.  They insisted I share it.  So, here it is.

Today is three weeks from that accident that took our youngest from us.  I've not gone a day of that without thinking about her and crying a little.  Liable to be a long time before I stop doing that.  No hurry.



Sunday, August 31, 2014

The President of Earth

When I was seven years old and in the second grade, my family moved to Hampton Beach, NH.  Dad was driving truck for Audley Construction on a highway project in the southern part of the state and was apparently making enough that we kept our house in Dorchester and rented an apartment near the beach.  I can remember going out the morning after a storm and finding seaweed on our car.

One of the great joys of that year was, due to our proximity to Southern NH and Massachusetts, we had all kinds of television.  This was in the days of antennas on the roof of the house.  We could actually get all three networks, AND a couple UHF stations, with just the rabbit ears on the back of the set.  Livin' large, y'all.

One of my favorite shows was a Japanese cartoon, early anime, called Astro Boy.  Astro Boy was a robot made to look like a little kid who could do all sorts of wonderful things like fly and fight big, mean bad guys.  I remember in particular one episode where he was commissioned to tackle a big problem by no less than . . . the President of Earth.

This is a widespread topic in the sci-fi world for a long time now.  H. G. Wells wrote about a unified world government, as has Isaac Asimov.  Star Trek, Babylon 5, Barbarella, Futurama, and story tellers high and low have used it in their predictions of Earth's future.  Some would argue that the League of Nations and the United Nations were intended to be steps in that direction.

The reason I bring this up is that a lot of people are trying to figure out Barack Obama's policies, and especially his foreign policy.  Many people feel he doesn't have one at all.  Even many of his staunchest supporters either can't figure it out, or they just aren't saying what they really think.  Others think he's a complete idiot who's simply way in over his head.  The administration seems to be telling us that it's a nuanced strategy that we'll understand better down the road, which could be beaurocrat-speak for . . . well, just about anything.

But as I watch the news and see events unfolding, I can't help wondering if there actually is a core strategy after all.  What if Barack Obama looks at illegal immigrants, ISIL, Putin, North Korea and China, not as threats, but as potential partners?

If you think about it, a unified world government could take one of two forms.  One way was the way the Romans, the British, the Nazis, the Communists and the Huns tried; conquest.  One ring to rule them all, blah blah blah.  One state dominating the rest.  Some, again, would say that the League of Nations and UN were the US's way of doing this.  It could also be said that American industry is trying to do that on an economic level.

The other form would be that of a democratic republic.  One in which every group of people were equally represented.  A government in which any group with a grievance could get a fair and equitable hearing.  One currency, a military that would act more as a police force, one executive branch, one legislature, one judiciary . . . and no borders.  One postal service!  One bureau to oversee agriculture, one educational system, one set of standards for transportation, to protect the environment, to oversee commerce, etc. etc. etc.  Even a bureau to adjudicate grievances between religious groups.

You could frame this any way you like.  Wells, Asimov, Roddenberry all saw it as a good thing.  Aldous Huxley parodied it.  Please don't imply a value judgement in what I'm saying, I'm just putting it out there as a possible idea.  I'm not trying to argue for or against it, I'm just saying . . . what if that's the goal?

It's entirely possible that seven-year-old Barack Obama was watching Astro Boy, or something similar, and thought to himself - as many undoubtedly have - why not?  And when?  And how?  So he goes into community organizing, and runs for Illinois State Senate, and then US Senate, gets a high-profile chance to be a keynote speaker at the Democratic National convention, and the next thing you know . . .

Now, I'm not suggesting that he's trying to make it happen during his presidency, or that he'd even expect it to be accomplished in his lifetime.  But IF it's a legitimate goal, then aren't current events, and the administration's response to them, leaning us strongly in that direction?  A day when there are no borders?  When Shi'ia and Sunni, Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Jew and Russian and Ukranian and Korean and Mexican and German and so forth and so on are living under one flag?  Voting with one ballot?  Spending one currency?

When I look at a politician, I listen carefully to what they say and watch carefully what they do.  What I'm thinking about it, who's their real boss?  Who are they helping?  Whose help do they want the most?  Who owns them?  What's their goal?

There's one thing I can say for damned sure about every politician on the planet; they sure ain't trying to please me.  They don't know me from a hole in the ground.  I represent one vote.  But there are people, and corporations, and organizations, that represent far, far more than one vote.  The Supreme Court says that a corporation is a person?  Like hell!  It's thousands of people.  And so is a union.  And so is Al Sharpton, and the AARP, and the National Organization of Women, and any organization or group or person representing a large voting bloc.

The pharmaceutical companies can flex their muscle and make thousands of votes appear out of thin air.  How?  I have no idea, but they spend their money and the things they want to hear get said, and the next thing you know mysterious endorsements come out of the woodwork and thousands of people go to the polls and do the bidding of the pharmaceutical companies.

Same with the oil companies, and every other major industry.  And, the same with any of dozens of special interest groups.  Spin is generated that keeps a high emotional tone and on election day we march like a bunch of dumb sheep to save the planet, or create jobs, or meet a threat or blah blah blah.  And the few who really benefit might, in a generous moment, thank us and then shovel on more fertilizer.

But what if somebody with actual ideals, goals and plans, decided to play that system for their own benefit?

Meet Skeletor.  He's the arch enemy of He-Man, a particular favorite of my two sons, Alex and Tyler, when they were at the age I was when I discovered Astro Boy.  He-Man was easily the most ridiculous super hero ever conceived.   He was a big, strong muscle-beach type who . . . was good.  That's it, just good.  Never figured out quite why, he was just good.

And he protected Eternia, I remember that.  From this other guy, Skeletor.  He was . . . well, he was bad.  That's all.  He wasn't a dad, or a Republican, or even an advocate for the rights of blue people.  He was just bad.  He laughed at other people's pain and tried his darndest to defeat He-Man.  Oddly enough, my sons adored Skeletor.  He was much cooler than He-Man.  I guess somebody like that just brings out the Skeletor in people.

This inane cartoon series sold a lot of action figures (NOT dolls!) for Mattel, who apparently had no political agenda.  They'd sell you a Skeletor doll - er, Action Figure - just as quickly as they'd sell you a He-Man.  They didn't even care if you made him kiss Barbie.  Or Ken!

If you get your news from certain sources, you might come to wonder if Barack Obama was actually Skeletor with a makeover.  Certain other sources would tell you no; that George W. Bush is Skeletor.  They're bad.  Just, simply, purely, bad.  Evil.  No reason, no ideas, no goals, just bad.  

Personally, I'm skeptical.  I don't think either of them are Skeletor.  I actually liked Bush, and I think I understand what motivates Barack Obama.  I even agree with him, to a certain extent.  I think his methodology is deeply and fatally flawed, but if he's trying to do what I think he's trying to do, there's at least an argument in his favor.

Y'see, I believe, from a few years of observation, that President Obama has two core goals that he's trying to advance; the protection of the environment, and the unification of the world.  These two goals are advanced more efficiently through the Democratic/liberal/progressive side of the political spectrum, so he's using that avenue.

I would agree that humanity needs to be better stewards of the world that God made for us to live in.  I believe that we can make a significant impact on the environment, in spite of what many conservative commentators say.  I know I've used this analogy before, but peeing in their swimming pools would certainly liven up the debate on the topic.  On the other hand, I think most environmental legislation is flawed, but that's a debate for another day.

As for the other, I think that's rooted in the belief that power is best used when it's controlled by a governing body instead of left to the private sector.  I personally believe that mankind is corrupt and fallen, and that power only adds to that corruption.  Again, I've written other essays on this blog about that.

But I do not believe that Barack Obama is Skeltor, or Satan, or Hitler.  I believe he is a well-meaning visionary who thinks he's doing what is best for everybody, now and in the long term future.  I believe he thinks that in twenty or a hundred years his goals will become more apparent, and we will thank him.

And, I believe he's wrong.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Fear of Impurity and Countertops

I recently dug out an old Talking Heads album and found myself really enjoying it.  It was very popular in its day, and if I'm not mistaken it was their best selling album at the time.  Surprisingly, there isn't much that sounds like it these days.  At my age, with as many albums as I've owned, I can trace a lot of what I hear coming out these days directly back to something I'm familiar with.  But nothing seems to lead to Fear of Music.

One of my favorite songwriters happens to be a good friend of mine, Jim Tyrrell.  Among his other activities, he participates in a thing called Songfight.  This is a website for songwriters.  They will assign their participants to write a song on a certain theme.  It may be a phrase, a topic, it could be anything.  You have, if I'm correct, a week to write, record, and post a song.  He does it because it helps him hone his craft; a worthy reason if ever there was one.

One of the songs Jim wrote for this was called "God Hates Penguins."  Songfight assigned their group / family / minions / devotees to each write a song to go along with that title.  When they're posted, they get voted on.  Obviously, the people with the busiest Facebook pages win.  Jim didn't win, but he wrote a very clever song that I like very much.

I have a problem with things like Songfight, but I'm not really sure why.  Maybe it's some outmoded, misguided psychological problem of mine relating to the 'purity' of songwriting.  Whatever my issue, I'm probably wrong, because I really like Jim's songs.  It's just that the whole idea seems so... I'm about to use a bad word here... commercial.

Most of what we regard as Classical Music was written in similar ways.  Back in the day people like  Haydn, Bach, Mozart and Handel worked for a nobleman or high church official.  They were an employee of the court or diocese.  There were events, parties, church services, ceremonies, whatever, that you would have to provide music for.  And don't be trotting out something by Vivaldi, we hired you because you can write!  J. S. Bach wrote over 300 cantatas for church services during his career, and they were never repeated.

So if Count Olaf and the little woman show up and the Duke gets out the good schnapps, you might find yourself getting the orchestra up and dressed at 3 am for karaoke time.  And if you ran out of ideas... well, you quietly sign out one of the back-up carriages and take a ride through the countryside.  Cruise by a couple of barn dances and if the local fiddle player's got a snappy tune, write it down, go home, and claim it as your own.  It's not like they're going to come to Vienna and sue you for plagiarism.

Another of my favorite songwriters is also a good friend, Mr. Sky King.  I think it's safe to say he fits in the mold of "pure folk musician."  As Pete Seeger famously said, folk music is the music that folks play.  For Sky, songwriting isn't unlike keeping a diary.  If he meets somebody interesting or anything at all moves him emotionally, he's likely to write a song about it.  Maybe nobody will ever hear it, maybe he'll pop it out at the next open mic.  He would look at "God Hates Penguins" and probably think; no, he doesn't.  Then, just maybe, he'd write a song about it.

In a way, modern rock stars are not unlike the Great Composers, in that they do it for a living.  A cranky Count wanting to hear something he can dance to in 1679 isn't that different from a record company executive in 1979 screaming, "I don't hear a single!"  They write their songs with... here comes that word again... commercial considerations, meaning that they try and write something that people are going to like.

Now, wait a minute... What's wrong with that?  Why would you, for instance, deliberately write a song that people didn't like?  I think this is where that 'purity' thing comes in.  Should you write a song because people will like it... or because something deserves to have a song written about it?

If we use Pete Seeger's measuring stick, everything on the radio, on MTV and VH1, on YouTube and Rhapsody and iTunes and Sirius/XM... is folk music.  It's part of the common consciousness.  It's the music of our lives.  Just like that fiddle tune at the barn dance in 1679.  And much more so than whatever great, important music is that's being written in some dark corner of academia where only a rare few will ever hear it.  Only now, it's the folk musicians stealing ideas from the Royals.

And most rockers, rappers, or whatever, generally begin as more 'pure' folk musicians.  They write their songs out of a need to express themselves, not necessarily with a desire to get rich and famous.  They picked up their guitar or ocarina or Korg Kaoss and expressed themselves.  And the ones who did it well and/or had good connections and/or good luck got rich doing it.  The commercial part comes when they're in the mindset of wanting the train to keep rolling.

Which brings us to the Talking Heads in 1979.  In a handful of years they've gone from geeky artsy students, to a band, to a band that a lot of people in the New York vicinity liked, to a signed act, to major stars touring the world.   Their income increased dramatically and quickly, and their calendars filled to overflowing.

And the same thing was happening to a lot of their friends.  New York was a vanguard location for the original Punk movement, along with London and Los Angeles.  Punk began as a grass roots reaction to disco and progressive rock and the (here it comes again) commercial state of rock in general.  Rock and roll was now complex and expensive and very, very difficult to get into.  A lot had changed since Buddy Holly was playing roller rinks.  The stars, and their music, was also increasingly detached from its audience.  A lot of young people found the Ramones and Television and Richard Hell easier to identify with than the Village People and Genesis.

The Talking Heads were from the side of punk that came to be known as New Wave.  It was more artsy, more intellectual.  Their original audience was a lot more likely to ask, "Why is there air?" than "Where's the beer?"  They discovered very quickly that the knobs on their amps had numbers between 0 and 10, and used them.

One thing about punk, then and now, is that it's generally made by people who can barely play.  To the more rough side of the genre, this becomes a problem; the more popular they become, the more they play.  And the more they play, the better they get.  This ruined a lot of punk bands.  But the New Wave side used these newly acquired skills to enhance their sound and come up with newer, better songs.

So here's the Talking Heads at the end of the '70's.  I can almost see it happening.  They've done two albums and toured the world.  Now, they're back in New York, hanging with their friends.  Some are other newly-famous New Wavers, some are just the people they always hung out with before they were rich and famous.  They're probably still in that happy space before "everybody else got weird about it."  They're getting pretty good at playing and writing songs, and while smoking a few doobies and sharing some lines with their friends, they get talking about the follow-up to "More Songs About Buildings And Food."

People start saying, "You oughta do a song about..."  Somebody gets out a pen and a piece of paper and starts taking suggestions.  And the list quickly grows; Cities.  Mind.  Paper.  Drugs.  Life During Wartime.  By the end of the party, the four members of the Talking Heads realize they've got a very good list of valid song topics.  They make a commitment to write these songs.

I don't know if that's how it really happened, and the wikipedia article on the album suggests otherwise, but listening to Fear Of Music it could easily have happened just that way.  It's a very good album, their best IMHO, and very well thought out.  The whole thing is downright danceable, and yet it will really make you think.  Too rare a combination, if you ask me.

I was going to write this piece several months ago.  What reminded me of it was seeing a band at Make Music Plymouth called Jake McKelvie and the Countertops.  Three young guys playing in front of the ski shop on Main street.  They sounded very original, very creative, and yet oddly not unlike early Talking Heads.  I really enjoyed them.

I don't know if they've got a CD out yet, but they seem to be an up and coming band, attracting a fair bit of attention.  I get the impression they were one of the better-known bands playing at MMP.  One day, I may be able to impress people by saying I saw them for free back in 2014 on Main street in Plymouth.  I wonder how their third album will sound?

Thursday, September 05, 2013

The Beatles (White Album)

For the last couple of days I've been listening to the White Album in the car.  The Beatles are one of those groups I regularly return to, and with a long drive to and from work and a good CD player in the car, it’s been fun going through some of my favorite albums.  I've been making a chronological journey through the Beatles’ later catalog, starting with Rubber Soul and working my way toward the end.

This particular album, in my humble opinion, is quite possibly the most significant in the history of the group.  I've seen at least two different polls in which it was named their best album.  It’s sold over 20 million copies since its initial release 45 years ago, making it one of the top selling albums in history.  But, again in my humble opinion, it just might be . . . their worst album.

One thing is without dispute; in the history of this, the biggest rock band ever, it was the beginning of the end.  From their first recordings up through Sgt. Pepper and even the ill-fated Magical Mystery Tour movie, it was always The Beatles against the world.  The fame that threatened to consume and destroy them was always met with a united front.  Manager Brian Epstein handled the business end, producer George Martin steered the ship in the studio, and John, Paul, George and Ringo provided the wind for the sails.

The years 1966 and 67 were full of upheaval for the band.  In ’66 they decided to stop playing live.  Their concerts were so big that they couldn't even hear themselves play, and the technology of live sound hadn't yet caught up to the needs.  Plus, they were leading an extremely stressful life, going from the road to the studio and back again, over and over without a break, from late ’62 through most of ’66.

So 1967 was a year of relaxation and reflection, and their studio time was much more leisurely.  They, along with George Martin, took the time to produce one of the most important rock albums ever, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Then, suddenly, Epstein died, leaving them somewhat rudderless.  Their response was to take several tunes that had already been recorded and make a script-less movie called Magical Mystery Tour.

The movie got scathing reviews after being shown on British television the day after Christmas, 1967.  But the album stands as one of their best and was a huge hit, with several of their most popular songs, from Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields Forever and even I Am The Walrus.

When the time came around to start the next set of recording sessions, tensions inside the group were beginning to build.  They used to stand united, circling the wagons as the adoring public, the press, their competition, and everybody else came at them.  Now, with nothing to do but create, their individuality began to take over.

It would not be altogether untrue to consider the White Album to be the first solo work by each of the Beatles.  Four very creative, very strong personalities were free to do whatever they pleased.  But then each of the four was required to fill the role of back-up musician to each of the other three.  And when the slots on the album began to fill up, the dominance of Lennon and McCartney caused yet more tension.  And there was no Brian Epstein to run interference, and no tour for a distraction.

One controversy of this album is that it’s their only double album.  Many people, including producer George Martin and drummer Ringo Starr, felt that the best songs should have been used for a single LP.  I think that is the tack I am going to take here and go through the album, track by track, and designate which should stay and which should go.  Feel free to chip in your own $0.02 on the subject.



This song caused quite a stir back in the day.  A lot of people didn't like rock and roll to begin with, considering it The Devil’s Music and complaining that it was bad for the youth of the world.  Lennon’s comment in 1966 that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” didn't help.  Many of their detractors viewed this song as a smoking gun.  Anyone this immoral obviously had to be communists too, right?

Frankly, I think it was simply what it appears to be, a tribute to (and maybe even parody of) Chuck Berry’s Back In The USA.  It was written and sung by Paul McCartney.  People had known for years that the whole Lennon/McCartney thing was fiction anyway.  Sometimes the other would contribute a line or a snatch of melody or something, but for the most part their songs were written by Lennon OR McCartney.

Evaluation – Keeper.


John Lennon was in a pretty weird space by mid-1968.  His marriage was on the rocks and he had publicly taken up with Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono.  He was also taking a lot of drugs, of a lot of different varieties.  The previous year had ended with Brian Epstein’s death and the band’s famous trip to India with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, which turned out to be very disappointing for John.

Without the distractions of the road, he had to deal with issues dating back to his childhood; absent father, raised by a strict aunt, and a free-spirited mother who never quite had it together enough to take care of him.  It has been speculated that Yoko took advantage of his Mommy issues, simultaneously controlling and liberating him.

The result was a body of work that was often unfocused but occasionally brilliant.  He was by far the most intelligent and creative member of the band, but also had the biggest issues.  Yoko arguably tied him to her and he spent the rest of his days in a rambling three-legged race to nowhere.  Even so, the postcards he sent back could have some wonderful scenery in them.  This was one of his better efforts in this collection.

Evaluation – Keeper


Another Lennon tune, and another pretty good one.  Not great, but not bad.  Letting a little of his anger out, and also playing with the Paul-is-dead idea, teasing the fans with a couple “clues.”

Evaluation – Keeper


Everybody loves this Paul McCartney composition.  It’s cute, it’s bouncy, it uses the word “bra” in a strange context.  Paul has a gift for taking some little piece of nonsense and making something out of it.  I’ll bet he made the best, and most elaborate, lanyards at summer camp.  Other moms would turn to their kids and say, “Why couldn't you make me one that nice?”

Yeah, but this song, well . . . it kinda sucks.  Paul went through a period of really being into depression-era English vaudeville and dance-hall music.  The kind his dad played.  So, he made the lanyard for his dad.  I’m impressed.

And yet, even with that . . . well, the damned thing is cute, it is bouncy . . . and frankly, again in my humble opinion, if bras aren't the greatest thing ever, they’re next to it.  ;>

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


What, are you kidding, Paul?

Evaluation – Throw it!


This is your brain on drugs.  For those of you smart enough never to experience being really wasted, this is what happens to you.  Listening to this song again, I can describe the exact process of how it was written; somebody said something and got it a little wrong.  Bungalow instead of buffalo.  A giggling fit ensues.  Hey, Bungalow Bill!  Then, John Lennon picked up his guitar and did this.  And because he’s John Lennon, nobody had the balls to tell him to stop.  Yeah, it’s cute.  Filler at best.

Evaluation – Throw it!


An absolutely amazing, beautiful song, and proof that George Harrison was closing the gap with Lennon and McCartney.  George’s friend Eric Clapton provided the uncredited guitar solo.  The live version on Concert For Bangladesh was great, and so is Jeff Healey’s rearrangement in the ‘90’s.  Btw, George played rhythm guitar on that recording, too.

Evaluation – Keeper


A strange, disturbing, rambling little John Lennon tune.  I certainly wouldn't release this as a single, but whether you like it or not, it drips genius.  And sometimes, genius is almost intolerable.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not



It is appropriate that these two songs, Happiness and Martha, should be placed consecutively on this album.  The former is John indulging his muse with great result but for no good reason.  Same for Paul with this song.  They were definitely headed in different directions at this time, but using the same road map.

Once again, Paul’s penchant for vaudeville comes through.  And like everything that Paul McCartney does, he worked on it really, really hard, crafting it carefully and buffing it to a high gloss.  Or, rather, making George Martin do it.

The difference is that this is a very worthy piece of music, regardless of where its inspiration came from.  You can draw a straight line from the little love songs he wrote in ’63 and ’64 to this.  The first few lines say “Tripe,” but then the song begins to blossom.  It’s really rather good.

Evaluation – Keeper


One thing with John Lennon, you don’t have to wonder what he’s driving at.  Damn, I’m tired.  I’m so-o-o tired . . . wait, not so tired I can’t grab my guitar and a piece of paper, and immortalize being bushed for posterity.  Then, the next time Bloody Damned George Martin is hounding me to do Just One More Take, I’ll sing him this.  That’ll fix ‘im!

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


One of the most revered songs that Paul McCartney ever wrote, and for good reason.  He spits these things out like the lowly oyster spits out pearls.

Evaluation – Keeper


Do I need to bring up that Charles Manson used this song as an excuse to murder a bunch of people?  Nah, I won’t mention it.

This song puts me in an odd position.  I really like George, wish that he’d gotten more songs on the Beatles’ albums, and by the end of the group a case could be argued that he was actually the best of the three songwriters.  I also, in very general terms, agree with the theme of this song.  Rich people do tend to behave like a-holes.

Unfortunately, it’s not one of his best efforts.  My guess would be, he was just in a pissy mood and decided to get up on his Hare Hare soapbox and give a bunch of arrogant rich people what for.  Not a bad thing to do, in and of itself.  Just not a great piece of art.  Taxman from Revolver was much better.

Evaluation – Throw it


You really need to hear the early version from Anthology to appreciate this to the fullest.  A bit of stoned rambling from Mr. McCartney.  It would be easy to laugh off and dismiss . . . but it’s so damned catchy!  I've been playing it live for 40 years, and people love it.

Evaluation – Keeper


This recording is a crime.  Not because of the quality of the song, but the way it was treated.  Yeah, Ringo wasn't a songwriter, but he spent an awful lot of time with three of the best of his era.  So he tried his hand at it.  And ya know what . . . it ain't bad!  Nice simple little song, all the boxes checked, no major flaws . . . not bad at all, Ring.

And then they do THIS.  Gaaakk!  Hey, dudes, it’s the one, single, solitary piece of songcraft the boy ever contributed.  The least they could have done is give it a fair shot.  Just play it straight, two guitars, bass, and his drums.

I always liked the way the rest of the band treated Ringo.  He was the worker bee, the guy who always came up with a good drum part, the guy who always followed along no matter what and gave his best.  Listen to the latter half of Anthology, and the one constant is Ringo, nailing it, every stinkin’ time.

In return they would always let him sing a song.  John and Paul would even sit down together and write him one, usually the only time they ever actually collaborated on anything.  Yellow Submarine.  A Little Help From My Friends.  Octopus’s’ Garden.  And now, our friend, the guy who holds it all together, ladies and gents give it up for . . . Ringo Starr!!

And then HE writes something, and it’s even good enough to include, and you do this.  Might as well have rolled a calliope down a staircase.  Shame, shame, shame.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not – if Keeper, purely out of spite.


Paul’s B-side for Wild Honey Pie.

Evaluation – Throw it!!


Another little throw-away gem from Paul.  I’d like to hate it because it’s so sweet and cute . . . but it’s so sweet and cute!

Evaluation – Keeper


This John Lennon tune defines the term “achingly beautiful.”  It is, quite possibly, the best song on the record.  This, or While My Guitar Gently Weeps.  It’s the song Blackbird and I Will wish they could be.  Paul never even came close until My Love, and then barely, and never again.  And it’s not even Lennon’s best work.

Evaluation – Keeper



This should be one of the ones to throw away, but it’s so damned good!  Especially Ringo’s little solo, and the kicker back in.  Yeah, we’re goin’ to a party, party . . .

It may actually have been a collaboration, although I detect a lot of McCartney DNA.  But there’s some Lennon as well.  I've heard it speculated that there’s a Beatles song for absolutely every occasion.  It just might be so.

Evaluation – Keeper


This should be yet another for the dustbin.  There was a blues revival in the UK about this time.  John Mayall, Alexis Korner, Clapton, the Yardbirds, everywhere you looked some Brit was copping some blues record that an English merchant sailor brought back from the Colonies.

The Beatles grew up on that stuff, Liverpool being a port and all, and when it started getting really popular I guess John couldn't resist.  The trouble is, to real blues people, there was some of this British blues that frankly sounded like a bad parody.  And when this kicks off, it seems to fit into that category.

It’s one thing to pay homage to a whole musical style, something else entirely to seem to be making fun of it.  The opening bars of Yer Blues really, really sounds like some white kid goofing on the whole thing, with no understanding whatsoever of where it comes from.  It certainly doesn't ring of the respect that people like Eric Clapton, John Mayall, or even Keith Richards gave it.

But the deeper into the song you get, the more apparent John Lennon’s passion is.  Not so much for the style he’s chosen, but for the subject.  Once again, you never have to guess at what he’s thinking.  When he says; “Lonely, wanna die,” you believe him.  And that, brothers and sisters, is the blues.

The Abbey Road album had two of these types of songs, one by Paul called Oh, Darling that comes off as even more of a parody than the first verse of this; and another John composition, I Want You, that’s another passion-and-angst song, but for my money not quite as good as this one.  You want to hear the Beatles try and do the blues?  This is it.

Evaluation – Keeper


Another perfect little jewel from Paul.  Not the depth of Julia, but certainly the skill, and flawless execution.  The Beatles started out as a hot little R&B band, but then Paul wrote Yesterday and Eleanor Rigby.  By the time they followed the Maharishi to India, they had become comfortable with the acoustic guitar.  Many of this album’s acoustic songs were written there.

Evaluation – Keeper


This should be John’s version of Wild Honey Pie, an easy call to make.  But it’s not, dammit.  You got to give it to him, when he’s on, he can’t fall off.

Let’s face it, if he wasn't John Lennon, there’s a lot of songs nobody would have ever heard.  Things like Dr. Robert, Mr. Kite, and Tomorrow Never Knows were fine buried deep within an album full of number-one singles.  They could be ignored until one got to really know an album, and then they would creep into your consciousness.  This is one of those songs.

Evaluation – Keeper


This was where John chose to spit his venom regarding his disappointment with the Maharishi.  The Hindu holy man was caught making sexual advances toward actress Mia Farrow, who had made the pilgrimage along with the band.  At that point everything the man had said became suspect.  The incident should serve as a warning to anyone professing adherence to a moral standard; physician, heal thyself.

John’s sarcastic wit is at its sharpest here.  Unfortunately, his feel for the craft of songwriting is not.  The music is clever, but disjointed, and I’m afraid it fails as a song.

Evaluation – Throw it


This was the other song used as a teaching tool by His Holiness Charles Manson.  It’s really an homage to a popular carnival ride.  It’s also Paul’s attempt at capturing the burgeoning style known as heavy metal.  Black Sabbath, Blue Cheer and the like were just beginning to make an impression.  It’s not really that bad a song, but it’s not really that good either.  U2 did a much better version, without even practicing it.  Find that on Rattle & Hum.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


George Harrison actually did two solo albums while still with the Beatles, Wonderwall Music and Electronic Sound, both quite experimental.  After the breakup of the band he did his first proper solo album, a three-record behemoth called All Things Must Pass.  Many of those songs were written while with the Beatles, some dating back to 1966.  Those songs had all been rejected by Lennon and McCartney.

Many people, including myself, think All Things Must Pass is the best album by any of the former Beatles.  This song sounds a lot like much of that album.  And frankly, it probably would have sounded better if he’d saved it for later, produced by Phil Spector and featuring the Mad Dogs And Englishmen band.  It’s a darned good song, and the Beatles did a pretty good job on it all the same.

Evaluation – Keeper



Legend has it that this song was born of a luncheon meeting between John Lennon and Jerry Rubin, founder of the Yippies and a leader of the American revolutionary movement of the ‘60’s.  He was one of the Chicago 7.  Anyway, he was sharing his ideas on the socialist revolution that he, Abby Hoffman, and others were leading.  Then a young waiter came to his attention and the great revolutionary starting hassling him.  Lennon protested, saying that if the revolution was real, then it was for the benefit of people such as the young waiter.

What this song says is that Lennon agreed with the basic premise of the movement, but didn't appreciate Rubin’s hypocrisy any more than he did the Maharishi’s.  John objected to the way the rich and powerful ran the world, but saw that the revolution might just replace one set of arrogant despots with another.  Power to the people, right on.

John wanted to release this song as a single, but the others thought it was too slow.  So a faster version was recorded, one that never appeared on a proper Beatles album but that Capitol eventually put out on its Hey Jude/The Beatles Again album.  They also did a video for release to the Ed Sullivan show.  After they gave up playing live, Sullivan became their favorite outlet for these videos.

I have to say, I do like the faster version better, but this one is worth including.

Evaluation – Keeper


Paul McCartney’s jones for ‘30’s dance hall music found no greater expression than right here, with the possible exception of Your Mother Should Know from Magical Mystery Tour.  Hey, I’m as sentimental as the next guy, but c’mon already!

Evaluation – Throw it


Another Harrison tune.  He had learned his craft well, but that didn't always translate to a good song.  This is an example.  We’re dealing totally in the realm of my opinion here, but George, bless his heart, had a number of songs that were well done, good melody, proper chord structure, but . . . well, they just didn't work.

Old Brown Shoe from Let It Be is a good example.  It seemed like, for every If I Needed Someone there would then be a Think For Yourself.  To me, this falls into the latter category.  Play it back to back with While My Guitar Gently Weeps, and you’ll see what I mean.

Evaluation – Throw it


A rather strange little Lennon tune that seems to have no beginning or end.  What we are left with is a pleasant little romp of a song that’s really a lot deeper than it initially seems.  It’s one of those songs you almost don’t notice, but keep coming back to later.  Still, if trimming this album down to a single LP becomes too difficult, this is one that wouldn't be too badly missed.

Evaluation – Maybe, maybe not


Musique Concrete is a genre that uses snippets of recorded sound, speech, and whatever to create its compositions.  Lennon had liked avant-garde art long before meeting Yoko Ono.  This piece was his way of introducing a wider audience to the style.

It’s difficult to know how to approach this, and most other of its ilk.  It doesn't use melody, harmony or rhythm the way “normal” music does.  You can just let it play in the background and allow it to invoke an emotional response, or you can listen carefully and attempt to analyze it and try to discern any meaning.

The latter approach makes it an interesting listen, although I've been doing it for 45 years and am no closer to figuring out what the hell he was trying to say.  With the former approach, it’s just unpleasant.  Still, it’s instructional.

There’s also the place it holds in the Paul-is-deal lore.  As the story goes, Paul McCartney allegedly died in a car accident in 1966.  The Beatles and their management, fearing the derailing of one of the greatest gravy trains ever, replaced him with a lookalike.  I’ll spare you the rest, which probably is laid out in a wikipedia article anyway.

But Revolution 9, especially if played backwards, supposedly contains many clues.  It escapes me why they would do such an elaborate cover-up, and then sprinkle all their albums with clues regarding the deception, but there are still people who actually believe it.  Somewhere I've a cassette with a recording of the piece played backward.  The clues as described in various sources can be identified, but for the most part it sounds a lot like it does when played forwards.

It’s important to note that all their albums before this one were done with a simple 4-track reel-to-reel deck at Abbey Road studios in London.  Sgt. Pepper was recorded on two machines that were then synced by hand, by George Martin, for the mastering process.  When the boys showed up to begin these sessions, they discovered a spanking new 8-track machine that hadn't even been taken out of the box.  The insisted it be set up, and it was used for everything else they ever did at Abbey Road.  That deck made Revolution 9 possible.  Thank goodness it wasn't all they did with it.

Evaluation – Throw it


A pretty little lullaby with way-too-lush orchestration by Sir George Martin and sung by Ringo.  If we’re trimming, it can go with no tears.

Evaluation – Throw it

And so we are left with the following keepers:

Back In The USSR
Dear Prudence
Glass Onion
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Martha My Dear
Rocky Raccoon
I Will
Yer Blues
Mother Nature’s Son
Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except for Me And My Monkey
Long Long Long
Revolution 1

Hmm . . . that’s 15 songs.  But there’s 30 to start with.  George Harrison went on record as being one of the ones lobbying to make it a double album, because they had so large a backlog of songs.  It’s hard to believe they left so many of his songs off and chose to include things like Why Don’t We Do It In The Road.  Ah, well.

It’s tempting to simply trim it down to what would fit on a single CD.  This is impossible with the entire original White Album, because there’s 93 minutes of music.  If you wanted to go that route, you could probably include all the Maybes:

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Happiness is a Warm Gun
I’m So Tired
Don’t Pass Me by
Helter Skelter
Cry Baby Cry

That would allow you to pull off the real drek, and I suppose you could even keep sentimental favorites like Bungalow Bill or Savoy Truffle.

But it should be remembered that in 1968 the album that George Martin was lobbying for would have had to fit on a vinyl record.  That means an absolute maximum of around 50 minutes, as opposed to the 80 of a single CD.

This raises a controversy that followed the band’s early career; the difference between the UK and US versions.  Up to and including Revolver, the UK and US versions of each album was different.  Invariably, the US album had fewer songs.  The songs left off were later put together as albums that didn't exist in the UK.  This is where the US got records like Something New, Beatles ’65, Yesterday . . . and Today, and others.

One reason was pure greed.  Everything with the name Beatles on it sold in huge numbers.  At one point, the Beatles occupied the top three spots on the album charts and the top five places on the singles charts.  So Capitol records would take the Parlophone album of 12-14 songs, pull off 2-4, re-order what was left, and presto.  Do that a couple of times, and the leftovers got released as yet another album.

But there were other reasons as well, and pretty valid ones considering.  One was that an album with fewer songs on it could be mixed to have more bass response.  Bass notes take up more space, because the grooves had to be wider.  This meant, fewer grooves would fit on a vinyl record.  And so, the US releases tended to sound just a little better than the UK ones.

Plus, Capitol never just chopped off the last couple songs on each side.  They were carefully chosen, and then the remainder were put in a different order.  In my opinion, the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver were just better albums than the UK versions.  And for those who absolutely had to have everything, the leftovers eventually got put out there anyway.

At any rate, the album that George Martin imagined would have fit on one vinyl disc, preferably coming in around 40 minutes or less, for release in both markets.  Still, the fifteen songs I've picked would come out to about 46 minutes, which is doable.  If you wanted to cut a few in order to improve the bass response, I’d recommend Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except For Me And My Monkey, and Long Long Long.  And maybe Martha My Dear.  But you could just as easily leave all three.

Ringo’s idea was to release the whole thing, but as two separate albums; The White Album, and The Whiter Album, as he put it.  The smart play, of course, would be to mix Keepers with Tossers.  But if you make the first one with the list I've provided, that makes the second one;

Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Happiness Is A Warm Gun
I’m So Tired
Don’t Pass Me By
Why Don’t We Do It In The Road
Sexy Sadie
Helter Skelter
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Cry Baby Cry
Revolution 9
Good Night

Now, think about it; on what planet would that be considered a proper Beatles record?  How does that lineup stack up against Revolver?  Or Abbey Road?  Or Rubber Soul?  Granted, in this setting, it sure makes Helter Skelter and Ob-La-Di look pretty good, but is this what we expect a Beatles album to be like?

What I’m saying, and what George Martin was trying to say, is that there was a lot of stuff on the White Album that isn't up to the Beatles’ usual standard.  This is all stuff that belonged maybe on Anthology, or Past Masters Volume 3.  These are the outtakes.

For that matter, look at the list compiled for the first one.  The keepers.  Now imagine going through Abbey Road, or Let It Be, or Magical Mystery Tour, or even Meet The Beatles.  Which songs off those acknowledged classics would you replace with anything on my keeper’s list?

Which finally brings me back to my original argument; that this could well be the Beatles’ WORST album.  In all their history, from their first recording session in 1962 up to the end of the sessions for Abbey Road, the White Album is the worst collection of songs they ever put together.  Even compared to their earliest stuff, which was a gaggle of their singles, from two really young guys still learning how to write songs, interspersed with covers and other filler.

And yet, even if it IS their worst, it just goes to show how truly great the Beatles were.  There’s a reason that, more than 50 years after Love Me Do, they are still the biggest band ever.  Even their worst album is pretty damned good.  And 45 years after its release, I’m digging it out for yet another play through, not even skipping Why Don’t We Do It In The Road or Wild Honey Pie.

As Paul McCartney famously said for the Anthology TV specials; It’s good, it sold, it’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album.  Shut up.

So this is me, shutting up.