Thursday, April 14, 2016

Merle Haggard

My dad and I agreed on perhaps two things: The Dallas Cowboys and Merle Haggard. We loved the Cowboys but knew they'd find a way to twist our innards into Spaghetti O's by giving up a last second touchdown to the Packers or the Colts or the Steelers. Perhaps the most profound statement my father ever made was, "The damn Cowboys cannot stand prosperity." My guess is, if my father were still alive, he'd hate them as much as I do. Thank you, Mr. Jones.

As for Merle, I grew up listening to his music (along with Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Webb Pierce, George Jones and such) because my dad played it in the house, but I was too much of a Beatles/rock fan to listen to C&W. And I took a personal dislike to the knee-jerk jingoism of "Okie from Muskogee." It was a huge Mayberry fairy tale, and you had to be an idiot not to know it or a liar not to admit it because, for one thing, Merle smoked his fair share of pot and had five wives and who knows how many one-night stands. In other words, there was more going on in that tour bus than holding hands and pitching woo.

And as for the kids who didn't burn their draft cards down on Main Street and didn't get a college deferment or didn't land a cushy post in a highly-prized National Guard unit patrolling the dangerous skies over Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange, well, they ended up getting shipped to Vietnam and getting their asses shot to pieces, and it was those shaggy-hair hippies with their beads and Roman sandals and their peace demonstrations that ultimately ended the quagmire and brought what was left of their asses and sanity home. Over time, Merle's thoughts on the song and its political message evolved, and here's an interesting link:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/music/artists/merle-haggard-sometimes-i-wish-i-hadnt-written-okie-from-muskoge/

Anyway, I was about to leave White Oak for Austin and UT in the summer of 1973 when my dad brought home the "I Love Dixie Blues" album, which was recorded live in New Orleans, and I fell in love immediately with two songs: "Carolyn" and "I Forget You Every Day," and from there, I doubled back to collect all his great '60s singles ("Mama Tried, Swinging Doors, Silver Wings, etc.) and then he came to Austin later that year and played the old Convention Center on Town Lake. Barbara Mandrell opened, and she was magnificent, and I wondered if I hadn’t just seen the best part of the concert. Then, he and the Strangers came on, and he sang ever damn song he knew except perhaps "Jingle Bells," and, of course, he finished with "Okie from Muskogee," and even us shaggy-hair hippies sang it like it was some kind of personal anthem. It remains the best concert I ever attended, and I've seen Elton John, Springsteen, McCartney, Billy Joel, Dixie Chicks, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Boz Scaggs and quite a few others I can't think of off the top of my head.

A year or so after graduating from UT and returning to East Texas, I was smitten with a girl, and she moved to Los Angeles to live with her father, with whom she'd been estranged. She was escaping an boozy mother and a brutish step-father, so I didn't blame her, but it broke my heart. I drove her to Love Field in Dallas and put her on a plane, then parked beside Bachman Lake and sat on the hood of my '73 Monte Carlo and drank a six-pack of something — probably Budweiser — and listened to "Silver Wings" over and over and over, and then drove home to sulk and mope for about a month. 

Since then, I’ve seen Merle three or four times, once at Stubbs, after which my friend, Dick Holland, immortalized me in a short review he wrote for the Texas Observer. The last time I saw Merle, he played at that church underneath the Pennybacker Bridge out on 360. It wasn't a very good show because he'd been sick and he had his kids carrying too much of the load, and also, the good Baptists (or whatever they are) didn't sell or allow beer or wine, and I didn't think to sneak in a flask of Jack Daniels.

Last November, he played the Nutty Brown Café near Dripping Springs, and I considered trying to catch the show but for some reason didn't. It probably conflicted with some dip-shit football game I wanted to watch, and I figured Merle was going to live forever anyway, so “another time.” Tickets were only forty bucks.

In the end, the thing I most appreciate and admire about Merle is that he was real. He didn’t pander. He never put on pretenses to satisfy a demographic. If he wrote and sang a song about his Mama or America or misery and gin, it was because he had something elegant and profound to say about each one of them. He wrote songs from the heart and the mind and the gut, and those songs remain as original and musical today as they were the day they were recorded, and if a couple of them are a little corny or jingoistic, well, screw it. As I've grown older, I've become a little corny and occasionally even a little jingoistic myself. That is, I like manly footwear and living right, and I am, by and large, proud they still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse. 

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Mr. Paschal

Some of us remember Prof. James F. Paschal, director of the Oklahoma Interscholastic Press Association. A few years ago, I was asked to write a short piece about him for a history project that, as far as I can determine, never materialized. If it was published and distributed, I didn't see it. I stumbled upon this piece the other day and have decided to publish it here and now. If this violates some sacred trust or legal obligation, so be it. By the way, Jim was a TCU grad, thus, the purple. I would rather take a whipping with a switch than publish in crimson or whatever nuance of red OU claims to be.

I have kept a stack of letters Jim Paschal wrote me over the course of my long apprenticeship to him. He wrote to stroke my ego, chew me out or correct something I might have said, written or thought.
I took none of it personally because I knew Laura Schaub or Randy Stano might have received that same day a similar letter, and all it meant was that Jim was in a cranky mood. Once, he insisted I disqualify a yearbook because the young adviser missed some nebulous deadline.
“I have no patience with people who can’t read,” he wrote to me. “I have even less patience with advisers who think they’ve got a lot to do! You and I know better than that — we’re workers!”
Well, I had plenty of chances to experience these mood swings. I taught and judged for him. He taught and judged for me. I knew when he came to Austin that he’d dine at Los Tres Bobos and Hill’s Café and complain about the Villa Capri Hotel, where I was obligated by state contract to house him. Even though the hotel was faded and sagging, but it had its charms.
Didn’t matter. Jim hated it. I’ve never known a man easier and harder to please, but to know him was to appreciate the beautiful contradictions of his leonine personality.  He could get misty-eyed over a piece of Waterford crystal (Lismore pattern only) and bug-eyed over a student newspaper that contained one too many staples. He hated bureaucracy. He loved all things Disney and the Boomerang’s Caesar burger. 
He especially loved the CSPA and dedicated much of his life toward seeing that it was worthy of its blue-blood connections. For almost three decades, Jim, Chuck Savedge and Charles O’Malley constituted the great triumvirate of American scholastic journalism. They were the gatekeepers, the giants. We shall not see the likes of them again.
I remember the night Ed Sullivan called to tell me Jim had died.  It was during the CSPA spring convention, and I had tickets to see “Miss Saigon” with Rick Hill and his wife, Donna. I didn’t want to ruin their evening, so I swallowed my grief long enough to make it through the show and dinner at The River Café afterwards. Back at the hotel, I gave Rick the bad news, and we both cried for quite a while.
That’s how important Jim was to me and all of us upstarts. It’s why we did whatever he asked. I personally cranked out one half-baked article after another for the half-dozen periodicals he edited, judged stacks of Oklahoma newspapers, and taught at dozens of OIPA workshops and conventions. In return, he taught me everything I needed to know about this quirky profession. Toward the end, he even asked me to speak at his retirement gala, which presented me the rare chance to goose him a little.
“English monarchs have left their thrones with less fanfare,” I said, then compared him to Hannibal Lecter with a pica pole and a cigarette.
I can still hear his laugh, a wheezy, high-pitched tremolo. He appreciated a good joke and didn’t mind being the butt of that one because he knew how important he was to all of us. He nurtured us and introduced us to each other, roomed us together in cramped cottages on the OU campus so that his friends became our friends. He invited us to important events and challenged us to rise above our back-water inclinations.
“It's difficult to describe how Jim Paschal influenced my personal life and mentored my professional career,” said John Cutsinger, who began his storied teaching career at tiny Poteau, OK. “He led by actions. His example of ‘getting it done just right’ inspire me even today. Jim recognized something in me that I didn't see myself and he nurtured it. Sometimes I hear Jim in the ideas I share with others. That's impact.”
Design guru Mario Garcia said Paschal was one of the most unforgettable characters he’s met during a 41-year career that’s taken him to more than 110 countries.
“I was instantly attracted to his wit, his comic timing, his attention to (and memory for) detail,” Garcia said. “Most importantly, it was his heart. Jim was like a constant flow of fresh water coming down from the mountains.”
Legendary photo instructor Joe Glowacki of Connersville, Indiana, said Jim’s special talent was finding the right people, inspiring them to think creatively and insisting that they have fun.
“No matter how many hours we put in teaching workshops,” Glowacki said, “Jim always made us feel like we were having fun because he himself had so much fun.”
For example, for his retirement gala, Paschal created a version of Trivial Pursuit devoted to — you guessed it — Jim Paschal, and everyone played.
“This is the one of the many quirks about Jim that made his close friends love him so much,” Rick Hill said. “If Jim saw great potential in you, or if you made him laugh, or if he just liked you, then he made you feel loved, wanted, intelligent and important. He was a mentor, a guide, a touchstone, an adviser and a consigliere.”
As for me, one afternoon, he and I were chatting outside his cramped office in Copeland Hall, and he said to me, for no apparent reason, “You, my boy, are a born teacher.”
I might have laughed or shrugged it off had anyone else said it, but Jim said it, and that made it real. With one off-the-cuff comment, he changed my life.

Well, I wish Jim were here to read this piece. I suspect he’d enjoy it, but I’m equally certain he’d find something wrong with it, and I’m positive I’d receive a letter from him, telling me all about it. That was his way of saying, “I love you.”

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Stereotypes and other lies

I attended my first gun show last Saturday. It was held in Dripping Springs, a once quaint little town that’s now being swallowed whole by Home Depot, Inc.
I went with a dear friend, Henry Robles — now a Los Angeles television screenwriter by way of Eldorado High School, UT and Stanford Law School. He worked for me as an undergraduate and remains one of my favorite people alive. He needed to see and hear and feel the vibe of a Texas gun show because he’s working on a script that involves one, and he chose Dripping Springs because it’s only 22 miles west of Austin, where he has friends and family and the W Hotel.
I picked him up at the airport, and we met my wife at Matt’s El Rancho for lunch. I ordered a beef chilé relleno, as I always do, and he ordered a fajita omelet. Since I was driving and saving him the cost of rental, he paid, and we set off for Dripping Springs and the Saxet (that’s “Texas” spelled backwards) Gun Show, which was being held in what looked to be a giant aluminum tool shed, a couple of miles west of 290 on Highway 12 West — about four miles from the local Dairy Queen and right across the road from the elementary school.
I tagged along because I wanted to catch up with Henry and because I figured a gun show would be an interesting learning experience. It was all that and more.
This is what I learned:

 Hillary lies.
That’s according to the 3x6-inch bumper stickers that were plastered everywhere, including the admission booth.
“About what?” I asked the crinkled woman working the ticket table.
“About what what?" she replied.
“Hillary. She lies. About what?” I asked.
“About everthing,” she replied in a flat, Marlboro huff.
“Such as?” I asked.
She slit her eyes and looked me over and said, “Ben. Gazi," like it was two words.
She then pointed to a sign: No loaded weapons. No cameras.
“Understood? she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, and she stamped my right hand.
I thanked her and ambled into what constituted the foyer, where earnest PaPa-types in overalls and suspenders peddled the non-lethal bric-a-brac, such as Bibles (old and new), Civil War and World War II memorabilia, vintage porcelain dolls, turquoise jewelry, and assorted other garage sale junk. The guns and bullets were in the main hall, next door — row after row of military pistols, police revolvers, assault rifles, antique shotguns, cammo, Kevlar vests, knives, tasers, holsters and belts, all stacked up and on display. 
It was what Spec's would be if Spec's sold carbines and chardonnay.

 Stereotypes exist for a reason.
In preparing for my first gun show, I googled “What to expect at a Texas gun shows?” and was generally admonished not to stereotype. “Expect to see young and old, all colors and races, mothers and fathers, businessmen and homemakers who have a common interest in things that go bang.”
Young and old? Yes.
All colors and races? No.
Mostly, I saw white dudes fingering fancy firearms they very likely couldn’t afford without stiffing their landlord on next month’s rent. I saw a few Hispanics, fewer blacks and no Asians. I saw three or four young couples with young children, but mostly, I saw white dudes.
Not to stereotype, but the white dudes would have done well to spend more on their wardrobes and less on their guns and ammo. I saw a lot of beat-up sneakers and dingy T-shirts and saggy-ass Wrangler jeans. I didn’t see much in the way of designer labels, but then, I didn’t see a lot of Confederate flags either, so we'll call that a draw.
I wore tan khakis, a pressed white shirt, a pair of Timberland hiking shoes and a Stetson Open Road straw hat, what we used to call an LBJ hat. I thought the Stetson might help me blend in with the local ranchers in attendance, but I apparently the local ranchers were at home or Home Depot or home on the range, and so, I looked like Ben Cartwright on the set of Swamp People.
Generally, it was a rangy, scruffy crowd, and, frankly, Henry could have remained in LA and written his script pool-side, relying entirely on lazy stereotypes involving unconventional grooming habits, grammatical havoc, tea party proclivities and all-you-can-eat buffet lines. He wouldn’t have missed it by that much, and if that sounds snarky or snide, well, duh. Admonish me.

 Now and then, it's best to lie.
“What sort of gun you lookin’ for?” an old codger working a one-table booth asked me after I'd picked up and toyed with an automatic .410 shotgun that reminded me of my grandfather.
“I’m just looking,” I answered.
“Well, what sort of guns you already got?”
“Oh, I don’t own a gun,” I answered. “I'm just looking.”
“Well, happy hunting,” he said, and muttered something else and plopped down in his metal folding chair.
In retrospect, I should have lied. I should have said, “Oh, I thought I might stumble upon a good deal on a Krieghoff, not that I need one. I got two already. Thought I might pick up an extra one. Can't have too many, huh? Of course, I wouldn't mind another Remington. So, what do you think? A Krieghoff or a Remington?”
That would have given him something to mutter about.

  Never mention “the government.”
The government is evil and corrupt, and there’s only one thing standing between you and me and a forced march to the gulags, and that’s the Second Amendment, which protects our right to buy as many guns and as much ammo as we can afford and store in our underground bunker in preparation for the coming conflagration.
Take, for example, a used Beretta M9 that an excitable young man offered me for $699.
“It’s a steal?” he told me, then handed it to me.
“How does it feel?” he asked, and I had to admit, “Pretty sweet.”
“OK, I can let it go for $650,” he added.
He accepts credit cards but prefers cash, which I thought slightly odd, given his disdain for the government. I wanted to ask him if by “the government,” he meant all government — the  school board, the city council, the Parks and Wildlife Department — but I thought the better of it and chose instead to look as solemn as a undertaker as I fondled the pistol.
“Let me think about it,” I said to him very slowly, like I was pondering some arcane moral paradox, and then slipped away and disappeared into the scruffiness. Ten minutes or so later, I swung back by the table, and the excitable young guy was lecturing Henry on how any and all gun regulation is tantamount to fascism.
Of course, I knew where the conversation was headed.
“Take Obamacare, for example,” he spouted. “The government says I have to buy it, but I don’t want it because I can take care of myself. It’s the same like if the government tells you you gotta buy a car and it has to be a Kia, and maybe you want a car, but you don't want a Kia. See? That’s how it all begins. And the next thing you know, BOOM, we're  history. The Constitution. The Second Amendment. Freedom of religion. The whole damn thing, flushed down the drain. That’s where we’re headed.”
He put on quite a show — pistol porn to the dudes watching and listening and nodding in agreement.
“Damn right,” chimed in a lanky, raccoon-eyed 30-something wearing a faded maroon Aggie sweatshirt. If he ever attended Texas A&M, I doubt he majored in political science.

 When in doubt, blend in.
Maybe I should have chimed in too. It would have endeared me to the Aggie and the other bystanders. It would have been interesting, pretending to be one of them by blending in. I have enough East Texas still in me that I could have pulled it off. 
Besides, “The true triumph of reason is that it enables us to get along with those who do not possess it.” Voltaire said that. 
Anyway, I'm not trying to be any more snarky than I typically am. I'm simply describing what I saw during my 45-minute stroll through what was a two-day event. I concede that it is entirely possible that the Polo and Louis Vuitton crowd attended earlier that morning or perhaps after church the next day. And I am not suggesting that people who attend gun shows are all angry, paranoid time bombs. If they're dangerous, it's only because they're so wildly misinformed. I mean, if Hillary is a liar, then what does that make Donald Trump?
Here's the deal: I wanted to attend that gun show because my younger brother is a lifetime double-patron NRA groupie. He owns dozens of guns and attends gun shows as often as you or I feed our cats. He and I have wildly divergent opinions on most everthing, but I know that if my car breaks down 100 miles east of Marfa, and I have just enough juice in my iPhone to call one person, I'm calling my brother because he will drive 600 miles from Longview, hitch me to his 2-ton pickup and haul me home.
All the way, we will debate Ted Cruz and Jerry Jones and illegal immigrants and climate change and stupid bumper stickers, like the two or three on the tailgate of his pick-up that say, “Hillary lies.”

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

My Life in Ten Songs

Inspired by a regular column in Rolling Stone magazine.

  A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles
  Ol’ Man River – Valentine Pringle, Show Boat, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein III
  Wouldn’t It Be Nice – Beach Boys
  Your Song – Elton John
  Silver Wings – Merle Haggard
  London Homesick Blues – Jerry Jeff Walker
  Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen
  I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra (Live at the Sands)
  I’m Not Ready to Make Nice – Dixie Chicks
  Practical Arrangement - Sting

A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles

I was 11 years old in mid-January of 1964 when the Beatles stormed America behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” their first #1 hit here, and they didn’t just nudge aside Motown, Elvis, Bobby Vinton, Jackie Wilson, Skeeter Davis, Lesley Gore, and girl groups like the Chiffons and the Shirelles, they obliterated them. In an instance, the Beach Boys and “Surfin' Safari became about as hip as Kay Kyser and Old Buttermilk Sky.

Our parents were horrified. Our older siblings, accustomed to Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and all that earnest, four-chord folk crap — “If I Had a Hammer — looked down their noses at us and made fun of “yea, yea, yea,” and we didn't give a shit where the flowers and the husbands and the soldiers had gone. We knew where all the young girls had gone. They were glued to their televisions, watching the Ed Sullivan Show and screaming their lungs out.

Name any Beatle album. I can tell you how old I was, where I lived, who my friends were, what we were in to, and what we were trying to get in to when that album hit the shelves. Name any Beatle single released as a 45 rpm. Same thing. This list could easily consist of 10 Beatle songs. In fact, my original list contained three: “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Yesterday,” and “Hey Jude,” although I bundled them as one. I know this violates the rules, but I’m old and entitled.

However, I’m going with “A Hard Day’s Night” because it was the first Beatle album I owned, and I saw the movie at the Arlene Theatre in downtown Longview, and the little old lady who ran the place tromped up one aisle and down the other, trying unsuccessfully to shush the hysteria. The opening chord of the title song is as ebullient a sound as rock and roll has produced. Plus, they were so damn cheeky. If you want to understand 1964, watch “A Hard Day’s Night.” It is to Beatlemania what the first 10 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” is to Omaha Beach.

As for the other three songs, they were contenders because:
• “I Want to Hold Your Hand” got the ball rolling.
• “Yesterday” certified their musical genius. Even my sixth-grade music teacher, Mrs. Barbara Coones, admitted that she'd been wrong about the Beatles. She went so far as to apologize. “I was wrong,” she said. We just sat there, stunned.
• “Hey Jude” helped me through a difficult time. Here’s the story: I heard it for the first time in August, 1968, out of a cheap, plastic portable radio propped in my aunt and uncle's milk barn in Muenster, Texas, where I was working most of the summer. The song astonished me. I couldn’t believe how long it was, and how great it was. Every morning and every evening, I sat and waited and waited for the Gainesville radio station to play it again until, finally, my mom and dad returned to retrieve me. Without my knowledge or consent, they decided to move us from Longview to teeny, tiny little White Oak — 10 miles west, though it might as well have been 10,000 miles — so I returned to a new 3-bedroom, 2-bath, cookie-cutter brick home, next door to one just like it, and across the road from an empty field that stretched all the way to Gilmer, I suppose. I was enrolled in a new school, in a new town where I didn't know a soul except for my two younger brothers and the son of one of my mother’s friends — a huge lug of a guy who, if memory serves me correctly, seemed addicted to fireworks and flatulence. But I made new friends because I played football and because "Hey Jude" remained #1 on the charts for nine weeks, and it was obvious what a huge fan I was, and that opened other doors for, even in little ol' White Oak, most kids spoke Beatle.

I’ve Got You Under My Skin – Frank Sinatra

I always liked Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole and Bobby Darin. I even liked Johnny Mathis. But I despised Frank Sinatra, his ring-a-ding-ding sleazy shtick and his unctuous sidekicks, salivating over buxomly blondes in go-go boots and mini-skirts, sloshing their martinis on their tuxedos and flashing diamond pinky rings, like second-rate New Jersey goombas.

So, I barely noticed and little cared when Sinatra died in May of 1998. But then, an odd thing happened. I was teaching a journalism workshop at the University of Oklahoma, and some kid had purchased an issue of People magazine devoted to his top 100 albums, and the kid was about to slice it up as part of some yearbook design assignment, and I stopped him and convinced him to cut up a Sports Illustrated instead. Out of curiosity, I bought “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers” and “Sinatra Reprise: The Very Good Years,”  and two months later, I tucked them in a carry-on bag, along with my Sony Walkman, on a flight to Budapest, where I was to teach what we called “fact-based journalism” to a group of 25 or 30 exceptionally bright high school students. Helen Smith of Boston and Shirley Yaskin of Miami and I took turns teaching Hungarian kids the difference between objective news and government propaganda. 

After a full day of teaching, we'd stroll down the Utsa Vaci for dinner and drinks,  then they would go to their hotel in Pest and I would amble toward my apartment in Buda across the Danube, and I’d stop midway across the Chain Bridge and watch the city lights flicker on, and listen to “Summer Wind” and “The Way You Look Tonight” and “All or Nothing at All," and suddenly, I got it. One of his many biographers, Michael Ventura, wrote, “The lyrics were trite, obvious, sentimental. Somehow, he made them true. The music was simple to the point of childishness. Somehow, he made it complex.”

From Budapest, we flew to Bucharest for a similar 10-day workshop, and there, I fell in love with eight or nine of the most perfect young people I’ve ever met. None before, and none after compare. Four or five days before the end of the workshop, I began each morning, sobbing in my tiny hotel shower, knowing my time with them was coming to its inevitable end. Of course, the experience changed me profoundly, and I returned to the U.S. a different person. It’s been 17 years since that workshop, but every time I hear Sinatra sing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” it takes me back to Bucharest and  reminds me how difficult, how painful it was to leave those kids, it makes me want to find some dark, smoky bar where a paunchy bartender knows you need a whisky on the rocks without being told.

Ol’ Man River – Valentine Pringle, Show Boat

Around 1963, my mother purchased from Reader’s Digest a collection of 18 American operettas, among them Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and, most importantly, Show Boat, Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel into the most important play in American musical theatre history. It created a new genre — the musical play as opposed to the wispy musical revues of Florenz Ziegfeld, or anything starring Fanny Brice or Sophie Tucker or dancing boys in sailor uniforms. Show Boat’s songs grew out of dramatic situations involving abandonment, poverty, miscegenation, racial injustice and alcoholism. Despite these gloomy subjects, the music is radiant — some of the best ever written: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Make Believe,” “Bill,” “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.”

At the heart of the play is “Ol’ Man River,” which is, in my opinion, the greatest American song of the 20th Century, especially when performed with primal conviction by a baritone the likes of Valentine Pringle. Everyone from Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Jerry Reed and Jeff Beck to Screaming Jay Hawkins has covered it, and the venerable Paul Robeson sang it in the original 1927 stage production, but Pringle — better known for his lead role in a British science fiction television series than for his Broadway performances — owns it.

For years, my late night boozy trips down memory lane would crescendo with Merle Haggard, the Beatles and "Ol' Man River." After I'd played it once or twice, the wife and kids would know I’d drained the last of whatever I'd been drinking and was finally headed to bed or couch.

Silver Wings – Merle Haggard

Speaking of Merle, “Silver Wings” nudges out “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which is my favorite country-western song ever, and why? Timing. It came out in 1969 but I discovered it in 1974, along with the rest of the Haggard catalogue, right about the time I was breaking up with and then getting back together with a girlfriend, who left Texas and a difficult family life to join her father in California. I drove her to Dallas in my 1973 Chevrolet Monte Carlo and watched her fly out of Love Field to Los Angeles, then picked up a six pack of something and drove over to Bachman Lake Park and drank them all and listened to Silver Wings about 19 times in a row — and those were the 8-track tape days.

Three months or so later, I was between fall and spring semesters at UT, and I was working on a crew building a honky-tonk called Frontier City, a few miles south of Chandler, Texas, out in the middle of nowhere. We’d work all day building the cheesiest faux frontier city imaginable, but around 7, a damn fine local country band would take the stage, and the first or second song they sang every night was “Silver Wings.”

I saw Merle in concert at Austin’s old Palmer Auditorium in the spring of ’75, I believe. Barbara Mandrell opened for him, and she was amazing. But Merle and his band, The Strangers, tore up the place. Merle sang every song he knew, and then he wrote and performed a couple mid-stream. I’ve seen him twice since: once at Stubbs, which was great, and the other time at the Riverbend Church on Lake Austin, not far from the Pennybacker Bridge. He’d somehow staved off lung cancer and looked and sounded frail, and it wasn’t much of a show, especially since neither beer nor wine were sold, and no one dared sneak in a flask or a joint inasmuch as Jesus was surely watching and taking notes.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice – Beach Boys

I was 14, a girl-crazy eighth grader, and I had a huge crush on a girl who lived down the block, and more than anything, I wanted to sleep with her — but only that, just sleep. I tried to imagine what that would be like, to just lie in a bed close enough to smell her hair, and sleep.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” perfectly captures that moment, that innocence. Today, I’m still in awe of Brian Wilson’s brilliant melody and its execution by the Wrecking Crew, particularly drummer Hal Blaine. It’s my favorite Beach Boy song.

Your Song – Elton John

In April, 1970, Paul McCartney quit the Beatles. I still have a newspaper clipping from the Longview newspaper. We all saw it coming. It was like watching our parents fight night after night. A divorce is inevitable, if they don’t kill each other first. The break-up of the Beatles left a void that neither Lennon nor McCartney could fill as single artists, and though there remained a lot of excellent music out there — Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Simon & Garfunkel — something was missing.

And then, Elton John arrived, ironically enough, in April, 1970, with the release of his eponymous album, Elton John. The album was not an immediate success, but its popularity grew, driven by one song: “Your Song.” I remember the first time I heard it. I was walking out the kitchen door on my way to pick up my date for the 1971 high school football banquet, and Elton was performing the song on some television variety show. I paused, turned back, listened to the rest of the song, and thought, “That was not bad.”

What an understatement. Over the next five years, he and Bernie Taupin recorded seven remarkable albums, particularly Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the Water, and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The string ended with “Rock of the Westies,” and the next album “Blue Moves” would have been equally disappointing had it not been for two songs: “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” and “Idol,” Elton’s haunting homage to Elvis Presley.

London Homesick Blues – Jerry Jeff Walker

I attended the University of Texas in the 1970s, the heyday of the Cosmic Cowboy and Redneck Hippy, of the Armadillo World Headquarters and Willie Nelson. But the soundtrack of those years was Viva Terlingua by Jerry Jeff Walker and The Lost Gonzo Band. It was recorded live in Luckenbach, which then consisted of a post office, a dance hall and a parking lot. Now, it’s a shrine. Mecca for aging hippies, who even now want to swill a dozen or so Shiners and belt out, “Up against the wall, redneck mother.” Back then, we drank Lone Star, but no one does that anymore except tourists and dorky college kids.

But the best song on the album isn’t “Redneck Mother,” and it’s not “Desperados Waiting on a Train.” It’s “London Homesick Blues.” After graduation from UT in 1975, I followed that off-and-on girlfriend I mentioned earlier to Southern California, even though we had a tortured relationship. She was younger and full of silly ideas like chastity because, she told me, she had promised Jesus she would save the good stuff for marriage. She didn’t, but we broke up not long after I arrived anyway. I bounced around Anaheim, Fullerton and Huntington Beach long enough to truly appreciate this lyric:

And I’ll substantiate the rumor
that the English sense of humor
is drier than the Texas sand.
You can put up your dukes
and you can bet your boots
But I’m leaving just as fast as I can.

Then, I said my goodbyes to the girlfriend and her family and to some really dear friends I’d made — including a married woman with whom I’d had a dalliance — and I drove my '73 moss green Chevrolet Monty Carlo 1,500 miles back home to East Texas. I doubt I arrived with more five dollars to my name.

Thunder Road – Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen played the Armadillo World Headquarters five times in 1974, but I never saw him because at the time he was playing small venues like AWH, I had no idea who he was. A year later, with the release of his album, “Born to Run,” everyone knew who he was. It helped that he made the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week, and no rock star had ever managed to do that.

“Born to Run” is one of my favorite albums. On any given day, it ranks as high as fifth, as low as tenth.  The title song is pure adrenaline, but Thunder Road is more musical, more lyrical, more visceral, more magical. “The skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets.” How do anyone write a line like that?

“Thunder Road” was Jeff Nardone’s favorite Springsteen song too, and his family chose it to close his funeral service, and I can’t hear it now without choking up, just a little.

Not Ready to Make Nice — The Dixie Chicks

In 2002, I didn't know a thing about the Dixie Chicks until Natalie Maines made her infamous comment about George W. Bush, thus triggering the Fox News backlash and the Nashville boycott and, worst of all, Toby Keith's despicable "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,"  his little love ditty to the throngs of angry American idiots who thought Saddam Hussein was behind the 9-11 attacks and just wanted to put a boot in some Arab's ass. So, I bought a copy of "Home" to protest the protest, and could not believe how great it was — the best start-to-finish album I had heard in years.

And we became huge fans, and not for political reasons — for artistic reasons. They wrote and sang great songs — original, creative, intelligent songs instead of the schlock that passes for C&W these days. Of course, we also admired and respected how these three young women stood together and held their ground in the face of relentless and senseless attacks. Their 2003 inteview with Barbara Walters was inspiring, heroic, entirely noble. 

Three years later, they released a defiant, new album, "Taking the Long Way," which, of course, Clear Channel and the local 'Bama and Bubba disc jockeys boycotted, even though it's brilliant, almost Beatlesque. As for "Not Ready to Make Nice," it still sends a chill up my spine. I don't even have to hear it. I only have to think about it. 

Jeez, I wish these girls would get back in the studio. 

Practical Arrangement — Sting


I'm often assured there's a lot of good music out there. “You just have to look for it,” I’m told. "It's there. Just look."

How sad is that? I must search for it, like it’s an original Napoleonic tunic, or a prehistoric cockroach caught in amber. What if we applied this standard to food, or film, or football? What if we applied it to diapers or detergent? What if we applied it to anything?

“There are a lot of great coffee out there, pal. You just have to look for it.” People would freak out. They want great coffee, and they want it now. They don’t want to spend hours excavating websites and visiting chat rooms and exploring Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and Starbucks and ending up at a mom-and-pop trailer where the beans come from an organic farm in Guatemala. People would riot.

But music? People eat whatever the music industry wardens flop on a plate, and there’s a reason for this: People are cheap. Music today is a disposable commodity — like a razor, a jar of jelly, a pair of socks - only better. It's free. Why buy music when you can rip it off YouTube? 

And so, music is worth what the market is willing to pay, which is nothing - and that explains Drake and Katy Perry and Justin Bieber and and all those bands that crank out the same song  with the same riffs and the same vocal gimmicks over and over and over. How many times have you heard, "Oh, uh oh. Uh oh, uh oh, uh oh?"

I concede that there are talented musicians out there. Avett Brothers. Decemberists. Adele. And Beyoncé has voice as stunning as her body, but the music she chooses to sing sucks. It's written for 10-year-old girls and performed for 13-year-old boys. It has a shorter shelf-life than raw milk.

So, it's shocking and thrilling to stumble upon a beautifully crafted song - a song Paul Simon or Burt Bacharach or Jim Webb or Carole King might have written. It just doesn’t happen often. Sturgill Simpson seems to me to be the real deal. His “Long White Line” has been compared to Waylon Jennings but his twang reminds me of George Jones.

Amy Winehouse might have been a trainwreck as person, but her “Back to Black” album blew me away, particularly “Lose is a Losing Game.” As far as this list is concerned, it’s 10-B.

10-A is Sting’s “Practical Arrangement” from his amazing album, “The Last Ship.” The gorgeous melody can be performed high or low, a capella or fully loaded. It’s about an older man saying to a younger woman to consider the possibility of a practical idea: “Sure, it may not be the romance you had in mind, but let’s live together for a while, get to know one another and, in time, you might come to love me.”

I'm not promising the moon,
I'm not promising a rainbow,
Just a practical solution,
To a solitary life.
I'd be a father to your boy,
A shoulder you could lean on,
How bad could it be,
To be my wife?

It’s sumptuous music for intelligent adults, and it gives me hope that I haven’t been introduced to my last fabulous song, that it’s possible I might one day revise this list and include one or two songs as yet unwritten. But I’m not holding my breath.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The hero who took out the bad guys

Buy a gun or two. Something powerful. Something you'd never shoot a deer or a wild hog with. Something made for one reason and one reason only: to kill. To kill people, in particular. Now, buy a couple hundred rounds of the most lethal bullets available. They're called RIP bullets, and they don't just kill. They butcher. They maim. Think of a regular bullet as a sharp knife and a RIP bullet as a blunt axe.

Next, play with the gun. Toy with it. Load it and unload it and gaze at it and fantasize shooting it, of blowing people away. Just for kicks, lug your new gun into the local Applebee's and scare the hell out of some children and old people and libtards.

Eventually, you'll want to take it out and shoot something. That's what it's for. Shoot up an old TV set or computer monitor. Take out some clay pigeons. Just don't forget to take along your ear plugs or noise-reducing headphones. By the way, 3M makes a nice pair of tactical ear muffs. A lot of SWAT teams use them. I'm sure they'd look great on you.

And now, wait for the bad guys to show up, to threaten you, to step into your cross-hairs. It might be a genuine criminal. It might just be that punk kid who owns the monster truck down the street, who's always gunning it at 2 or 3 in the morning. And when you confront him and he smarts off and then decides to bull-rush you because he's young and drunk and stupid, then you shoot him. In the chest. In the head. If you're lucky, he'll be wearing a gray hoodie, which means he's a gang-banger for sure, and you stood your ground.

Well, good for you. The Founding Fathers salute you, and your fellow Constitutional scholars at Cabela's and Walmart and the gun shows applaud you defending freedom and liberty and the American Way of Life, not to mention the Second Amendment.

And so what if a few of these guns fall into the hands of the wrong people. Of course, I'm referring to children. Not hardened criminals.

Kids do crazy things, especially when there are guns stashed around the house. Like the 4-year-old Kentucky boy who shot and killed his 6-year-old sister. Or the 3-year-old Michigan boy who died after accidentally shooting himself in the head with the gun he found on the closet floor of his home.

As Joe the Plumber so eloquently stated, your dead child doesn't trump his Constitutional rights to hoard guns. Besides, criminals will have their guns, regardless. It's part of being a criminal. They're loaded, and they can always get more — legally, in most cases. Most importantly, they get the first shot.

And you can't stop them because no one sees them coming. They're odd-duck types who have never once broken the law but who are quietly and politely seething, roiling, ready to explode. They plot their revenge and, one morning, strap on the gear and show up, locked and loaded, at a post office or a J.C. Penney's or in the halls of your 12-year-old daughter's school, where they blurt out the lyrics of a rock song or a line from Catcher in the Rye and then start blasting away.

It's at that point that I wish you would show up, but you never do, so over the course of the 45 minutes, they slaughter 10 or 12 and then kill themselves or are killed by police officers who are specifically trained and equipped to do just that. It's their job whereas you work the counter at Pep Boys.

Eventually, the blood is mopped up and the funerals are held and the victims are buried and nothing changes. You still troll Walmart or Cabela's and the gun shows and buy another gun and another bucket of bullets, and you return home and diddle with them and gaze at them and sink deeper and deeper into your cammo-covered BarcaLounger and your warrior fantasies of being the big hero who takes on the bad guys and defends America. The Beautiful.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The commie, socialist wannabe

I received an email recently from a former colleague, a retired Texas school administrator who trades in tea party agitprop. The email linked to a piece of hogwash that's made its way around the Internet a dozen or more times, titled, “4 Simple Questions.” It was written by a New Jersey lawyer, Richard Silverlieb. 

“Help me figure this one out, Bobby,” my former colleague asked, sarcastically. “I'm not sure I can!”

Well, I knew it was a set-up, but I glanced over it, then responded, first, by questioning Silverlieb’s objectivity, inasmuch as he ends his screed with "A pen in the hand of this socialist commie wannabe is far more dangerous than a gun in the hands of 200 million patriotic law-abiding citizens."

Then, I questioned his veracity by pointing out that communism and socialism are not the same and that no one I know cares if one gun is shared among 200 million law-abiding, patriotic citizens. I mean, that is what he wrote. "…a gun in the hands of 200 million patriotic law-abiding citizens." 

I suspected Silverlieb's accusations were as pristine factually as they were grammatically and, of course, I was correct. Almost every one is deemed false or highly misleading by either or both Snopes or Politifact. Of course, my former colleague thinks Snopes and Politifact are libtard b.s. published by Bolsheviks, and, besides, mere facts are just some pinhead's opinion. Darwin is wrong because not all apes have evolved into humans, and snow in Boston means global warming is a hoax, perpetrated by someone really, really evil. Like Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

My former colleague reminds me quite a lot of an old friend who turned 61 recently. Many of us sent him the obligatory ‘Hope you have a great birthday blah blah blah’ message. Late in the afternoon, my old friend posted a message on Facebook, thanking everyone for thinking of him. He told us he had spent the day with his children and grandchildren, had a great time and yak yak yak, but then, for no apparent reason, he took a roundhouse swing at "the idiots in Washington D.C." 

Why go there? Why couldn’t he have just written, "Thanks for the kind thoughts and messages. I hope you all had as good a day as I did." Why drag politics into this otherwise sweet moment?

Well, here's why. He believes he's oppressed. He feels threatened. He fears the big, bad goose-stepping government of the criminal commie socialist wannabe is going to ban the future sale of .223 M855 ammunition. This especially infuriates him because .223 M855 ammo is the only ammo capable of bringing down a stag or a wild hog or whatever it is he picks off from the comfort of his deer blind. Apparently, regular bullets just bounce off.

Should I have been surprised by his micro-rant? I suppose not. He seems to get much of his political and some of his religious instruction from the NRA or Duck Dynasty. A week or so earlier, he suggested that Obama "Just needs to stop breathing.”

So, what does this suggest? It suggests that these otherwise good people — salt of the Earth types — wake each morning and return to sleep each night, swathed in the comfort of their loathing of one man, the scary wannabe. They call him all kinds of names and make fun of his wife and ridicule his two teenage daughters. The wife is said to resemble a monkey, and the daughters are surly and hateful.

Of course, that's pittance compared to the lies they tell about the commie socialist, who, by now, should have destroyed the economy, gutted the military, declared Sharia law and dispatched his ISIS storm-troopers to confiscate all guns, knives and Bibles. That the economy seems to have improved significantly since the meltdown he inherited in 2008, and that he made the call that took out Bin Laden only infuriates them further, so they invent and circulate more lies about him, and nothing is too petty. He failed to salute the nice Marine standing next to the helicopter. He refused to wear an American flag lapel pin, or he wore it on the wrong side, which means he hates America. He hates America so much, he sent U.S. soldiers to West Africa because he wants them to die of Ebola.


So, here's the deal: I wonder what might the country be like today if my old classmate and my former colleague and the rest of their kind had invested as much time and emotion and energy into something constructive — losing weight, learning a second language, mentoring an at-risk child, reading a book that didn't involve snipers or Bill O’Reilly? 

Perhaps the nation would not be as mean and dumb, as frightened and fatuous as it is today. Perhaps we might have found a way to come together to get something done. Perhaps we might have found that we have more in common than we do in opposition. Perhaps we might even have attempted to do what Jesus instructed us to do: love each other, even our enemies, even the socialist, commie wannabe.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Finding the real Ronald

I’m not sure what I thought I’d found when I met Ronald, an African-American kid in a football letter jacket, attending an after-school newspaper session I was conducting as a favor for an old friend. Her staff is almost entirely female, which is typical. Girls read and like to write, while boys don’t read and hate to write and spend huge chunks of their young lives wasting zombies on computers.

So, I was surprised to find Ronald there. He didn’t participate in the discussions, but he wasn’t disruptive, so I paid scant attention to him until his teacher shared with me a rough draft of his article about two brothers who play tennis.

“Rough” is an understatement, and my lizard brain tempted me to embrace the convenient stereotypes regarding race and gender and teen culture, which I’m apt to do if I’m not on my guard and might have anyway had I not just watched the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and the media circus in tow. I thought about Michael Brown and decided I needed to learn more about Ronald than the fact that he’s black and wears a football jacket and once wrote “tense” when he should have written “tennis.”

So, I asked my friend to ask Ronald if he’d agree to a short interview. Of course, he was happy to, but then, he would be because, as I now know, Ronald is happy about most everything.

During our brief interview, he used the word “love” at least a dozen times. He loves school, his classes, the other members of the newspaper staff.

Mostly, he loves sports, especially football. He’s a JV tailback and defensive end, and though it was an up-and-down season, he loved every moment of it — even when he conked his head on the corner of a table while horsing around in the locker room, landing him in the emergency room with a gash that will likely leave a scar.

Somehow, Ronald is happy about this because it taught him an important lesson: Leaders don’t horse around in the locker room. That’s important to know because he now sees himself as a leader.

“A leader,” he told me, “has to be strong. He can’t get down and want to quit and just say, ‘Aw, I quit. I can’t do it.’ If you’re going to be a leader, you have to be ready to go when times are tough. Sometimes, I just have to say, ‘Hey, be the leader you can be and try a little harder.’”

Like in chemistry, which he thought would be his hardest class but is not. In fact, he loves it.

“I got a knack for chemistry that makes me want to figure out all this scientific stuff. It makes me wonder, ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘Where did this come from?’”

Actually, Ronald has a knack for life. His sophomore classmates voted him onto the Homecoming Court, but he missed the pep rally because that was the day he was horsing around and bonked his head.

Bandaged and released, he made it to the game. Of course, his classmates were ecstatic to see him on the sidelines.

“I saw one kid with a poster of me,” he said. “You could see the tears and joy in my eyes. I was so happy and so excited, but I could still feel the pain, but, I was thinking, ‘It’s just a great moment.’ I was extremely happy to be there.”

Make of this what you like, but here’s my take-away: Almost everything I first thought about Ronald was wrong, and if I hadn’t met him, my first impression would have calcified and confirmed a lie. Imagine that. Now, Imagine doing that every day, several times every day. That probably explains Ferguson.