A writer's online journal of
opinion, observation and musings.
Archive: July - December, 2002
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History was made this week in Milwaukee. Yogi's old adage in baseball of "it ain't over 'til it's over" has given way to "we quit when the pitchers get tired."
Yes the All Star game was called a tie in the eleventh inning because both teams had gone through their pitching rosters too early and the millionaires on the mound wouldn't go more than 2 innings. In the old days they would have called in a fielder to pitch -- or just told the relief pitcher to suck it up and take an extra day off next week. But not now. Time to take the limo back to the luxury suite for a jacuzzi and a cold glass of champagne.
Not unlike the story of a CEO who cashes in his options just before his stock tanks, leaving the average investor penniless, the fans in the stands could only "boo" at the top of their lungs as they tore their overpriced ticket stubs on the way to the parking lot. Baseball is going the way of the stock market...
It's in all the news -- it was 25 years ago this week that Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, died on the throne. I remember what I was doing when that happened -- working on my first album. I was 24 years old -- Elvis was 42. That age stuck with me. It was the age my father died and also the age of Frank Wakefield, the elder statesmen of bluegrass mandolin who was playing on my album.
So here it is 25 years later. My recording career is now about the same length as Elvis's. I'll be 49 next month, outliving the king by 7 years and still counting. However, he still sells more CDs in a day than I'll sell in my lifetime. In fact, his career has never been better. Mine continues to sputter like a trick birthday candle that can never be blown out, despite everybody doing their darnedest to try.
We so often measure our lives by those of famous men and women. I'm not sure Elvis makes a very good yardstick. The most famous singer in the world, but I don't think I want to trade places.
Funny how 42 seemed so old then and so young now.
There used to be a little shop in the small town of Williamston Michigan with a sign that read "FATE'S PHARMACY." It's not there anymore, as fate would have it.
I would muse on that name for hours. Do they specialize in final solutions? Is it where you fill the prescription from Doctor Death? What would make Mr. Fate name his business so? After all, it could have been "Williamston Pharmacy" just as easily.
I'll never know. I guess that's the case with all of Fate's decisions. We'll never know. That's why we call it fate.
In July, one of my very best friends and perhaps my longest musical partner had a near-fatal heart attack. Ray Kamalay called me on a Monday to make arrangements for our gig together on Wednesday. But Tuesday he collapsed. He runs a few miles every morning -- Mr. Fitness. It was a hot day, and his wife, Lorraine, convinced him to work out at the YMCA instead of his usual run in the woods. So it was on the treadmill at the "Y" that his heart stopped, and not in a lonesome park path. The same "Y" had only weeks before purchased a portable defibrillator. Had never used it. But with it they got Ray's heart started again and got him off to the hospital.
It turns out that fate was on his side that morning. But for the heat, but for his wife, but for the machine... It turns out that it was also fate that gave him a gene passed down from his Mediterranean ancestry that programmed his number-one heart artery to clog shut in middle age, despite diet and exercise. The doctors crafted and grafted a new heart artery that his body won't recognize as the number-one heart feeder, and he will be -- and is now -- healthier than before.
Some hours after Ray's episode, singer and songwriter Dave Carter -- within days the same age as Ray -- died of a massive heart attack after a morning run. He was to have played that day at a music festival in Massachusetts. The folk world had just discovered Dave. He was no youngster but at age 49 was the new kid on the block, it seemed. With his partner Tracy at his side, he was in high demand on the folk circuit. His records were selling; his songs were connecting. It seemed fate had dealt him good cards in middle age. Until his heart stopped.
It was a hard blow for the folk music community. So hard to accept. I had looked forward to meeting Dave someday. We had a lot in common. Same age, same occupation, both with childhoods in the heartland raised in pentecostal religion -- we both played the banjo. We would have had plenty to talk about. But that won't be. Fate.
Some would say fate is just another name for god's will. (Others would say that the notion of "god" is a mere personification of capricious circumstance.) I've often wondered why so many prayers to the almighty urge him to "do his will" -- "thy will be done" -- "Lord, have your way" --- and so on. Its the same in Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism. We small creatures go to tortuous extremes to exhort the omnipotent creator to do what ever it is he intends to do anyway. As if the almighty wouldn't do what he wanted -- that he would forget to run the world his way -- if we weren't there to remind him to "do his will."
(Many a theologian would explain that it is ourselves we are persuading with such a prayer. To find god's will in our lives is the point of this cosmic conversation. I am reminded of a brilliant moment in the dark British comedy, "The Ruling Class," wherein a psychotic English lord, played by Peter O'Toole in full Jesus robes, is convinced he is "THE" Lord. He is asked by his therapist "When did you first realize that you were God?" To which the earl replies, "Well, one day I was praying and I realized I was just talking to myself!" )
This matter of Fate is on the mind of many this week in America as we approach the anniversary of the 9-11 attack on New York and DC, and as we seem to be pushed headlong into an all-out war on Babylon (Baghdad). The theists are in a quandary. Was it Jehovah's will to destroy the twin towers and 3000 souls? Was it Allah's? Was our good god powerless to stop the evil one? Or was the destruction just part of his game plan -- part of a "greater good" the big guy has playing out? (It is unthinkable to adopt the Al Qaeda opinion -- that "we" are the evil!) The old puzzle is once again laid open -- is god all-merciful or all-powerful? He sure ain't both.
Or is this a purely homo-sapiens drama? There is only cold comfort from the humanist perspective. Is our species of ape pre-determined to crush and smite each other's tribe with whatever club we can grasp? Is this the inevitable result of opposable thumbs? Is this the eventual struggle of all life to spawn, devour, and out-compete the other germs in the petri dish? Is our fate determined by our stars or by our mitochondria?
Ahh, but it's fate that we should ask the questions at all, isn't it? What is Fate but the outcome of the unanswerable question? One by one, the mysteries of life have been explained by our scientific method of posing hypotheses and testing for answers. We know that wind is not the breath of Odin, that lightning is not Zeus's spear, that the Earth rotates on an axis and revolves around a small star we call the sun.
But even as knowledge advances, there is always -- and must always be -- the unknown. The Mystery. And the province of the mystery is religion and always has been. And always will be. It is in us to gaze into the glass darkly and ponder our fate. And it is in us to name the unknown, so as to contain the unfathomable.
Or as I once overheard a young woman say while folding her sheets at the laundromat: "It's not that I'm religious -- I just say 'God' when I don't know what to say!"
So Monday night, George W. Bush addressed the nation from Cincinnati. Seven hundred specially invited supporters were in his audience. (Two days later I learned that outside the lecture hall, five thousand antiwar protesters were shouting "Not In Our Names!" Now, I'd say that was newsworthy, but Fox News apparantly doesn't think so.) There was nothing very new in Bush's speech. The same Bush shell game was re-iterated. Saddam is bad, Ossama is bad, we are at war with Ossama, so we need to attack Saddam. I have the suspicion that in a game of chess with George, he likes to hop a pawn down to the end of the board and holler "king me!"
His speech started promptly with prime time TV, 8 o'clock eastern and ended at 8:30 on the dot. (Monday night football starts at 9, after all!) Just moments after he quit, my phone rang. I was sure it was a friend wanting to talk over the speech, or someone, who like me, put aside the daily chores to watch the watch the end of the world unfold on TV.
No, it was a telemarketer. A chirpy young female voice said "Hi, this is Jennifer from Get-a-way Vacations." But then she dropped her phoney smiley voice and said to me, off script, "Before I get started, have you been watching TV?" I said yes, I had. "Is it true we just went to war? Somebody told me we just went to war!" I said, no. Bush made a speech, but there is nothing new -- we aren't starting an invasion just yet. "Oh, good! I'm calling to offer you a free getaway vacation at a luxurious resort spa, yadda yadda yadda."
Well, telemarketers that call me are barking up the wrong tree. I always tell them the same thing, no matter what the offer -- I don't respond to telemarketing. Then I hang up.
Which is what I say to George Bush -- I don't respond to telemarketed war. This administration is really into targeting the message with TV backdrops. When GB gives a speech on homeland security, there is a big backdrop with "Homeland Security" written in prominent script. Same for "Tax Cuts," "Faith Based Initiatives," etc. My favorite -- I kid you not -- is the time he spoke at Mount Rushmore, where they put up a backdrop picture of, yes, Mount Rushmore. So much more photogenic than the real thing. This night he was speaking in front of a map of the world. I guess his handlers think that makes him look more like a world leader, and less like an ignorant cowboy.
However he still sounds like an ignorant cowboy. He hit the word "nuclear" in his speech at least 20 times, and each time it came out "nukular." The TV news shows are dulling their scissors trying to show clips that avoid the most powerful man in the world using baby talk -- I haven't seen or heard a clip yet of Bush using the mangled "N" word, despite the fact that it was the essence of his speech.
But here's what I'm thinking. Bush is reading this speech they wrote for him from a teleprompter, and each time he sees the word "nuclear" he is not, in fact, reporting what he sees. He is speaking arrogantly from his ignorant assumption that the word contains an extra "U" that it clearly does not. Can it be his advisors have never corrected him? Does he think it is just an "alternative spelling?"
It makes me wonder if he is reading the situation in the middle East the same way he reads his words. He is not seeing what is really there in front of him, but rather repeating his ignorant and arrogant assumption of the way he believes things to be: "God chose me to kill Saddam."
Now, I am no fan of Saddam Hussein. We all agree he's a very bad man with way too many weapons. But I can name you a lot of very bad men with way too many weapons. Wouldn't it be best to diffuse the situation rather than ignite it? Bush & Cheney say we can't wait for a "smoking gun" -- it would be a "mushroom cloud." Excuse me, but that bit of straw man rhetoric is just a smoke screen. We don't need a "smoking gun" , but we do need plain old hard evidence before we touch off an invasion that could well be the beginning of world war III. We should be pushing for inspections, instead of "pooh-poohing" them. We should be courting other nations, instead of insulting them.
Even the CIA -- our own CIA -- said this very week that Saddam is not likely to strike first, but that if he is attacked he would most likely strike back with everything he's got. Bush's response was that this is just further evidence that we need to attack first. It's 1984 doublespeak all over again -- and I'm talking Orwell, not Reagan.
I haven't personally spoken to anybody in favor of this war. And I don't only consort with liberal peaceniks, despite my career as folksinger. I don't trust the polls any more than I trust George W's teleprompter. We're getting the bum's rush on this war. It's about oil. It's about politics. It's about re-election. It's about money. And it's about time we stood up and said so.
Of course I could be wrong. Maybe the Bush family will finally bring peace and order to the Middle East with tanks and missiles instead of diplomacy. Maybe the oil executives that so wisely steward our own economy will oversee Iraq's oil production in an economically fair and ecologically sound manner. And maybe finally Bush and Cheney will establish free and democratic elections in Baghdad.
And if they can do it there, then maybe, just maybe there is hope for Florida.
The election is over. As of today, it is George Bush's world and we just live in it. Get ready for a judiciary that will be solidly Republican, right wing, and repressive for the rest of my lifetime, and probably yours. Get set for the rape of what was the last of America's pristine wilderness. And it's a solid "go" for war, probably soon after Christmas, that may well include "nukular" weapons in the mideast. Big oil and munitions will boom, the religious right will dictate social policy, the rich will get richer and everybody else can bite it.
I may be wrong. Maybe now that G. W. Bush holds ALL the cards, he will become the promised voice of moderate reason, the consensus-builder, the compassionate conservative, the son of his daddy's kinder, gentler America.
Who am I kidding? Now that the Republican Guard has the green light -- a sense of unfettered mandate -- all hell will be paid. You and I are merely the currency.
Maybe in the next 2 years, while they are in traction, the opposition will start solid foods again and develop the backbone they were lacking in this election. We should live so long.
It is midnight in America.
This time, I'm putting aside the politics & foibles of world events, and ignoring the bells & carols of the Yuletide season to take a look at the industry I'm in -- showbiz. Yes, it's somewhat laughable to consider folksingers and banjo players in "show business" these days, but it is indeed the small dusty corner of that industrial empire in which I find myself employed.
It's been interesting these past several weeks.
ACT I -- In late October, I found myself on stage in my first musical drama. I got a call a few weeks before from the director of "The Grapes Of Wrath" in pre-production at nearby Lansing Community College. I learned long ago how to fend off inquiries from local theater. After all, the hours are long, the commitment is for weeks on end, and the pay is nil. But this director had anticipated my concerns, it seems. He laid out a finite two-week commitment for rehearsals and performance (which happened to coincide with a blank spot on my upcoming calendar) and named a sum that entered the realm of "decent gig." So I agreed -- I signed up to play fiddle, mandolin and a bit of whatever to the Michael Smith score of the Steinbeck-based play.
I learned the score -- or at least got a working familiarity with it -- ahead of time, forewarned that that there would be some deviation from the Broadway version. Then I entered the vortex of dress rehearsals and performance. For seven days in a row I put in 12-hour days, and quickly gained a new appreciation for the "theater" as hard work. Our physical theater -- Dart Auditorium -- had been built in the inflationary spiral days of the late 70's. They apparently ran out of money before they built the backstage. While the "house" was roomy and comfortable and the stage itself large enough, the wings were tiny and the backstage non-existent. Behind the stage was a hallway housing closets and the only two restrooms for the entire building (audience and actors alike). The two small dressing rooms were inconveniently located up the stairs and down the hall. Our cast of 30-some actors spent a lot of time jockeying for mirror-time and running down the stairs for access to sinks and soap.
Though it seemed improbable to me at first, the production jelled quite nicely as dress rehearsals went along (despite a child actor with a small-but-crucial role quitting the day before opening). By our last performance, I think we actually put on a damn good show. Of course, the actors had been working hard on all that "acting stuff" long before I joined the cast. They also had learned how to do a credible square dance sequence sans music. The first time I played a fiddle to their choreography, there was no small amount of amazement (and amusement on my part) that it all worked together.
This old dog learned a few new tricks. ("Old" is right, since most of the actors were college students -- able to bound those stairs backstage two at a time and still smoke cigarettes outside the building between lines. Bless 'em.) I got a crash course in theater makeup, and learned how to apply paint and powder to look natural in the footlights. As a result I now have a good eye for spotting the rouged cheeks and lightened eye sockets of smarmy politicians on TV.
The play itself was rather true to the book -- an old favorite of mine -- and tried hard not to be an adaptation of the movie. No Henry Fonda or Jane Darwell impressions allowed. A rather grim tale, all in all, though it was gratifying to see younger folks encountering this poignant chapter of America's past even as they endure the pathetic Bush, Jr. era. While the score written by my friend Michael Smith was excellent music, I couldn't help but hum Woody Guthrie's dust bowl ballads to myself as I watched from the wings.
Ah, folk music.
ACT II -- A week or two later I found myself in a different corner of showbiz. I was at the NERFA conference in the Catskills. (The "FA" stands for Folk Alliance, and the North East Region makes up the "NER" of the anagram.) Much like the parent organization, NERFA hosts a yearly conference that revolves mostly around folk music talent showcasing for each other, bidding that a club or festival booker may be in attendance and start writing contracts. Oh, there are also seminars, panels, and lots of schmoozing too. But in general, its a weekend when folk singers and singer-songwriters dip their big toes into the murky pool of show business marketing.
And it was indeed a murky swimming pool that glowed green with algae at the once-grand Kutsher's Resort in the Borscht Belt. The aging Catskills vacation get-away sagged and drooped in places, and as the rain turned icy that November weekend, the roof began leaking at it's joints. The plastic buckets around the place looked like familiar fixtures. My budget room had nothing in plumb -- everything was tilted. My bathroom sink actually fell off the wall when I draped my wet towel over it.
I had been chosen as one of the "formal" showcase acts, meaning I was given a 15 minute slot on the evening stage to perform for the entire conference of 700 or so. (This is a hypothetical number, since many other attendees were either napping or preparing for their own "guerilla" showcases to be held later in private rooms starting at 11 pm and going into the wee hours. Such smaller showcase rooms numbered in the dozens if not scores.) The Formals were held in Kutsher's fabled "Stardust Room" -- a flying-saucer-shaped nightclub that once graced the talents of a young Danny Kaye and Joan Rivers. Nowadays in the summer their big names are John Davidson and Tony Danza.
I did the best 15 minute show I know how to do, and had an enthusiastic response. The Stardust did have a backstage with real dressing rooms. I wondered how many classic comics and singers had lounged back there over the years. I fantasized about the ghosts of all the "Buddies" and "Sheckies" still pacing the hallways.
There were indeed some famous folkies alive and well in the hallways. Tom Paxton came just to hang, Jay Unger & Molly Mason stopped over from their nearby home in the Catskills, and could that be the ageless Oscar Brand! Indeed.
And all day Saturday I watched the growing ice storm outside. Inside, the hectic pace of showcasing, schmoozing, and griping about the kosher buffet seemed to hum right along, blissfully unaware of the frozen aspect without. My Alan King fantasies were slowly morphing into Stephen King phantasms. About one in the morning the thickening ice held sway, and the power went out at Kutsher's. All the guerilla showcases in full tilt were plunged into darkness. A few pocket flashlights (I had mine!) were employed and tea candles lit, fire doors propped open and the party teetered on into the cold dark night.
The next morning it was cold stale bagels and uncomfortable faces. No heat and no hot water had made for dour ablutions, and as we proceeded to make hasty retreat from this crippled resort, I wondered if the creeping ice storm that encapsulated this vestige of aging showbiz was not a brilliant metaphor for the folk music "industry." I chalked up that depressing notion to a cold night and lukewarm coffee, but the idea has since haunted me, like Jack Nicholson with a hatchet roaming the halls of a decrepit hotel.
Ah, folk music.
Act III -- back home a few weeks later, and it is fund raising time on PBS. What do I see wedged between Lawrence Welk reruns and a tribute to Glen Miller, but "This Land Is Your Land" -- a concert of "folk music" on "Your Public Television Station." Hosted by the Smothers Brothers, it is a pre-packaged two hour sales pitch for PBS with brand new concert footage of the legends of the folk era. There were the Brothers Four, the Limelighters, the Highwaymen, even the quasi-original Kingston Trio. What struck me immediately was that everybody was OLD. There were lots of bad toupees & comb-overs, hunched spines and gray faces. This, we were told over and over by the pledge staff, is "folk music" at its best. Funny there were no friends of mine on stage. There were no traditional musicians, no bluegrass or Irish or world music, no singer-songwriters I see on the stages of folk festivals or clubs today -- in fact, no acts who started playing professionally after 1962.
Now, it's all fine and good to see some of these old boys and girls again on TV. I have a few Limelighters LPs on my shelf, and enjoyed the Smothers show on TV myself, when I was a kid. But to represent this little blip on the sonar screen of American pop music -- that short period between Frankie Avalon and the Beatles -- as FOLK MUSIC, signed sealed and delivered, well that is just downright depressing. After all, "folk singer" is on my business card.
Of course everything changes, and everybody ages. Maybe its a good thing I learned how to apply stage makeup. Now that I have the know-how, I can putty in the cracks and ruddy my cheeks and cinch in the girdle and wait for my close-up, Mr. Demille.
Ah, folk music.
copyright Joel Mabus 2002