27 February 2006

Here, There, and Back Again

Just back from a weekend in semi-rural Victoria (for geography-challenged Brits and Yanks, it's the second-most populous state in Australia) catching up with members of the far-flung Livermore clan. My cousin emigrated there from America back in the 80s, and has produced a couple new cousins for me, one of whom is a 16 year old death metal-loving, dress-in-black, cover-his-windows-with-heavy-curtains-so-no-light-intrudes goth. Last year he was still mildly interested in the new Green Day album, but punk rock of that sort is now kid stuff (and/or old people's stuff). He brought his similarly attired girlfriend (or friend-girl, not sure which) over, and they reminded me of Craig and Rosie, the goth Romeo and Juliet of Coronation Street, with their valiant but ultimately unsuccessful struggle not to crack a smile or appear less than completely doom-and-gloom-shrouded.

My mother's younger (age 78) brother and his wife were there, too, and we had a great time talking about the old days, especially Detroit, where they met and were married after the Second World War before heading off into the wilds of Michigan's sparsely populated and rather eccentric Upper Peninsula, where they've lived ever since. My aunt, who's in the vicinity of 80 (but I'm not supposed to know, let alone tell), regaled us with a tale of bringing down a buck with a single shot from her 30-30, and they both talked sadly about the day they took a tour of the old neighbourhood in Detroit, only to find that it was a bit more life-endangering than the wild bears, sub-zero temperatures, and shipwrecking Lake Superior storms that they'd contended with for half a century. When they lived there (and when I was a small boy), Detroit was a bit rough and ready, a bit loud and dirty, but fundamentally a stable, safe city of two million people where there were decent-paying jobs and reasonably-priced housing on offer to waves of incomers, both black and white, who had never known either.

Today, Detroit is a post-apocalyptic wasteland where more than half of the population has gone missing (it's now slipped below 900,000), and where most of the remaining inhabitants are there only because they can't afford to leave. Murder is so common that it barely makes the newspapers at all unless there's some special twist like this charming church shooting or if the victims are cops.

Detroit's been a basket case since the 1970s, and while many other American cities seem to have turned the corner and started sorting themselves out (New York being the most obvious and truly shining example, but Chicago's done well, too, and even Cleveland is in far better shape than the erstwhile Motor City), others appear in danger of going down the same dismal road. One such town is Oakland, which when I first came to California in 1968, reminded me of Detroit: same down-to-earth working-class attitudes, plain but functional (and functioning) downtown, reasonably priced housing, safe streets (apart from a few ghetto neighbourhoods). Now, despite all of Jerry Brown's efforts at reform, the downtown is still largely a wasteland, the educational system has turned out several generations of illiterates fit only for the welfare lines and/or gangbanging, and crime, especially murder, is completely out of control. One of the few positive indicators, if it can be called that, is that housing costs are through the roof, along with those of the rest of the Bay Area, meaning Oaklanders get to pay penthouse prices for slum living.

It's true that for those who can avoid getting murdered, Oakland has shown some signs of life these past few years, but my guess is that if they don't get the crime under control, it will all be for nothing. Every urban renewal effort, every massive investment into Detroit has foundered for the same reason: people just can't and won't live and function normally in a place where they can't feel safe. And I'm probably not the first to say it, but if old-lefty Ron Dellums gets elected mayor of Oakland on his platform of 60s-style social pandering, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Well, I Guess I Can Come Back To Berkeley After All

Enough people have castigated me for abandoning the left-wing extremism of my youth (and middle age, it must be admitted) and called me various names like "neo-con," "right-winger," "warmongering pig," etc., that I was beginning to think there might be something to it.

So it comes as a relief, albeit a slightly bewildering one, that when I took the Are You A Fascist? test, I scored only 2.8, which apparently corresponds to "liberal airhead."

25 February 2006

Running Dog Revisionist Lackeys Of The Psychotic Hippie Brigade

Ron Jacobs is one of those guys who showed up at the tail end of the hippie scene and, perhaps only vaguely aware that he had missed most of the crucial action, tried desperately to make up for lost time by re-doing every dumb thing the original hippies had done and then compounding the crime by writing articles and books arguing that his pale rehash of the 60s was somehow imaginative and "progressive."

Needless to say, drugs played a large role in skewing the vision of hippies-come-lately like Mr Jacobs; how else could someone squint their eyes sufficiently to look at Berkeley's drug-dealing and bum enclave and see "one of North America's few liberated zones, People's Park"? Yeah, sure, lots of people were peddling that rhetoric in 1969, yours truly included, but Jacobs was still sticking to that story in 2005.

Most of the time Jacobs's writing reads like a clunky prose version of R. Crumb's "The 40 Year-Old Hippie" comic, and as such can be mildly amusing, but it's harder to laugh when he jumps on his favourite hobbyhorse, the rehabilitation and near-canonisation of the psychotic hippie brigade known as the Weather Underground. Jacobs wrote a book glorifying the exploits of what by any measure today would be considered a straightforward terrorist organisation, and writes an approving review of Outlaws Of America, a new book published by AK Press, the punk-anarchist corporation that has been doing a land office business at turning chaos into cash.

As Jacobs points out, the author of Outlaws Of America wasn't even born when the Weathermen were running around blowing up buildings, people, and, in one particular stroke of good fortune, themselves. I refer of course to the (infamous at the time) Greenwich Village townhouse explosion where three Weather members levelled a building and lost their own lives while constructing an anti-personnel bomb to be used in a terrorist attack that might have killed dozens or even hundreds.

I spent a few days working with Diana Oughton, one of the three Weathermen killed in the townhouse, and like many who met her in the late 60s, thought she was incredibly beautiful and powerful. In fact, I'll admit having quite a crush on her at the time, and when I discovered she'd blown herself up, it hit me pretty hard. But as the years passed and the drugs wore off, I realised that it had been for the best. The Diana Oughton I'd met had been hard-edged but passionate, but the Diana Oughton making bombs had, like the organisation she was part of, gone psycho. Maybe she could have come back in from the underground like Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers and, like them, got her rich parents to buy her way out of prison and back into a privileged upper-class lifestyle, but who cares? The Weather Underground played out just like mainstream society: the rich white kids got away with murder (as Ayers casually and callously brags at the end of his deeply dishonest memoir; the working class members ended up dead or in prison for a long, long time.

It's curious that apart from a few heavy metal fans and serial killers, no one has tried to rehabilitate or glorify the Manson family, yet there seems to be no end of authors and filmmakers willing to do the same for their political counterparts in the Weather Underground. There was nothing remotely "revolutionary" about the Weathermen. They were founded and led by spoiled, overprivileged children of the ruling class whose megalomaniacal tendencies were magnified to psychopathic proportions by the massive intake of psychedelic drugs. That's all. If they hadn't been rich kids, they would have ended up in institutions for the criminally insane instead of as poster children for a new generation of spoiled brats with similar fascist tendencies and a similarly petulant lust for power.

In his review, Jacobs cites a number of novels which feature approving takes on the Weather Underground. Not surprisingly, he doesn't mention Philip Roth's American Pastoral, which, while it doesn't reference the Weathermen by name, provides one of the most articulate and damning indictments of the bomb-throwing nuttiness that was the dark underside to the phony peace-and-love foofaraw of the 60s.

P.S. I'm guessing that young Berger took the title for his book from the Jefferson Airplane line, "We are all outlaws in the eyes of America." Not to disillusion him, but about the only "outlaw" thing the Airplane were doing at the time was zooming around in limos consuming massive amounts of cocaine. Technically illegal, yes, but not exactly the best foundation for a revolution. But on the other hand, for those who take this "let's relive the 60s" thing seriously, perhaps hard drugs are the best solution. Better that than another round of mad bombers.

21 February 2006

TV Party Tonight

A friend was down from England a few weeks ago and I took her along to a perfectly nice dinner party full of perfectly nice Australians. Perhaps somewhat impolitically, some of the first words out of her mouth were, "TV's crap here."

I was not inclined to disagree, though I made a point of not disagreeing silently, while sagely nodding as if to say, "While this may be true, I'm sure that Australian TV is superior to that of Outer Mongolia, and perhaps Uganda and several other countries as well."

Since I'm out a lot of evenings, and don't have a lot of patience with adverts, and most of all because from where the sofa is positioned, you have to raise the remote way up over your head to get it to work, I've found it too much trouble to give Australian TV a fair go. But tonight, through a concatenation of circumstances, I found myself parked in front of the box for a few hours, starting out with The Simpsons and Neighbours, then on to the News, which as usual was pretty parochial stuff, but kind of comforting, too, in that it didn't leave you alternately horrified and terrified the way American news does, or exasperated and bewildered, the way British news does. Apart from a couple car crashes, thieving politicians, and a "Meanwhile, out there in the rest of the world where stuff really happens" segment, there wasn't much else to talk about except the sports and the weather, which were pretty uneventful themselves.

But then things got more interesting. First a bio of Israel's comatose prime minister, Ariel Sharon, about which/whom I intend to write more later. It was a vaguely left-wing hit piece for the most part, but as with most vaguely left-wing things, it was so ineffectual that it managed to make him look nicer and more interesting than I'd ever given him credit for. That was followed up with the former Premier of New South Wales, Bob Carr, making his debut as a TV presenter.

"Politics is show business for ugly people," they say, and while Carr is not ugly, merely rather homely, and I mean homely in the American sense, not the British, I think it's safe to say he should have stayed in politics. Except of course he couldn't; having run Australia's oldest, richest and most populated state nearly into the ground through a combination of chicanery and incompetence, he pleaded exhaustion, depression or some form of mental illness to abruptly resign as Premier and rush off to start two new careers, one working for the bank that had helped loot the State treasury, the other in, wait for it, show business.

So tonight he was off to Hollywood to interview Gore Vidal. Opening with the deathless line, "Los Angeles, there's no place like it," he then introduced Vidal as "America's last, lonely dissident and radical." Since Vidal was mostly spouting, albeit far more literately, the same general sort of wisdom beloved of Noam Chomsky, Michael Moore, and about 90% of the population of the San Francisco Bay Area, I can't imagine he'd be that lonely, but perhaps he doesn't get out much. He is 80, after all, and I couldn't help wondering why he couldn't have appeared on the BBC programme Grumpy Old Men, which I forgot to mention I'd seen earlier. He'd certainly qualify, though the BBC Grumpy Old Men tend to be people, well, my age, with a set of grievances more mundane than the Fall Of The American Empire, etc.

I was quite a fan of Vidal's historical novels back in my historical novel-reading phase, and even if I think he's a bit off on some of his political analysis, he's far more interesting and not quite as didactic about it as the usual left-wing dogmatist. When he sadly concluded that America was destined to end up somewhere between Argentina and Brazil ("and with a good soccer team, at least"), I felt a bit wistful myself, though I wish he would have been more specific so I'd know whether to start practicing my Spanish or my Portuguese.

I was just about to leave the house when I idly flicked the channel on to SBS, the "Special" Broadcating Service I so mercilessly ridiculed the other day. I immediately felt some regret for being so hard on the poor multiculturalist dears, because the first thing I saw was the Velvet Underground playing live around 1966, followed by a quick cutaway to the MC5 and my old friend John Sinclair waxing rhapsodic about "dope, rock and roll, and fucking in the streets." Then there was a good bit of MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer explaining, as baby boomers are wont to do, how all that dope, rock and roll, and f.i.t.s. helped to instill society with a new vision of itself and, of course, stop the Vietnam War. It put me in mind of one of the many notable quotes from Dr. Frank's brilliant new book, King Dork, where the narrator mentions having heard that Abbie Hoffman, aka "Free," had gotten five years in prison for writing Revolution For The Hell Of It. "Which seems a bit lenient if you ask me," he adds.

Then came some great footage of the Stooges, including at least one show I was at in 1973, followed by some equally great stuff with the New York Dolls, and at this point I retrieved the newspaper and found that I was watching a documentary on Punk: Attitude by Don Letts, who'd also done that Clash hagiography, Westway To The World. Lots of people I know or who've met (not always under the best circumstances, as you'll recall from my recent adventure with Pete Shelley) were there sounding off on the History and Meaning of Punk, some tendentiously, some hilariously. Henry Rollins was in particularly good form, getting off one zinger after another, though both he and John Holmstrom might have been annoyed to find that the reviewer from the Sydney Morning-Herald had thought Henry was John and vice versa.

There was Jello Biafra in his "Nazi Punks Fuck Off" and Dr. Frank lookalike era, and in his modern, weightier and non-Dr. Frank lookalike form, expounding, much as Wayne Kramer had, on how important HIS generation had been. Personally, I preferred Wayne even if he is perpetuating many of the myths that make my generation so annoying, because he was more gently spoken, better dressed, and, well, it still is my generation.

The programme only went off the rails when it tried to make the leap from early 80s hardcore (no MDC, I was sad to see, but plenty of Agnostic Front and a teensy bit of Minor Threat) to the punk explosion of the 90s. Predictably, perhaps, since Thurston Moore was one of the commentators, the narrative followed the usual spurious trajectory of, "Everything went quiet in the 80s but there was this huge underground thing happening, and then Sonic Youth emerged and that led to Nirvana and blah blah blah..." with Green Day and Rancid and Blink-182 and Sum 41 all lumped in as an afterthought.

Well, I don't have time to rehash this entire argument again, and face it, all these old guys (even though many of them are considerably younger than me, and Thurston Moore, though he must pushing 50, still looks annoyingly like my little brother back in the early 70s) are starting to sound a lot like baby boomers with their solipsistic and highly revisionist view of history. But get it straight, dildos: Sonic Youth were NOT PUNK. Nirvana were NOT PUNK. SY were alternative college art rock. Nirvana were just plain rock. Both might have borrowed a few elements from punk, a few chord changes and a slight DIY ethos, for example, but... Oh, never mind, I'll take up this argument again if anyone really cares, but honestly, Gilman Street and the East Bay scene were happening right under all those dildos' noses from 1986, and had about 1,000% more to do with keeping punk alive and re-launching it than any of that Sonic Nirvana crap (which is all right if you like it, I mean).

The programme finished up with the old geezers lamenting about how punk's all commercial and has lost its soul now (except for Henry Rollins, who was saying some of that, too, but still cracking jokes like crazy), just like a bunch of old hippies complaining how "These damn kids today just don't know what real music is about," and, appropriately enough, finished up with John Sinclair, wearing a newly minted DKT/MC5 shirt, grousing that, "Today you get paid for being stupider and making people stupider." Coming from one of the biggest potheads in history, I guess that's a pretty damning indictment.

20 February 2006

Which Means About 20% Of The People In My Building Are Dangerously Insane

Given some of the buildings I've lived in, that's probably not an extraordinary percentage, but if this poll in the Telegraph is correct, it means that a significant number of the people who live in my building are in favour of imposing sharia law in Britain. Perhaps I'm not being culturally sensitive enough when I call them "dangerously insane," but sorry, stoning women to death for adultery or beheading them for drawing the wrong kind of cartoons comes close enough to my defintion of dangerously insane that I feel no need to split hairs.

19 February 2006

What's The Matter With Hip-Hop?

That's a pretty open-ended question, and of course it makes the rather large assumption that there is something wrong with hip-hop. Every time I've made this suggestion in the past, various friends have been quick to chasten me, to point out that for every ignorant, macho, sexist, racist, homophobic wannabe gangsta rapper, there is another highly intelligent, astute and clever artist working in the same medium.

And this may well be true, but I haven't seen much evidence of it. I myself was an early fan of NWA, and can still recite several of their raps by heart, but it was always a guilty pleasure. As hilarious and insightful as their lyrics could be, they also confirmed practically every negative stereotype about black culture and created a few new ones as well. I've long contended - and I know I'm not alone in this - that hip-hop is the contemporary version of the minstrel show. The only difference is that in the 19th century version, whites put on blackface makeup to ridicule and humiliate black people; now black people are allowed to play the clowns themselves. I suppose that represents some sort of progress. But not much.

"Oh, but you're just getting old," is another argument I get. "Pop music was always about shocking the bourgeoisie and pissing off your parents. Hip-hop is just the latest chapter." And there may be some truth to that - I certainly am getting older, maybe even old - but there seems to be a qualitative difference between outraging public decency by wiggling your pelvis as the 50's rock and rollers did, and a culture in which firearms often play a bigger role than musical instruments.

I can take the constant string of bitches and hos and motherfuckers, the crass, clownish materialism, the hypermacho sexual posturing. It's often quite funny, though as I said, it makes me uncomfortable that much of the humour relies on portraying black people as barely removed from the jungle. And it makes me even more uncomfortable to see the racist implications of white, middle-class suburbanites enjoying rap based on this double standard: i.e., it's okay for black people, and maybe even a few white trash guys like Eminem to act and talk like that, but there's this unspoken understanding that "normal" people, i.e., white, middle-class folks, would never dream of it. Except for a joke, of course.

What it really comes down to, I guess, is that no matter how many times hip-hop apologists tell me that it's providing vital social commentary, that the rough edges are merely symptomatic of hip-hop's ghetto origins (even though it's been pointed out again and again that nearly all of its biggest stars tend to be from middle-class origins themselves), is this: how come you guys have to keep shooting each other? There have always been rivalries between rock bands, and probably between jazz groups, and for all I know, chamber orchestras, but hip-hop seems to be one of the only ones where it's almost impossible to get some artists (or fans) together on a regular basis without someone getting shot.

Of course these are rough times we live in - allegedly - and I suppose a shooting here and there could be overlooked, but there are so many of them. And worse, the hip-hop "community," such as it is, seems determined to accept and embrace this way of life, all the rhetoric about "Increase The Peace" notwithstanding. I don't know which I find more contemptible: some moron gunning down another moron because, "He disrespected me, man," or a whole posse of morons then closing ranks to protect said morons. This is what we're suppose to respect and embrace as "hip-hop culture?" More like a recipe for turning America's ghettoes into little Somalias, ruled not by law, but by warlords with the biggest mouths and the biggest guns.

17 February 2006

More About Torture

My irate comments of yesterday may have been interpreted by some to mean that I am Soft On Torture, or perhaps even an advocate thereof. To which I can only respond, no, I think torture in general is a Very Bad Thing, I am disgusted that our troops or anybody's troops may have stooped to using it, and I am still more disgusted that the US military is in such disarray that any soldiers could come to think that abuses like those that took place at Abu Ghraib were acceptable or tolerable. For that, of course, I blame the mental midgets at the top, who, regardless of whether you think the US should have gone into Iraq at all, completely mismanaged both the invasion and the subsequent occupation to the point where the situation today is considerably worse than before the invasion.

That being said, a little perspective here: this week's publication of new (or, more specifically, photos of abuses that occurred over two years ago) adds little or nothing to the debate. We already know that terrible things went on, that people around the world were shocked and appalled by them, and that the soldiers found to be responsible were charged, convicted and punished for them. To publish more photos now has limited news value (do we regularly see new photos of Islamist beheadings years after they occurred?), but a great deal of political value, at least to those who want to see America and/or the West portrayed as the principal villain behind nearly everything wrong in the world today.

In some senses, those favouring this latest atrocity exhibition have a common cause with those who would like to see the offending Danish cartoons plastered all over the world's newspapers and websites, in that both sides seem to have a vested interest in riling up murderous Muslim mobs. But those most enthusiastic about the torture photos, strangely enough, seem for the most part reticent about offending Muslim sensibilities when it comes to the cartoons. The borderline hysteric Lila Rajiva puts it like this:
Funny how freedom of expression -- so indispensable for the survival of Western Civilization when it comes to inflammatory and dangerous anti-Muslim imagery -- gets jettisoned in a hurry when it comes to exposing war crimes.
Ms Rajiva, whose diatribe goes on to elide various bits of conspiracy theory with bleatings over alleged "child abuse" by British soldiers at Basra, seems to be missing a couple points here. In the first place, no war crimes have been "exposed" by these new photos. The Abu Ghraib torture story was one of the most widely covered news events so far this decade. No matter where you lived in the world, you'd almost have to make a deliberate effort not to be aware of it. Secondly, the "inflammatory and dangerous anti-Muslim imagery" was only inflammatory and dangerous because there are disturbingly large numbers of superstitious fanatics in the Muslim world. If we were to follow Rajiva's reasoning that printing the cartoons is inflammatory and dangerous, how could printing new torture photos be any less so?

Speaking of inflammatory and dangerous, how about the way Rajiva's frothing-at-the-mouth fulminations manages to turn the slightest bit of unpleasantness into "torture" on a par with splinters being driven under your fingernails or jumper cables attached to your testicles. I'm not denying that genuine acts of torture appear to have been committed at Abu Ghraib and possibly elsewhere, nor that those responsible for them should be punished.

But being kept awake for long hours by questioning, having psychological pressure exerted on you to give up some information: if this is torture, then nearly every police department in the world is guilty of it. Desecrating the Koran - if this actually happened - is in poor taste, but is hardly "torture." I mean, I'd be seriously bummed out if you took my computer and smashed it to bits, and I might even cry a bit, especially if I hadn't backed up all the data, but I could hardly say I'd been tortured. What about men or women forced to strip naked? Happens every day to millions of teenagers in gym classes around the world.

So let's keep on topic here: sort out what is genuinely torture and punish the torturers. As for the rest, well, here's a suggestion: if you don't want your sensibilities or your personal space violated, how about not joining an army of car bombers randomly blowing up your fellow Iraqis in hopes that the ensuing chaos will allow the nutcases at the head of your movement to impose a totalitarian theocracy on your land?

Yes, I'm asking for a little personal responsibility here, and while I don't doubt that some perfectly innocent people have been arrested and abused - as if this doesn't happen in American and European law enforcement, too - but I think it's safe to say that the great majority of prisoners of war are prisoners specifically because they took up arms against the American or British forces. War is hell, folks, as the mismanaged, undermanned Coalition forces have also been finding out. Nobody comes out of it looking very good, though it's only since the Vietnam era that the most damning coverage of American excesses comes from America's own media. But meanwhile car bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings on the part of Islamist rebels have become so routine that the media barely take notice of them unless they're particularly horrible, treating them instead like a Page 8 summary of the day's traffic tieups or police calls.

Lastly, I marvel at how the incident of British troops beating up some local young men who were captured after a rock-throwing battle has somehow been transmogrified into "child abuse." You can track the reporting of through subsequent editions and broadcasts. First the victims were "young Iraqi men throwing rocks at British troops," then they became "teenagers," then "barefoot teenagers" (as if the presence or absence of footwear had any bearing on one's ability to throw rocks, or, for that matter, fire an AK-47), and finally, "barefoot children."

Well, once again, I have a suggestion: if you don't want to have unpleasant encounters with armed men, don't throw rocks at them (feel free to pass this suggestion on to generations of Palestinian "children"). That's not to say that the British troops shouldn't have shown more self-control and shouldn't have been better commanded, but face it: get caught throwing rocks at the cops in Los Angeles or New York or Omaha and you're likely to have a pretty unpleasant time of it too.

16 February 2006

"Special" Broadcasting

SBS. the Australian television network that has stirred up fury over Abu Ghraib all over again by broadcasting photos that weren't available when the scandal originally broke, stands for "Special Broadcasting Service." Whether the folks behind the network were aware of the ironic implications of the term "special" is doubtful; they come across as the sort of painfully earnest but not especially bright lefties unlikely to notice irony if it walked up and bit them on the ass.

The remit of the government-funded SBS, at least according to its charter, is to:
provide services that inform, educate and entertain all Australians and reflect Australia’s multicultural society
Whether it informs, educates and entertains is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but since the vast majority of Australians never look at it unless it's broadcasting a sports programme (but only a "multicultural" one, like the Olympics or the World Cup), it's safe to say that it's falling well short of its duty to "all Australians."

To understand the SBS, Americans could imagine a cross between NPR and the Pacifica network (for those away from the coasts, Pacifica is a small radio network run by and for aging, bitter left-wing loonies and identity politics race-baiters), only with affirmative action policies that covered not only race and gender, but the intellectually and aesthetically challenged as well.

The SBS definition of "multicultural" apparently includes everyone in Australia as long as they a) are not white; b) don't speak English. If you happen to be among the more than 90% of Australians who are white English-speakers, you're pretty much out of luck unless you're fascinated by documentaries on indigenous basket weavers and badly dubbed Bulgarian cop flicks.

One of the goofiest SBS stabs at multiculturalism is its broadcasting of news programmes from a foreign countries. What's wrong with that, you say? You'd love to hear what they're saying on the Russian or Chinese nightly news? Yes, and so would I, but unfortunately, the SBS doesn't wish to sully the purity of its multicultural experience by providing anything so crass as English subtitles. So about half the broadcast day is taken up with programmes that perhaps one or two percent of Australians are capable of understanding.

Anyway, the real point, I suppose, is should SBS have aired the new Abu Ghraib photos, knowing that they were certain to stir up more anger among Muslims toward the United States? Well, duh, as any teenager might say: getting people mad at the USA would certainly be seen as a plus from the SBS standpoint; in fact, some would say it was the unwritten clause in SBS's charter. But at the same time, even though the pictures are more than two years old, and even though the culprits have already been tried and punished, it's still news, isn't it? And people do have a right to know what US troops have been up to, don't they?

I'd give a qualified yes to that question, though I'm tempted to wonder how the war effort would have gone in the 40s if the media made a massive deal of uncovering every incident of American troops being a little rough on the Germans. But it's interesting to note that when it came to the Danish cartoon controversy, SBS was far more circumspect in its treatment of the issue. Must show "respect" for our Muslim brothers, of course, because they're much more multicultural than us pasty-faced gringos.

Apparently, however, SBS did broadcast one of the cartoons showing Mr Mohammed with a pig's snout, certain to rile up Muslim sensibilities. Only trouble was, it was one of the cartoons which had not originally appeared in the Danish newspaper, but was fabricated and attached to the initial internet dispatch by Danish imams intent on inflaming the masses, which they turned out to be remarkably successful at. But hey, accuracy is so boring compared with multicultural diversity, right?

15 February 2006

At The Beach

I was sitting quietly, reflecting on why children seem constitutionally incapable of going in or near large bodies of water without screeching at the top of their lungs, when a small boy let loose with a horrendous scream that made the normal hubbub sound like sotto voce library whispers. It wasn't a brief scream, either; in fact, it kept on and on, until nearly everyone at the beach was craning their neck to see what kind of torture could possibly be going on.

A young mother, it turned out, had decided it was time to introduce her three year old to the joys of splashing about in the water on a sunny day. Unfortunately, she had failed to consult with Junior as to his opinion about this enterprise, and Junior was loudly and firmly letting her know that he was not in favour of it.

"Come on," she urged, "it's nice and cool and refreshing." If he knew what these words meant, he showed no sign of being enticed by them; as she tried to drag him into the water, he kicked and punched at her, screaming all the while. The further she managed to immerse him in the water, the louder and more violent he got. "Lady," I desperately wanted to tell her, "you're going to make some psychiatrist a rich man one day."

Despite her best efforts, she still hadn't got the poor kid more than halfway submerged when its vile and fat older sister waded in to help. She held the little boy's arms so he couldn't move, laughing at him all the while, while the mother scooped up some water with her hands and splashed it over his his head. "There, isn't that nice?" she cooed. The poor kid broke the sound barrier at that point, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from smacking both mother and sister in the mouth.

I realise that this is not the healthiest reaction, but it just brought up too many painful memories of my own childhood, of adults telling me, "You're really going to like this," or "This will be really good for you," or "Isn't this fun?" when I had done everything in my power to let them know that I didn't like it, didn't care if it was good for me, and wanted nothing to do with their idea of fun. I used to think that maybe it was because I was too inhibited and didn't scream and shout loud enough, but this kid, who had dwarfed any of my childhood noisemaking efforts, had just proved that it doesn't matter how much you protest: there will always be some grownup who thinks he or she knows better.

Ironically, when sadistic mum and sis finally grew bored of torturing the child and set him down on the sand, he crawled off into the water on his own, to explore it at his own pace. He was happily splashing about, but of course the evil duo couldn't leave well enough alone. "See, I told you the water was nice, didn't I," said Mum as she tried to drag him out to sea again and he burst into tears. Sis threw water at him to complete the miserable spectacle.

As I say, I probably have issues about this particular sort of thing, something which was brought home to me a bit later as I watched the couple sitting on the blanket next to me. Without saying a word, without asking or telling, the woman picked up the bottle of sunscreen and began slathering it up and down her partner's legs and back. He lay there passively, not complaining, but not exactly expressing gratitude or joy, either.

Now I know you'll say it's none of my business, and you'd be right, but it still bothered me. I mean, if the guy was a child, his mother would be perfectly right to put sunscreen on him whether he wanted it or not, either that or take him into the shade. Skin cancer is a very serious issue in Australia, and young children are especially vulnerable.

But this guy was not a child, he was a grown man, and the woman was not his mother, she was obviously his girlfriend or wife. On one hand, I could think, "Isn't that lovely? They're so close and so understanding of each other's needs that no one even has to say anything; she just notices that he needs more sunscreen and puts it on him without waiting to be asked." On the other hand, it made my flesh crawl; it reminded me of when mothers spit on their handkerchief and start cleaning a stubborn spot of dirt off your face just as you're walking into church.

Most of all, I realised why I was spending yet another Valentine's Day on my own: because I just don't fancy (or at least I'm convinced I don't) being pawed over and petted as though I were some mentally defective child and/or puppy, and it seems that this is a precondition to most if not all romantic relationships. I suppose it's not completely unbearable if it's the right person, but the overwhelming majority of people seem to be paired up with someone distinctly other than the right person. More like the person who will have to do for now until someone better comes along, and pardon my cynicism, but it wasn't me who made up the divorce statistics.

Anyway, for all of you who are happily coupled, and who might even enjoy your other half poking, prodding and otherwise whipping you into shape or out of it as the case may be, happy belated Valentine's Day. All I ask is that if or when you start cranking out the children, try not to torture them too much, whether for your own amusement or because "it'll be good for them." Future generations will thank you, and we might even enjoy a bit more peace and quiet at the beach.

14 February 2006

My Years In The Wilderness

The spring that I was 20 I got involved in a bit of bother with the police over an illegal drug deal. Much to my surprise, they seemed inclined to make a rather large deal of it, and informed me that I was facing 20 years to life for the various charges arrayed against me. The only alternative, I was told, was to testify against the hapless grad student who'd sold me the drugs, which would put him instead of me in prison for the next couple of decades.

Nothing much was going on in my life at the time apart from sleeping on the floor of a squalid hippie commune and taking LSD nearly every day, so I decided that the best course of action would be to make a run for it. I spent most of the following year living under a succession of fake names in a succession of hippie/revolutionary hot spots like New York's East Village, Kent, Ohio, and Berkeley, California. It was a great adventure, full of suspense and narrow escapes, like the time the FBI came calling at the Flatbush brownstone where I was hiding but were put off the scent by someone's tough-talking Jewish mother, or when we were hauled off the freight train we'd hopped in Ogden, Utah by a sheriff's posse on horseback who threatened to shoot us but didn't bother to run a warrant check.

And it all had a (relatively) happy ending: eventually things had cooled down back home, and I was able to come back, turn myself in, and end up serving only a week in jail and a couple years' probation. It hadn't been the first time, and certainly wouldn't be the last, that running away would appear to be the best available option.

In the years to come I would do a lot of bouncing around the States and eventually the larger world, often, though not always, in hopes of extricating myself from an awkward romantic or legal or financial situation. Eventually my life stabilised sufficiently that such hasty exits became far less frequent, but, as if to compensate, they became far more dramatic.

My last two great escapes were doozies, even though I was not fleeing irate lovers, policemen, or bailiffs. In fact in both cases, I was mainly running away from myself, even if I was not quite capable of seeing that at the time.

The first came at the beginning of the 1980s, when I left a comfortable suburban life in green and leafy Marin County to become a homesteader in the rural wilds of Northern Mendocino. My rationale at the time was that big city life (although I lived in Marin, I spent most of my time on the party circuit in San Francisco) had become too decadent, depraved and dangerous, and that I needed to get back to the land and nature before the apocalypse came down upon us. The reality, as would become clear much later on, was that I was doing so many drugs that I was in danger of complete physical and mental collapse. In other words, I was projecting my own decadence and depravity onto the Bay Area in particular and western civilisation in general.

It was a very costly move in some ways; for example, if I'd stayed in the Bay Area, I probably would have ended up buying the home I was living in at the time for about $35,000. The last I heard, it was valued at around $1,000,000. It also meant losing touch with many of the people I'd known for the past ten years or more, eventually breaking up with the only woman I ever came very close to marrying, and finding myself, five years later, pretty much completely broke and alone in the world and sitting on top of a mountain 18 miles from the nearest gas station.

So I lost a lot, but had I stayed in the Bay Area, it's pretty likely I would have ended up dead before too long, so, as they say, everything has its tradeoffs. And, ironically, it was up in that mountain wilderness that I started my punk rock fanzine and punk rock band and punk rock record label, all of which made it possible, inevitable, even, for me to return to civilisation and something passing for society.

That society mainly consisted of the burgeoning East Bay punk rock scene centred around Gilman Street and, before too long, Lookout Records. From being almost completely isolated, I had gone in a matter of a couple years to being at the very epicentre of one of the most exciting adventures of my life, and like the Rancid song goes, "No, no premonition coulda seen this."

Fast forward a few more years and I knew more people, had been more places, and was exerting more influence than I had ever thought possible. For a egotist with an inferiority complex like myself, it was heady stuff, but it was also scary as hell. First dozens, then eventually hundreds of people were relying on me to at least some extent for their jobs or their artistic careers. Considering that I didn't have that great a track record of looking after myself, let alone other people, I worried a lot about whether I'd be able to cope. On the other hand, most things I touched seemed to turn to gold, the records kept selling and the money kept rolling in. Maybe I was a genius after all, as I'd read in the occasional fanzine article. Or was I an unscrupulous bastard, as some other fanzines would have it?

By 1995, when Lookout Records was at the peak of its power, I was completely miserable and spending way too much of my time hiding out in my office when I should have been out having a blast, signing new bands, and basking in my success. Instead I was busily composing what may have turned out to be the longest suicide note in history; I've often thought that my long-windedness and grandiosity - after all, someone like me couldn't leave a mediocre or grammatically flawed suicide note, could he? - were all that kept me from snuffing myself. Even still, I came perilously close to it one dismal Sunday when I overdid the whiskey-and-codeine combo that had been my staple diet for sometime.

It was also in 1995 that I decided I had to leave Lookout Records, on the grounds that the job was killing me. Or so I told myself; in reality, the only thing that was killing me was me, and I could have stopped anytime if I'd only had a clue what the booze and pills were doing. As it turned out, I didn't find the guts to walk away for almost another two years, and when I finally did, I was shocked and disappointed to find that things didn't really get much better. In some ways, they got worse.

Once again I'd exiled myself into the wilderness, not a physical wilderness this time, but an emotional one. I hadn't intended to cut myself off from all the people I'd known and worked with, but living thousands of miles away and no longer involved in the music business that had been my life, that was the effective result. I kept in touch with a few people, and a few others tried to keep in touch with me, but compared with what I was used to, I might as well have been living back on my mountain top.

This morning I woke up, half dreaming, half imagining, that I'd never left, that I had continued to live in Berkeley and run Lookout these past nine years. In this alternative reality, things had gone great, Lookout was more prosperous than ever, our old bands were happily selling loads of records and we'd signed some of the most exciting and successful new bands as well. And I was having the time of my life, making plenty of money, still playing and touring with my band, travelling and meeting fascinating people. All the stuff, in other words, that had been completely unable to make or keep me happy when it was actually happening.

By now I'd woken up completely and the cold, hard reality intruded: just as I probably would have been dead from drugs or AIDS or violence if I hadn't left the city when I did in 1981, so too would I have probably been dead from alcohol or a broken heart if I hadn't left my punk rock life behind in 1997. Going to the country in the 80s enabled me to kick drugs; leaving the country enabled me to kick alcohol in the new millennium. Yeah, it's frustrating that I had to do things the hard and expensive way; if I'd been able to recognise what I was doing to myself and to take action to change my ways, I could have had a great life with far less trauma and dislocation. But then what the hell would I write about?

Anyway, the gist of all this is that, just as when I was sitting alone on my mountain top wondering what was going to become of me, I'm beginning to feel that it's time to come out of the wilderness, to become involved again. When I was on the mountain having these feelings, I had no idea where they would be leading me (for example, going back to Berkeley was the last thing on my mind), and the same is true today. I don't know where I'll be living six months or a year from now, I don't know what kind of work - if any - I'll be doing. It's entirely possible I'll still be sitting in my flat in London logging on to the internet and watching the world go by, seemingly without me. But every time I've had this feeling in the past, things have changed, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly, but always inexorably. It just occurred to me that the first step I took toward leaving my mountain wilderness was founding Lookout magazine. Maybe this blog is serving a similar role in paving the way out of my current wilderness of the soul. Watch this space and we shall see.

Piss Mohammed?

Gerard Henderson, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, points out how newspapers who are now refusing to print the controversial Mohammed cartoons out of "respect" for Muslim sensibilities took quite a different tack when the target was Christianity. Andres Serrano's juvenile "artwork," consisting of a crucifix submerged in urine, infuriated many Christians, including then-Mayor Giuliani,who attempted to cut off public funding for the Brooklyn Museum exhibit that included it.

Giuliani's point, and that of most other critics of Piss Christ, was not that it should have been banned (let alone that its creator should be jailed or beheaded), but that taxpayers shouldn't have to foot the bill for it. The reliably hysterical Frank Rich used his New York Times column to accuse Giuliani of Nazi-like tendencies, as did his colleague, Amei Wallach, and the Times, which has been showing extreme deference to irate Muslims in the cartoon controversy, editorialised in favour not only of Piss Christ, but public funding for it:
A museum is obliged to challenge the public as well as to placate it, or else the museum becomes a chamber of attractive ghosts, an institution completely disconnected from art in our time.
A chamber of attractive ghosts? Sounds suspiciously like the New York Times, though I'm not sure "attractive" is the first word called to mind by the ghoulish spectre of Frank Rich.

13 February 2006

The Mandate Of Heaven

Warning: I'm about to get all multicultural on you myself by bringing up the ancient Chinese tradition of Tian Ming, aka thee Mandate of Heaven. "Heaven," as Sinologists among you will know, has little or nothing to do with the concept as it's understood in the Abrahamic religions of the West; a better comparison would be to The Force from Star Wars. In other words, if The Force or the Mandate is with you, you can do just about anything: found and rule great empires, wage war, sue for peace, and all will go hunky-dory. If, on the other hand, you've managed through carelessness, chicanery or just bad luck to lose the Mandate, then you might as well stay in bed or go on a long, long holiday, because nothing is going to work out.

Most likely the Mandate of Heaven was cooked up by one bunch of Chinese adventurers to justify their taking power away from another crowd, but it's tempting to see something a bit bigger at work, too: it's hard to deny that there comes a time in most political dynasties or regimes when things simply stop working, when the charisma or good vibes that seemed to be propelling the leader and his movement along shrivel up and blow away. Chinese history is replete with examples of how the people could tell the Mandate was being lost; often they took the form of dramatic events like earthquakes or unexpected defeats in war, but they could just as easily be seen in the Emperor's failing to exhibit sufficient gravitas, becoming a laughingstock or an object of pity. Those old enough to remember will have seen a similar phenomenon in the "malaise" (as he himself fatefully named it) that characterised the end of Jimmy Carter's Presidency. Economic stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, and a general sense that the genial peanut farmer from Georgia had not a clue what he was doing in the White House all contributed to his downfall, but many media observers pointed to a couple of seemingly trivial news items as being even more crucial.

One was a picture snapped of Carter as he was jogging, and which captured him looking on the brink of exhaustion or even collapse. The message, even when it was printed without comment, was clear: the President, and his Presidency, were running out of steam, no longer had the freshness or strength necessary to tackle the nation's problems. The other was a story, with photo, headlined "President Attacked By Rabbit."

In order to avoid any more unflattering jogging photos, Carter had turned his recreational attention toward trout fishing, but even there he couldn't get a break: a crazed swamp rabbit came swimming toward his boat, and the President felt compelled to fend it off with a paddle. Now what are the chances: how many of you have ever heard of, let alone seen a crazed swamp rabbit? Yet both witnesses and photos testify that just such a creature came swimming directly at the President of the United States. Nowadays, of course, we'd assume it had been sent by Al Qaeda, but in 1979, it was taken as a sign that the President had lost it. I mean, if he couldn't even get respect from swamp rabbits, he wasn't going to have much luck with the American people, and the following year Ronald Reagan ousted him in a landslide.

You've probably guessed that what's brought this to mind is the Dick Cheney shooting incident. The fat, grumpy VP has never been an object of much love, even, I suspect, among those who voted for him, but his stern demeanour resonated sufficiently among those who felt that America needed tough leadership in the face of terrorism. Besides, I imagine, they felt he served as a necessary counterweight to Bush's fratboy buffoonery. And while I didn't vote for Bush-Cheney, I'll freely admit that the thought crossed my mind at times, too: with all their faults, I had less trouble taking them seriously as the leaders of a nation at war than I would have with Al Gore or John Kerry.

If one were to believe at all in the Mandate of Heaven as applied to Imperial America (sorry, don't mean to sound like a 16 year old anarchist and/or Noam Chomsky, but there are certain unavoidable parallels), it would be easy enough to seize on the New Orleans disaster or Bush's denuding of the national treasury or the endless reverses in what was supposed to be a simple colonial war, but my guess is that more people will be appalled and alienated by the image of Mean and Ugly Old Dick Cheney being so stupid and trigger-happy as to open up with a shotgun on someone who was supposed to be one of his good buddies (if you have a hard time imagining Dick Cheney having good buddies, let alone friends, you're not alone).

Remember, Cheney is the guy sold to us as being the brains behind Bush's war(s) on terrorism. Yet here he is out in a field attempting to get his kicks by blasting innocuous little birds out of the sky (something, I understand, he spends "a great deal" of time doing, and while I don't begrudge our leaders their recreation, wouldn't you think guiding the world's greatest superpower through a time of war and crisis would hold a bit more interest that blowing away birds?) and instead putting his mate in hospital with some good old-fashioned "friendly fire."

I'm not anti-gun or anti-hunting, but I am anti-moron, and people who blast off with a shotgun when they don't know for sure that all their companions are out of the way generally qualify as dangerously careless or morons or both. But it should no longer be surprising that despite spending half a trillion dollars (or whatever it's up to now), laying waste to a couple countries, and killing God knows how many people, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan show no sign of coming to a successful conclusion any time soon. And no, I don't think it's because the Islamofascists and sectarian nutcases on the other side are in the right, or because they have the support of the people they're killing, I think it's because military and foreign policy are in the hands of some seriously unfunny clowns.

All signs are that the Bush-Cheney era is heading toward an ignominious end, even if they still have three years remaining in office. I would be relieved about that if it weren't for the fact that I don't see any credible replacement on the horizon. What I fear is that if the current leadership continues to make a cock-up of the war, we'll end up replacing them with some dingbat left-wing Democrats whose solution will be to retreat, hand the entire region over to the suicide bombers, and hope for the best. At a time when we're desperately in need of courageous and intelligent leadership, both political parties appear largely bereft. Politics is no longer looked upon as a respectable calling, and moral certitude is sneered at by the intelligentsia and embraced by the imbecilic. Mandate of Heaven or not, you're looking at some serious signs that The Force is deserting this empire.

12 February 2006

The "Prophet" Mohammed: Sez Who?

Sorry to keep banging on about this, but hardly a day goes by that something else doesn't come up to further exasperate me on this subject.

The latest is the mainstream media's near-unanimous adaptation - as of a few days ago - of the usage "the Prophet Mohammed" whenever making reference to the cartoon character over whose portrayal the less-civilised mobs of the world have been rioting, burning and looting these past few weeks.

Why all of a sudden it's "the Prophet Mohammed" instead of simply "Mohammed," as has sufficed for at least as long as I've been reading and writing, is hardly a mystery. Clearly it's the intent of the media to show "respect" to the disrespectable rabble who've been rampaging in the streets, and, perhaps not incidentally, forestall the burning or closing down of their own enterprises. But the way it's spread so quickly and completely makes one suspicious that the conspiracy theorists may have been right after all: could there be some Central Bureau of Media Control that tells all the newspapers and TV stations what to say and how to say it?

One thing is certain: it's not due to a heightened sensitivity toward all the world's religions. Otherwise, we'd be seeing similar references to "the Son of God Jesus Christ" or "the Creator Brahma." No, it's just the Muslims getting the special treatment that they apparently believe they are entitled to, in this case, having their religious belief, i.e., that Mohammed was/is the Prophet of Allah, reported in the mainstream, secular press as though it were fact rather than opinion.

Now I didn't attend the Columbia School of Journalism, or even the Columbia School of Broadcasting, but I've had enough basic training and experience in the newspaper business to know that one of its basic tenets is that you separate (or try, anyway) fact from opinion. Thus the correct way of phrasing it would be, "Mohammed, whom Muslims believe to be Prophet of Allah," and some variant of this is how religious beliefs are usually reported. But the touchy-feely media institutions - the BBC is among the worst offenders, sometimes even adding the ritual incantation "Peace be upon him" after Mohammed's name - routinely present programmes trying to enlighten us about Islam - not a bad thing, of course - by recounting myths and legends from the Koran as though they were irrefutable historical facts.

I personally would love to know as much as possible about Islam and the other world religions, particularly when their beliefs or moral codes might impact upon my own freedom to live in a relatively enlightened western democracy. But I would greatly prefer to have those beliefs and moral codes presented to me as such, i.e., the collective opinions of people who may often think very differently from me.

In this same vein, I'm hearing a lot of argument from the usual suspects, namely the multiculturalists and soi-disants progressives, that we need to modify our traditional concept of freedom of speech and the press now that so many Muslims, who clearly have a different concept of such things, are dwelling among us. To this I can only say, and as loudly as possible: Rubbish. Neither western civilisation nor democracy were founded, nor should they have been, on the right of overly sensitive or intellectually insecure people not to be offended. On the contrary, one of the greatest strengths of our society has been the extent to which nearly everything and everyone can be subject to rigorous examination.

Conversely, there's a good case to be made that Islamic societies, once considerably more advanced than our own, stultified and regressed precisely because they placed strict limits on personal expression and the ability to question established practices. (Historians have noted a similar tendency in Ming and Qing dynasty China, a period during which the West was able to first catch up to and then massively surpass what, while Europe was staggering around in the Dark Ages, had been easily the world's most advanced civilisation.)

With all due respect (i.e., none, at least on my part) to the multiculturalists and cultural relativists of the world, we do no one, least of all the Muslims themselves, any favours by voluntarily limiting our discourse to avoid causing offence. If the Islamic world is ever to emerge from its present backwardness (I say this only in general terms, as there are clearly aspects of Muslim culture which are admirable and worthy of preservation), it will have to become far more intellectually honest, far more willing to examine itself in an objective and dispassionate way. But as long as Muslims who attempt this sort of criticism in Islamic countries are rewarded with imprisonment or death, it is Muslims in the West who will have to lead Islam toward its long-overdue Enlightenment. Similarly, it is Muslims in the West who have the most to gain by participating in an open and free discussion of the pros and cons of their religion and culture. We, on the other hand, who have long enjoyed and taken for granted that freedom, have a great deal - perhaps everything - to lose if we backtrack on the values of our own Enlightenment because "it might hurt someone's feelings."

Fisk Gets Fisked

Actually, Australia has proved - blessedly - to be somewhat of a Fisk-free zone, as the irascible sociopath-cum-"reporter" doesn't appear to be of much interest to the local media. In Britain it's quite another case; Mr Fisk's dispatches are given front-page treatment in the Independent and discussed throughout the media as though they were news items rather than the ineluctably biased commentaries that they are.

Considering his own ethnic origins, Fisk's all-embracing contempt for "the Anglo-Saxons" might appear to be a psychological issue, perhaps related to low self-esteem or a problem with his father, but in this review, Amir Taheri puts his finger on the plain old-fashioned racism and chauvinism that really moves people like Fisk:
Because he sympathises with “Arab grievances”, Fisk adopts virtually all the conspiracy theories concocted in teahouses from Baghdad to Cairo in the hope of blaming others for all that has gone wrong with the Arabs. What he does not realise is that by portraying the Arabs as witless pawns in a game they do not understand, he is presenting a new version of the “White Man’s Burden” narrative. In the original version the “natives”, including the Arabs, must be saved from their own ignorance. In Fisk’s ethnocentric version, the Arabs are helpless victims. In both versions the omnipotent “Imperialist West” can do whatever it pleases with peoples who are mere objects in their own history.

I've often observed the same phenomenon in self-proclaimed "progressives" of the Caucasian persuasion, who never seem to have met an African-American whose problems are not entirely the fault of white America and "institutionalised racism." This kind of reasoning quickly gets itself into a double bind, of course. If the alleged victims of imperialism and racism are so hapless that not only their lives and destinies, but their very personalities and psychologies can be subsumed and manipulated by the dominant culture (this supposedly explains why Arabs can't help becoming suicide bombers and African-American men can't seem to support their families or stay out of prison), then how on earth would they deal with whatever freedom these various liberation movements ultimately conferred on them?

The worst racists I've ever met have nearly always been hardcore leftists or anarchists, to whom "people of colour" serve as pawns and poster children for their revolutionary wet dreams. That's not to say that racism doesn't exist on the right, but it is rarely so pernicious or virulent as the leftist variety. For all the criticisms than can be levelled at George Bush, Kanye West's much-ballyhooed claim that "Bush just doesn't like black people" is cheap demagoguery: Bush, and right-wing Republicans in general, have shown themselves far more meritocratic - i.e., fair - than the Democratic left, which is happy to work with any number of incompetents and charlatans as long as they are the right colour, i.e., black or brown.

Bush's elevation of Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Albert Gonzales to some of the highest offices in the land may have involved a touch of racial symbolism as well, but his primary motivation was almost certainly that they shared his political views, which is as it should be, regardless of how anathema you may find those views to be. But point out to someone who's fulminating about America being "viciously racist through and through" that there's every possibility a Bush appointee will be the first black and first female president, and he'll frequently counter than Condoleeza Rice "isn't really black," or has "sold out her culture." In the mindsets of such (mostly) white demagogues, being "really" black has to entail one or more of the following: being left-wing, pissed-off, on welfare, in or just out of prison, and willing cannon fodder for the "revolution."

Fisk adopts precisely the same attitude with the Islamic world in general and Islamofascists in particular: he maintains just enough critical distance to avoid becoming an out-and-out cheerleader for terrorism, but never tries too hard to disguise where his real sympathies lie:
The suicide-bomber has become the nuclear weapon of the other. In Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq the suicide-bombers have become the symbol of this new fearlessness. Once an occupied people has lost its fear of death, the occupier is doomed.

Could it be that Fisk genuinely believes that we can count on suicide bombers as the foundation for a new and better society? Would he have similarly romanticised the last desperate efforts of the Japanese kamikazes as World War II drew to a close? Is he simply nuts, or so angry/hurt/frustrated that he'll seize upon any weapon, human or otherwise, to strike out at his ultimate Big Daddy, western civilisation? I'd be inclined to go for nuts except that for a crazy person Fisk shows a remarkable tendency toward self-preservation. He's careful always to say, "Let's you and them fight," not "Let us fight." So, I vote for angry/hurt/frustrated, and suggest a course of therapy with a good cognitive behavioural therapist. With patience and time, he might learn to smile again, and - though this is a long shot - perhaps eventually come to terms with the awful fate of having been born an Anglo-Saxon.

09 February 2006

Papier-Mache Flashbacks

I was at the beach yesterday, staring off into space as I often do if I've forgotten to bring a book, and noticed something disturbing about the cliffs at each end of the cove.

Well, "cliffs" may be a bit grandiose, particularly by California standards; let's just say they were prominent outcroppings, consisting of granite, some grassy knolls, and a couple of astutely placed palm trees. Had I had my camera with me, I would have taken a picture for you, but my camera was at home, sitting on top of my book. Therefore you must trust me when I tell you that these cliffs, erm, outcroppings, were about as picturesque as you'd expect to find at a relatively mundane beach on the outskirts of a major metropolitan area.

In fact, if I squinted my eyes ever so slightly, I could almost imagine I was on some tropical South Sea island, and being that this is a sub-tropical (or sub-sub-tropical) South Sea continent, it wasn't too hard to maintain the illusion. But it wasn't the squinting and the illusion that was disturbing me.

No, it was the way that the scene looked so perfectly fake, as in better than real. It was if I were staring at a exquisitely painted 3-D backdrop, the kind that you could only afford to use on Broadway or in a Major Motion Picture. It was not like regular scenery, which always has some distinctive flaw: some bozo has spray-painted graffiti across the rocks or you can see the smokestack from a nearby oil refinery protruding over the otherwise exquisite vignette. No, this picture was absolutely perfect, so perfect that I felt sure I could reach out and punch a hole through it.

At that point I felt a little shiver go through me, and this was in full sunlight on a 30C/86F degree day. I'd been here before, seeing mountains or skyscapes as painted-on papier-mache backdrops. It started around 1970, when my LSD hallucinations switched from the traditional melting walls and swirling colours to the ultra-clarity of seeing the world as it had always appeared, but under the blinding white light of hyper-perception. Or so I told myself: on one hand, I swore I could see right through to the molecular, atomic and sub-atomic structure of everything surrounding me; on the other, it all looked very suspiciously like a papier-mache backdrop.

This first occurred near downtown San Francisco, sitting in a park. Earlier that day I'd run into Jack Leary (as in son of Timothy), who'd given me a small paper bindle containing (he thought) the equivalent of 30 to 50 doses of pure crystal LSD. As was my wont in those days, I immediately sniffed the lot, and spent the next 24 hours having a rather intense internal dialogue that seemed to centre around the apparent fact that the world was made of electrically charged papier-mache that I could almost but not quite see through and almost but not quite put my fist through.

I periodically resolve not to try and describe hallucinogenic drug experiences, as they tend to be both boring and opaque to all but the person who had them, so I'll go no further, other than to say that once I'd determined that the world was simultaneously real and illusory, I went out and started my own religion... No, seriously, I actually arrived at a state of great tranquility, one in which I became utterly and completely at ease in the world, in which all my questions and problems had been resolved, and this enormous tranquility was to stay with me for, oh, about 24 hours, which was when I found out that my boyfriend had been cheating on me again.

But I digress; the point I set out to make was that seeing those perfectly fake yet perfectly real backdrops on the beach in Sydney Harbour was the closest I've come in years, perhaps ever, to a genuine acid flashback. It wasn't scary or alarming or anything like that, just, as I said at the beginning, vaguely disturbing.

It's been quite a few years since I've taken any mind-altering drugs, and though my mind continues to alter both itself and reality unassisted, it tends to do so in a more moderate fashion than, say, my last really horrible freakout, when the Canadian Rockies started closing in on me with the apparent intention of crushing me in their stony maw. And I actually have a theory that hallucinations are not hallucinations per se, but merely a sensory overload, somewhat akin to the squealing blast of feedback you get from your amp when it gets more input than it's capable of processing.

Another, equally if not more plausible explanation for this whole papier-mache backdrop fixation of mine, has far more mundane origins. During the Great Depression, the federal government created the Works Project Administration as a way of employing the otherwise employable, i.e., artists. Some of them were paid to create murals in post offices and other public spaces, many of which survive today as a great tribute to a more enlightened age. Others were assigned to such characteristically San Franciscan boondoggles as "improving" the cliffs at the top of the Great Highway by adding a new layer of impressive-looking boulders. Boulders which were made out of, yes, papier-mache.

The new, improved cliffs were quite a hit at first, and made the whole vista even more dramatic than it had once been, but by the 1970s, what had been good enough for government work was coming undone. Holes began to appear in the papier-mache boulders, some caused by wind and rain, others by random vandals, and though observers like Herb Caen frequently made sarcastic or downright bitter remarks about how shabby and tacky it looked, nothing was done about it for years. This was, in fact, a time when not much at all was done in San Francisco apart from a great deal of drug-taking, navel-gazing, and promiscuous sexual activity. An era which you might understandably suspect has largely continued until the present.

However, sometime around 1980 somebody finally got it together to haul away the wreckage of the papier-mache cliffs and restored what was left underneath them to a less dramatic but far more natural state. My problem is - and I was out there with some visiting Canadian relatives only a few months ago - is that the "real" cliffs, beautiful as they may be, look more unreal than the old fake ones. In fact, I was on the verge of crossing the road to try and put my fist through one of the rocks, until I remembered I'd already tried that back in the 80s, when I at least had the excuse of still being on drugs. One set of bloody knuckles in the pursuit of scientific inquiry seemed sufficient for a lifetime.

Anyway, I don't know if this explains anything. Probably not. I went back to the beach again today, and the rocks still looked as though they were made of papier-mache, but for some reason it no longer bothered me. In fact I found it kind of comforting.

08 February 2006

Rocking The Night Away

In writing about the Johnny Cash movie yesterday, I alluded to some of the cringeworthy moments I've had on stage with the Lookouts and the Potatomen. I was going to describe a couple of them, and then thought, "Hang on there, Mr Negative, why not put your energy into something more upbeat?"

That caused me to reflect on another scene from the movie, where Johnny and his band are nervously waiting their turn to go on stage at some sort of high school dance where the opening act is Jerry Lee Lewis. He's going wild, the kids are doing likewise, and you can just see the thoughts going through Johnny's mind: how in the hell is our poky little country band going to match up to this? Just then, Jerry Lee comes off triumphantly, and smirkingly says, "You boys wanna get yourself a pine box. Nobody follows The Killer."

Having shared a stage with amazing performers like Operation Ivy, Green Day, Screeching Weasel, the Offspring, Bad Religion, Luciano Pavarotti - okay, that last one wasn't at the same show, but it was the same stage - I could totally identify. But in the movie, Johnny and his band get out there and the crowd goes every bit as crazy for them as they did for Jerry Lee, if not more so.

And the way it happened was something I could identify with, too: at first the crowd looks a little uneasy, not sure whether they're supposed to like this band, this music. After all, they haven't heard it on the radio yet, so nobody knows whether it's cool to like it. But then something gets a few of them moving, and then a few more, and suddenly it's like someone's tossed a match into a tinder-dry brush field: everyone's up on their feet and dancing like there's no tomorrow, and if you're lucky enough to be in the band up on stage, you suddenly know that this is one of those moments you only dared dream of, one of those moments that makes it all make sense and all worthwhile.

I've had a few of those moments, and none so memorable as the one that started out to be an utter disaster. It was the last show of a pretty decent Potatomen tour, one that we'd shared with the Canadian indie darlings Cub. We were in Victoria, B.C., and we'd been promised a big crowd - at least 300, anyway - of enthusiastic students. It was "college night," the promoter told us, which, it turned out, meant cheap beer night and a large turnout of local university students, most of whom neither knew nor cared what bands were playing as long as the beer kept flowing.

I was fine with that. After several weeks on the road, we were playing really well, and I wasn't about to be intimidated by a bunch of know-nothing students. Until, that is, the bad news came: Patrick, our lead guitarist, had to fly back to Berkeley immediately, and we'd have to do the show as a three-piece.

I couldn't even begin to list all the problems with this scenario. Patrick wasn't just the lead guitarist; for all intents and purposes, he was the guitarist. I knew enough chords to write songs and strum along to them, but it was Patrick's ornate and unique stylings that made the songs come alive. Plus the whole Potatomen image was hung on Patrick's ultra-suave demeanour and gravity-defying pompadour. Without him, the Potatomen felt like little more than a three-piece street-corner busking outfit, which, coincidentally or not, was how we'd started out.

I've never been so terrified as when we stepped out onto that stage, and yes, it was a proper stage, all right, with a big old sound system and lights that were nearly blinding me. I felt like I was standing there in my underwear as all these curious college kids gawked up at me, and figured we'd be lucky to get through the first song before the boos and the beer cans started flying.

Oh well, I thought, might as well get it over with. At least nobody here knows who we are and we'll probably never see any of them again. "Hello, everyone, we're the Potatomen from Berkeley, California, and our first song..." They all cheered and applauded. "Well, I hope you'll still be cheering once you've heard it," I added, and hit the first chord.

I often overdo it when I'm playing on stage, getting so nervous that I practically spazz out completely, but for some reason I was able to maintain my cool that night. Maybe, probably, it was because I was sure it was all going to end in disaster and so I had nothing to lose, but I just sort of stuck out my foot in a kind of rockabilly stance and hunched over the microphone like I thought I remembered Buddy Holly or one of those old cats doing, and just sang my heart out (I figured the more I did that, the less people would notice that I couldn't really play guitar). I barely dared to look at the audience, but before the song was over I couldn't help noticing that most of them were on their feet and a lot of them were dancing.

That's strange, I thought. We didn't always get that good a reaction when we were playing for a room full of our fans. I started the second song and now everyone was dancing, and it kept on that way through the whole set. A couple of times I tried to apologise to the crowd, to explain that we'd be a lot better if we had our mighty handsome and talented lead guitarist with us, but nobody seemed interested, so I just went on playing. We played every song we knew at the time, and when we finished they were still cheering for more. Afterward, walking around the club, girls were coming up to us all dreamy-eyed and telling us how fabulous we were. I'd been playing in bands for over ten years at this point and I didn't recall anything like that ever happening before.

Unfortunately, whatever was in the Victoria, B.C. water that night seemed to have been a one-off. There were still many fine (and not-so-fine) Potatomen shows to come, but never another one quite like that one. I've tried numerous times to explain to Patrick what it was like, and what he missed, just as I've tried to explain to myself how we could have pulled it off without him. It was just one of those nights, I guess, where everything works and nothing has to make sense. You need those nights now and again in a world where much of the time the exact opposite seems to be true.

LL: Gym Bunny

Sad to say, I didn't grow up with a high opinion of physical fitness or, for that matter, of physical activity. I'd like to say that it was the fault of Western civilisation, or of that dichotomous school of thought which holds that the intellectual way of life is superior to the corporal. But it would probably be more accurate to say that I was just butt-ass lazy.

One of my proudest moments in high school came in 10th grade, when I managed to forge some office documents allowing me to be excused from gym class for the rest of my academic life. I was the first, and as far as I know, the only kid in my class to escape from the normal requirement of four years of rope climbing, dodgeball ducking, and getting yelled at by Mr Dulske.

And I continued in this vein long after high school. Exercise was for suckers, I confidently told everyone, and blessed with a high metabolism, I was able to eat like a pig, drink like a fish, and still maintain the body of a teenager (albeit a rather wasted teenager, but then aren't they all?) well into my 30s.

But at age 30, after being terrorised one too many times by street gangs and seeing one too many Bruce Lee movies, I started studying t'ai chi, which is the foundation of all the martial arts. It's not a particularly ferocious form, though the kind I practise has some semi-scary-looking kicks and punches which on occasion have been known to impress the impressionable.

But while t'ai chi keeps you flexible, agile, and able to fend off marauding ninjas, it doesn't do much for your muscle tone, unless perhaps you do it 10 or 12 hours a day. And so over the years, I've gradually sagged into the shape you might expect of a man my age. Well, let's say a man 10 or 15 years less than my age, but that's still pretty old. And living in England, where everyone's always wearing six layers of clothing, half of which are baggy sweaters and scarves, that's not such a problem. But here in Australia, where formal wear consists of a tank top and shorts, and life more or less centres around the beach, it's rather difficult to conceal a sagging belly, hollow chest, or hunched-over shoulders.

So what do you know: I've done yet another thing I swore I would never do, joined a gym. I used to break out in hives when I went past such places, and was always bewildered at what exactly went on inside of them, but I finally bit the bullet and asked a local with enormous muscles to show me around, and he was kind enough to do so.

This particular guy is a transplanted Englishman, a public school boy who was reared in the mens sana in corpore sano ethos of the old British Empire, which means that although he's nearly the same age as me, he thinks nothing of hopping on the bicycle for a 50 or 100 km ride over the nearest mountains or of "warming up" by swiming a couple k's at full speed. "I had to make quite an adjustment when I moved out here," he said. "The Australians are just so much more fit than the British, it took me several years to even begin to catch up with them." "What about the Americans?" I asked. He just rolled his eyes.

It's early days yet, and I've only been to the gym a few times, so I'm hardly promising to come back to London as a bronze-skinned body builder. In fact, all I seem to have accomplished so far is to make myself aware of how many more sore muscles it's possible to have. And I'm even a bit dubious as to whether it's possible to make that big a difference at this point in life. But hey, my stomach no longer protrudes out over my belt, at least not very far, anyway, nobody has laughed (at least not out loud) at me when I go down the street in a tank top, and I've been to the beach at least 25 times without once having sand kicked in my face. I reckon that's some sort of progress.

Orthography Matters

I've been meaning to clear this up for some time now: I get a fair number of inquiries to the effect of, "Hey, how come you write "honour" and "colour" and "criticise" and all that Brit-type stuff when you're a damn American?"

Well, if you're thinking it's because I'm a pretentious ponce, you may be half-right (at least), but there's actually a solid reason behind it as well. Actually, I don't always write Brit-style; if you look back through the archives, you'll find entries where everything is written in good old-fashioned American.

The deal is: because I occasionally write for hire in both Britain and American (and because I'm a pretentious ponce), I decided that I'd practise being bilingual by writing in the vernacular of whatever country I'm currently located in. Don't ask me what happens if I ever find myself blogging from a country where they don't speak some form of English. Esperanto, maybe.

Down Yet Another Country Road

Yes, that's right, folks, still another country-type story, one for which I feel I should be doubly apologetic because of its unavoidable John Denver content.

This one has its origins in the autumn of 1971, when you would have found me sleeping somewhat less than comfortably on a basement floor in Akron, Ohio. How I got there is immaterial, but you can probably guess that I had run out of more attractive options.

Still, it wasn't all bad. My hosts, Patty and Paul, seemed willing to support my broke and lazy ass indefinitely, leaving me free to devote my days and nights to the fulltime pursuit of the usual degenerate cocktail of sex, drugs, alcohol, and the occasional rock and roll show. Patty and Paul were big eaters - I mean they ate big and were big - and generously shared everything with me. The only problem was that they were strictly meat and potatoes people. No green vegetables. No vegetables at all. Ever. After a while, and probably as a result of staying up brooding one too many nights high on amphetamine or whatever else was available, I decided I was in danger of coming down with scurvy from this diet, and spent a week or so in a severely panicked state until I came up with the idea of digging dandelion greens from the yard and boiling them for their Vitamin C content.

One health kick led to another, and the next thing I knew, I was all caught up in the ginseng craze that was starting to sweep through post-hippie America. It was like legal speed, they claimed, and enhanced your sexual prowess and longevity and clarity of mind and speech. All of these were things I felt in dire need of, and while I pinched or purloined as much Korean ginseng as I could, often gobbling whole bottles of the vile red extract at once, I was shocked to discover that the most highly regarded ginseng of all was the native American variety, which grew wild on mountainsides in the neighbouring state of West Virginia.

It was "the plant that hides from man," the literature claimed, and I read how skilled hunters could come out with a couple burlap sacks full of the stuff and resell them for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Supposedly you had to be "in tune" with the ginseng energy to find it nestled amid all sorts of concealing vegetation on the cool, damp, north-facing slopes.

Well, that was me, I was sure. I was definitely "in tune" with ginseng. This was probably my chance to get rich. In fact, I could probably make all of us rich. As it happened, Paul, like seemingly half the population of Ohio, orginally hailed from West Virginia, and had a grandmother still living down there in some obscure mountain hollow. "It's on a north-facing slope, too," he acknowledged.

"Let's pack up the car," I said. "We'll come back with so much ginseng you'll both be able to quit your jobs." (And, I thought, I'd be spared the necessity of getting one.)

So there we were the very next weekend, cruising up and down the desperately picturesque backroads of West Virginia just as all the leaves were turning heartbreaking shades of amber, crimson and taupe (okay, yellow, red and brown for the more prosaic among you) and John Denver's first Number One hit, "Take Me Home (Country Roads)" was all over the airwaves. "West Virginia, Blue Ridge mountains," you could hear him singing, not just from the car radio, but from every gas station and cafe and truck stop. Hell, I was beginning to suspect the Chamber of Commerce of putting speakers behind the trees and rocks so that no one anywhere in the state of West Virginia would have to go a minute without hearing that damned song (which, I'll have to admit, I actually kind of liked at the time).

Every so often, I'd shout, "Stop! That looks like the right kind of hillside." Paul would dutifully pull the car over and I'd clamber halfway down some precipitous slope searching for the distinctive leaf shape outlined in my "Hunting Ginseng" book. The closest I came to it was a lot of poison ivy. Eventually it dawned on me that I was about as likely to find an abandoned gold mine as I was wild ginseng, so I started keeping my eyes open for any strange-looking holes in the ground. Not open enough, however, as I managed to fall into a couple of them.

Despite their touching (and woefully misplaced) faith in me, Patty and Paul were growing a little disillusioned with me by now, and eventually Paul said, "Let's go on to Granny's house now, before it gets dark. We'll get some rest, and maybe Granny can give you some pointers about the best places to look tomorrow."

Granny lived in an old-fashioned mountain cabin with very few modern conveniences. No indoor plumbing, no telephone, only a wood stove for heat. But she did have a radio, ensuring we wouldn't have to go without hearing John Denver for the duration of our stay.

She seemed glad to have company, but nearly laughed her old head off when Paul asked her about ginseng. "Yeah, I reckon you wanna talk to old man Ritchie down the other side of town. He makes a fortune selling that stuff to the Orientals. They're crazy for it. Don't know why. It's just a bunch of damned old roots ain't good for nothing as far as anyone around here can see."

"But where can we find some?"

"Damned if I know. Ask old man Ritchie."

So we did, after another fruitless morning of running up and down hillsides, and the old guy's eyes lit up. "You're in luck," he said. "I got me a whole bag of the stuff right here, I can let you have for a hundred bucks. One of them Orientals'll pay you 300 at least back in the city."

"I was hoping maybe you could show us where to find some of our own," I said feebly.

"You know, I'd like to, but I just couldn'tt. A man's gotta grow up in these parts and know every inch of these mountains till he's able to think like he was a damn ginseng plant before he can do a good job hunting the stuff. Maybe if you was to spend a year or two here I could turn you into a ginseng hunter. How about seventy-five bucks?"

We finally settled on sixty bucks, which of course I had to borrow from Paul, assuring him that we'd easily double or triple our money when we got back to town. I carried that bag around Akron offering everyone, Asian, hippie, hillbilly, whatever, a great bargain on ginseng, and got nothing but blank stares and/or laughter in return. The whole time I'd be gnawing on the roots to keep up my strength, even though they didn't taste nearly as good as the Korean ginseng roots I was used to. In fact, they looked and tasted remarkably like dried parsnips, a vegetable I had never been especially keen on.

I never sold a single piece of ginseng, and within a couple of weeks I'd eaten up most of the stock anyway. That left me owing Paul sixty bucks more on top of whatever I already owed him, and right about then, winter blew in with a sudden blast of snow and ice. I dug up the last of the year's dandelion greens and figured it must be time to move on.

07 February 2006

More Country Stuff

Well, I've just now gotten to see Walk The Line, the Johnny Cash bio-pic. I know it's old news in America, but films seem to take a long time to make their way down to the underside of the world, but never mind that, I've just got to say God bless the US of A for producing country music, rock and roll, the South, and some Hollywood folks clever enough to make some pretty decent movies about it all.

It probably added an extra frisson of enjoyment to be watching the picture in a cinema full of Australians, allowing me, every time there was an especially colourful bit, to smugly assure myself that they couldn't possibly understand what it was really like back in those glory days. And since I was having this conversation with myself, there was no one to rudely interrupt and point out that in the 1950s I was a little kid living a thousand miles away from the Deep South and who almost never heard country music because his daddy hated the stuff.

I say almost never because late at night I could pick up Nashville on my radio upstairs in the attic, and sometimes I'd catch bits of the Grand Ole Opry, which at the age of 9 or 10 I found utterly thrilling, as much because it was coming from so far away as for the music itself. Then there was the time I managed to tune in WWL, from all the way down in New Orleans. I was so excited that I ran downstairs to tell my parents, forgetting that I was supposed to be in bed with the radio off two hours ago.

"I just got New Orleans on the radio," I shouted, to which my dad replied, "That's just great. Next thing we know, you'll be turning into some caterwauling hillbilly."

I never did understand what exactly my dad disliked about the South. His big brother, who he admired immensely, lived in Kentucky, but that was only Louisville, just across the Ohio River. Up in Detroit, we considered that Southern, but I don't think many Southerners would. But in 1956, we packed up our '51 Chevy, the one with cardboard lining the back seat floor to keep the wind and rain from blowing up through the holes, and drove all the way to Louisville to see Uncle Larry, and then kept on driving on down into Tennessee and North Carolina, through the Great Smoky Mountains.

We saw a bear, we saw a Cherokee Indian chief, and in Knoxville, I wandered away from the car and with a sign on the toilets out back that read "Whites Only." I could smell cigarette smoke and hear people talking in thick drawls that I'd only heard in movies before, and the jukebox played that caterwauling hillbilly music my dad hated so much.

And as might be expected, the more my dad scorned the South, the more fascinated I became with it. It's a minor miracle that I never ended up living there, though Ypsi-tucky was a pretty close facsimile. As it turned out, I never even got to spend any serious time down South until I started working with Avail, a great band from Richmond, Virginia. I spent some time hanging out with them in Richmond, and toured the South with them a couple times, taking the opportunity to go travelling off on my own as well, and eventually got to see every state except Louisiana (well, I actually saw Louisiana from across the river; I was just in too much of a hurry to cross over and actually set foot in the place, something I've come to regret, as it's the only one of the lower 48 I've never visited).

Anyway, I'm rambling, damn it, which I suppose you're allowed to do when you're talking about the South and country music and all, but the fact is that I've never seen enough of the place or spent enough time there, which makes me doubly sad since so much of what we once knew as the South has been Wal-marted out of existence. A few years back I was meant to take a couple months' road trip with someone I was supposedly in love with at the time, just the two of us and our guitars, going from town to town. Of course it never happened, and it was probably 20 or 30 years too late to even be thinking about it, but it was - still is - a nice thought.

Oh yeah, the movie: it was generally well done, and kudos to Joaquin Phoenix for doing a creditable job both acting and singing all of Johnny Cash's vocals. But the real revelation was Reese Witherspoon. Loved her in Legally Blonde, sure, but as June Carter, she was an absolute revelation. The woman is a brilliant actress, and, it turns out, a great country singer as well: I waited around for all the credits to roll so I could find out if she'd actually sung the June Carter vocals herself. Yep. And did it so well that if the acting ever stops paying off, she could easily find herself a new gig in Nashville.

There was one really painful bit in the film that I think will cause anyone who's ever performed on stage to cringe, wherein J. Cash turns up at a gig rather worse for wear and makes an utter fool of himself. Apparently I've done this myself, and I only say "apparently" because I have very little memory it. I'm told there's a videotape of the event, but I'm hoping I'll never have to see it. Okay, I'm sure there are many of you out there willing to tell me of all the other times I've disgraced myself in public, and I'd like to beat you to the punch by compiling an extensive list of Embarrassing Potatomen And Lookouts Shows I Have Been A Part Of, but I'm just about out of time and energy for the moment, so we'll have to leave that for another day.

06 February 2006

Back In The Country

That's the title of a great Roy Acuff song, by the way, but then most Roy Acuff songs are great, so I don't need to get all tautological on you.

What got me singing it was, of all things, Brokeback Mountain, which I hadn't been planning to see, on grounds that I wasn't interested in cowboys, and even less so in gay cowboys. But a friend persuaded me to go see it a couple nights ago, and it turned out to be excellent in just about every way.

I wasn't all that enthralled with the love story - it was obvious that was never going to turn out well - but found myself falling in love all over again with country life, which is why I walked home hearing old Roy's voice in my head singing:

Back in the country
Now I know you're gonna say
Back in the country
Don't you wish that you had stayed

The weird thing is, as anyone who's seen the film will know, is that country life as portrayed in Brokeback Mountain doesn't appear all that fetching. It's mean, narrow-minded, hardscrabble, harsh and unforgiving, just like many of my own memories of rural America, and I found myself missing the hell out of it.

My nostalgia was actually triggered on two levels, in fact I could say it was bifurcated if that weren't such a fancy-pants city slicker word. In the mid-60s, around the same time the film starts out, I was living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, about 35 miles west of Detroit. It wasn't "the country" by any stretch of imagination, more a shabby little industrial town with a shabby little college that I had attended for a month and a half before being thrown out. But apart from the college students, known as "pinheads" by the local kids, most of Ypsilanti's inhabitants were recent arrivals from the South, so much so that the place was nicknamed Ypsi-tucky.

After getting booted out of college on my 18th birthday, I went to work in a local factory running wheel drums through a rivet machine. Out of about a hundred men working there, I was the only Yankee, and they frequently let me hear about it. For want of anywhere else to go, I moved into a boarding house where about a dozen of my co-workers lived. It looked and smelled of hard times and desperate loneliness. Everyone there was trying to save up enough money either to move back down South or to bring their girlfriends or families up North. A tinny little radio atop the fridge played constantly, tuned to the local country station, as the hatchet-faced landlady served up greasy eggs and grits and reminded us, "This is as close to home cooking as you bastards are gonna get."

There were no private rooms, and I was considered lucky because I only had to share with one roommate rather than two or three. I said that everyone was from the South, but that wasn't quite true; my roommate was a tight-lipped, taciturn cowboy, recently arrived from Colorado. He kept his boots under his bed and his saddle on a stand at the end of the bed, and every day he'd polish them with a wistful look on his face, as though it was only a matter of time before some cowboy work turned up in the greater Ypsilanti area. In the meantime, he worked the midnight shift at Motor Wheel with the rest of us.

In the wake of Brokeback Mountain, I can no longer tell that story to anyone without getting some leering comments implying that Ed, my cowboy roomie, and I must have then embarked on some star-crossed love affair, but nothing of the sort happened. We talked about cowboy stuff, or rather I listened to him talk about cowboy stuff, and that was just about it. I'd never met a real cowboy before, and thought he was interesting, but I also felt sorry for him, because I knew, even if he didn't, that he was wasting his time polishing up that saddle. He'd be grinding wheel drums for the next 40 years if he didn't drink or smoke himself to death sooner.

I anticipated a similar fate for myself, but life took a few different twists and turns for me, beginning when I drank a couple of six-packs of Pabst Blue Ribbon while trying to learn Hank Williams songs on my new Gibson guitar, passed out and set fire to the sofa with my cigarette. The landlady threw me out, but not before confiscating my guitar and hanging on to it until I handed over several weeks' pay to buy her a new sofa. Being homeless didn't make it easy to keep up my shifts at the factory, not that I was highly motivated anyway, and I spent more time hanging out at the pool hall with the local gang of hillbilly greasers. They were going nowhere fast, or rather, I should say, they were going somewhere fast, that somewhere being Jackson State Prison, as a result of 34 (count 'em) burglaries we pulled in one epic trawl out Michigan Avenue in the early hours of Christmas Eve. I was the only one who didn't get caught, and don't let anyone tell you there's no honour among thieves, because none of them fingered me. Or maybe that's because most of them only knew me as "Pinhead."

Anyway, that sort of shifted me off on another tangent in life, which I'll skip over now, and instead get right to the other bit of nostalgia that Brokeback brought out in me. That, of course, would be the years - most of the 1980s, to be specific - that I spent up on Spy Rock in Northern California. I'd only be living there a few months when I was awakened at 6 am by a lot of "Yee-hah!"s and the sound of thousands of cattle hooves. Out across the canyon, on the opposite ridge, a real live cattle drive was in progress. A week or two later was the Laytonville Rodeo, followed by Willits Frontier Days, and so forth. We didn't just have cowboys around those parts; there were loads of Indians, too, though they mostly stayed out on the reservations apart from when they came into town to get drunk. Of course the majority of folks on our mountain were neither cowboys nor Indians; they were hippies, hillbillies, pot growers, and other social misfits, and in some cases, all of the above. But they adopted cowboy ways, running around on horseback (or three-wheeled motorised tractors), carrying guns and occasionally having shootouts, and saying "Yep" and "Howdy" a lot. A few contrarians lived Indian style, instead, building their own teepees and making buckskin suits out of deer they'd shot, and one half-Indian, half-hippie, used to prowl the woods shooting squirrels to survive. Once he surprised me by climbing out of the woods onto the road where I was walking and wordlessly offered me one of the string of squirrels he had slung over his shoulder.

After a while, things like this began to seem more or less normal, and when I got involved in the punk rock scene, I thought nothing of bringing bands up to stay on their way back from shows up north. I had Operation Ivy up there, and Green Day, but no band ever seemed so out of place as Screeching Weasel. Once safely back in civilisation, Ben memorably started his next MRR column with, "What kind of asshole lives nine miles up the side of a goddam mountain?"

But my most precious memory of Ben's visit to the wilderness came on our way back to San Francisco. We had to stop in Laytonville that Sunday morning, and as it happened, it was rodeo weekend, the biggest event of the year for tiny little Laytonville. There were cowboys and Indians and horses and goat-ropers everywhere, and if that weren't enough, just then a flatbed truck pulled up carrying a couple dozen Woodstock-style hippies, just about every one of them dressed in the most garish tie-dyes imaginable.

This was in June of 1989, and by that time I'd been living in the country for going on eight years, so very little fazed me. Not so for Ben and the rest of Screeching Weasel; the looks on their faces were a combination of sheer terror and deep suspicion that somehow I had arranged all this just to fuck with them.

Well, I've ranged far afield from the beauty of those country mornings and the views out across the Eel River to the snow-capped Yolla Bollys, and the incredible struggle and the incredible joy of making your own way in what looks at first like hostile and inhospitable wilderness but turns out to be, once it's put you through absolute hell trying to survive, the kind of home that gets in your blood and never lets go no matter how far away you wander.

Well, that's my country story for now. I'd tell you more, but the internet cafe is closing down, and anyway, you've got the gist of it, even if you don't see just what the hell, if anything, it has to do with Brokeback Mountain. But at times like this, no matter how warm, safe, comfortable and easy it is to be here in the seemingly endless Sydney summer, I can only say, damn, I miss that old mountain of mine.