Christmas with Hendrix and the Beats


From an odd little Christmas story, well told:

I took a seat on one of the pews several rows back from the front. They began playing a tape Allen Ginsberg had sent from somewhere upstate for the occasion, reading his poetry in his distinctive cadences, cheerful no matter the subject matter. Ginsberg’s chant was filling the church when I smelled a woosh of patchouli oil to my right. I turned just as Jimi Hendrix slid in and sat down next to me.

What planet was Hendrix from? He didn’t hang around very long on this one, but his spirit still lingers.

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The flaw in the law regarding presidents

third douglass

Swamp Rabbit had commandeered my laptop and was reading aloud from a column by David Blight, who got rave reviews for his recently published biography of abolitionist orator and writer Frederick Douglass:

Douglass left a timeless maxim for republics in times of crisis: “Our government may at some time be in the hands of a bad man. When in the hands of a good man it is all well enough.” But “we ought to have our government so shaped that even when in the hands of a bad man we shall be safe.”

The bad man in Douglass’s world was President Andrew Johnson, an unreconstructed racist who was impeached and very narrowly avoided being kicked out of office.  But Blight, in his column, was also making a point about our current president — who is as bad as Johnson, or worse — and the flaws in the Constitution that allow truly rotten presidents like Donald Trump and Johnson to abuse the power of the office in a big way.

“Them Founding Fathers really blew it,” Swamp Rabbit said.

He explained that there’s no legal remedy for a president who sucks up to foreign dictators. A president who wants to scuttle healthcare reforms, stir up hatred of minorities and foreigners, sabotage efforts to slow climate change, and use the presidency as a vehicle for further enriching  himself.

Impeachment is supposed to be an option, but a corrupt and/or mentally imbalanced president isn’t likely to be kicked out of office while the party he belongs to controls the House or Senate. (So much for checks and balances.) And there’s the 25th Amendment, but that wouldn’t work either.

“Them legal scholars don’t even know if a president can be indicted for committing crimes while in office,” the rabbit said. ” Or how to keep him from blowing up the world if he’s in a foul mood.”

“So how do we fix the problem, rabbit?” I said. “Does everything depend on what Robert Mueller finds?”

He called up an article by a psychiatrist who, together with a bunch of other shrinks, devised a plan that would require a president-elect to take a fitness-for-duty exam before assuming office. She explained that the test would measure “trust, discipline and self-control, judgment and critical thinking, self-awareness and empathy,” just like the U.S. Army’s field manual.

“I saw that,” I said, “But how can a test prove what the shrink called psychological pathology? What if Trump’s bad behavior is part of a calculated effort to please the kooks and bigots that make up his base?”

“Them’s good questions,” the rabbit conceded. “The shrinks ain’t quite thought it through, I reckon.”

“So we’re stuck with a loose cannon who holds the nuclear codes,” I said. “What’s your solution?”

“I ain’t got one yet,” the rabbit said, closing my laptop. “I’d ask that Douglass dude, but he left the building in 1895.”

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Terrible humans hire terrible humans

File this one under “It takes one to know one” :

President Trump has named Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, as acting White House chief of staff.

In response to the announcement, Mulvaney tweeted: “This is a tremendous honor. I look forward to working with the President and the entire team. It’s going to be a great 2019!”

However, in a 2016 video surfaced by the Daily Beast, Mulvaney called Trump a “terrible human being,” just days before the presidential election.

Mulvaney is the pernicious little grifter appointed last year by Trump to sabotage the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Sen. Elizabeth Warren helped create to prevent payday lenders and other bottom feeders from fleecing the poor. After Mulvaney’s mission was accomplished, Trump sent him to the OMB.

Now Mulvaney is replacing John Kelly, the four-star bigot who couldn’t keep a lid on his contempt for Trump. The new chief of staff is as terrible as Kelly and should feel right at home in Trump’s Cabinet, a who’s who of terrible humans hand-picked to wreak havoc on the federal government.

I mean people like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, hired by Trump to help destroy the public school system; Andrew Wheeler, the former coal industry lobbyist (!) currently in charge of neutering the Environmental Protection Agency; Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin,  dubbed “the foreclosure king” after he made a fortune using deceptive business practices to help banks foreclose on legions of homeowners who fell behind on mortgage payments during the Great Recession.

There are many more, but I can’t go on, it’s too terrible. Pardon the Taxi Driver reference, but let’s just hope the Mueller probe and other investigations bring a real rain that washes Trump and all his scum out of the White House.

And let’s hope the rain comes before Trump does something really terrible in a last-ditch effort to stay in  office.


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Soup’s on, Manafort!

What’s up with the smooth operator in the ostrich-skin jacket? He made a deal to tell the truth to the special prosecutor, ostensibly to get some years shaved off his prison time, but then he continued to lie for Donald Trump. I think Charles Pierce is on the right track:

The question, of course, is whether Manafort is completely stupid, overwhelmingly confident that he will be pardoned, or simply frightened by something even more terrifying than the prospect of spending his declining years in the federal sneezer—something like, say, a lovely bowl of strontium-90, served up to him by a concerned former overseas client. I used to laugh the latter explanation off. I don’t do that anymore. Something is happening in Manafort’s brainbox that dwarfs in his mind anything Mueller can do to him.

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Digging deep for ‘new’ Beatles gold

I blew my mind out in a car, driving home from a gig in Bethlehem, PA, listening to “Glass Onion” on the radio. First Ringo’s snare and then bang, the whole bad-ass rhythm section and John singing I told you ’bout strawberry fields… Three verses altogether, with a bridge between the second and third. Oh yeah. The cryptic lyrical references to earlier Beatles songs. Each verse ending with Looking through a glass onion. The string section swooning at the eerie fade-out.

I thought whoa, they don’t make them like that anymore, do they? As if to underscore my thought, the DJ instantly played “Glass Onion” again. Afterwards, she announced that she’d actually played two different versions of the song,  in connection with the recent release of a six-CD remix of the Beatles’ The White Album.

“I couldn’t tell the one version from the other,” I told Swamp Rabbit when I got back to the shack. “They both sounded great. I’d buy the whole boxed set if I could afford it.”

“Why do a fool thing like that?” the rabbit grumbled. “It’s a lot cheaper to stream music.”

I had to think about that. You could argue that the purchase would be worth it. Co-producer Giles Martin — son of George Martin, the “fifth Beatle” — did a great job of giving The White Album a “sonic tune-up” without messing around too much with the group’s artistic intentions.

But you could also argue that it’s pathetic of me to think about satisfying my craving for new music by purchasing yet another expensive remix of 50-year-old Beatles songs, even if the sound quality is great.

“What you care about sound quality?” the rabbit said. “The only CD player you own is the one in your beat-up old laptop.  Just stream songs to your phone.”

My drunken friend had a point. I’m no audiophile, and the culture has changed. Technology marches on. CDs are becoming a thing of the past as streaming services take over. Recorded music has become more mobile, more affordable, more disposable.  This is good for casual listeners but bad for new artists, who can’t make nearly as much money on streamed recordings as artists made on vinyl and CDs in the old days.

I thought of those miners in South Africa who have had to dig thousands of feet farther underground to find new gold. How much deeper can the record companies dig before they extract the last classic-rock nuggets?

“Where are the new mines, the new sounds, the new artists for the ages?” I said.

“Maybe they’re out there, maybe they ain’t,” the rabbit replied. “One thing for sure is you ain’t gonna find them by living in the past.”

Footnote: There are 125 tracks in all, if you count the demos and session takes. As one snarky critic put it: “The market for a set like this is limited to fetishists and completists and that strange baby-boomer contingent that can’t quite let go of the idea of actually owning one’s own music.” I’m still in the latter category — I like liner notes and cover art and so on — but I’m not buying the boxed set.


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Stan Lee’s fan base — kids of all ages

After reading of Stan Lee’s death, I took an imaginary walk through my old neighborhood, past Mitchell schoolyard and Most Blessed Sacrament church,  to Chester Avenue and Whelan’s variety store, which stocked the Marvel comic books I read in my pre-teen years, before sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll stole my soul.

Old Man Whelan’s narrow little domain was crammed with an eclectic and impossibly large inventory of practical goods and practical-joke items. He grumbled non-stop while selling everything from pantyhose to fake dog poop.

Most kids came for the comic books, which cost 12 cents each in those days. Discriminating readers bought Marvel comics,  which featured the full-color exploits of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and other superheroes who — thanks to Lee, and to Steve Ditko and other super-talented illustrators —  were way cooler than Superman, Batman and the other stars on the DC comics roster.

DC’s costumed crime fighters looked stilted and seemed stuck in the 1950s.  Marvel’s characters were hip and ironic and came alive on the page, partly because they were presented as flawed and angst-ridden, all-too-human despite their super-powers. They seemed realistic, once you accepted the idea that they could climb sheer walls (Spider-Man) or throw fireballs (Human Torch) or disappear at will (Invisible Girl).

My sixth-grade friends and I understood that Lee’s superheroes, in or out of their costumes, felt like outsiders.  We felt like outsiders, growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood where conformity was valued a lot more than education. Lee was our hero because his heroes and villains used multi-syllabic words (“I have become invulnerable!”) and his stories were socially relevant. We were comic-book snobs.

I remember wishing the Marvel gang could be brought to life on the big screen, but this didn’t happen until decades later, when special effects technology caught up with Lee and his illustrators.  Lee himself lived long enough (95!) to see his visions realized in those multi-million-dollar Marvel blockbusters that Hollywood keeps cranking out.

It’s strange when you think about it — the fact that so many adults these days — men, mostly — enjoy and identify with comic book heroes as much or more than their children do.  I’ll guessing many of them don’t think of themselves as outsiders and didn’t use Lee’s comics as stepping stones to books and movies for grown-ups.

Lee was an artist and a pop culture visionary, and a grown-up. He didn’t equate his comics with the Great American Novel that he had aspired to write as a young man. But many of his grown-up fans don’t seem to see the difference between the one and the other.

I’m not sure what that’s about — nostalgia, arrested development, postmodernism, the dumbed-down media. Whatever. As Lee might have said, “That’s a question for the sociologists.”


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Will media admit to being duped? Nope

I’ll bet a lot of reporters and editors and talking heads hated Krugman for stating the obvious a week before the midterms:

But here’s the thing: Trump supporters aren’t the only people trying to pretend that he’s only doing what everyone does, that Democrats are just as bad and equally liable for the explosion of hatred. False equivalence, portraying the parties as symmetric even when they clearly aren’t, has long been the norm among self-proclaimed centrists and some influential media figures. It’s a stance that has hugely benefited the GOP, as it has increasingly become the party of right-wing extremists.

False equivalence. Let’s present the Trump’s scary “caravan” story as if were factual. even though it is transparently false.  (Not all of the journalists who operate this way work at Fox News.)

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