Monthly Archives: February 2012

Goodbye, Davy Jones.

At 1:30 pm EST today, NBC News reported: “Singer Davy Jones of The Monkees has died of a heart attack at 66, the medical examiner’s office in Martin County, Fla. has confirmed to NBC News.”

This one really hurts.

Aside from The Beatles, no band stirred my youthful soul like The Monkees. And as a short, dark-haired lad myself, Davy was an inspiration. On episode after episode of The Monkees’ revolutionary television series, Davy showed that the little guy could get the girl.

And Davy’s voice?  And all those great songs? Simply wonderful.

The glorious three-year period from 1966 to 1968 during which Davy Jones and The Monkees challenged The Beatles for the top of the Billboard charts were the greatest years in the history of AM radio – and the formative years of my life.

It’s hard to say where songs like Daydream Believer, I Wanna Be Free, and “Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)” end and I begin.

Three decades after my youthful immersion in late 60’s Monkee Mania, I had the opportunity to write and produce The Monkees: Behind the Music. During the course of my work on that show I met and interviewed Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz, and came away impressed by their warm, easygoing and generous natures. Michael Nesmith was at the time avoiding all things Monkee – but getting Davy on board was still a possibility. So, I called him at his home in Pennsylvania.

Sadly, my call with Davy revealed a conflicted and unhappy man, still struggling with the ups and down of his legendary life as a Monkee. Devoted to his family, his daughters and his horses, Davy was ambivalent about his role as a 60’s pop music icon and his current status as a fading former phenomenon. We talked for nearly an hour. I wish I had written it all down. In the end, Davy passed on being interviewed for my show — but I was honored to have the opportunity to talk to him.

Few performers reach the heights that Davy reached. Alone among The Monkees, he was already a star when he was cast in the band. Heck, he even appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on the same bill with The Beatles. (As the Artful Dodger in a number from the smash Broadway musical, “Oliver”.)

Much will now be written of Davy’s last years. Was he at peace? Was he still troubled? What were the states of his relationships with the other Monkees?

I hope that Peter, Micky and Mike will soon give us their thoughts on the passing of their bantam band mate. Meanwhile, Monkees fans worldwide can only say, “Thanks for the great music, Davy. And all the fun. Rest in peace.”

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Damn Straight: Straight Outa Evanston

My daughter Emilia and her friend and collaborator Mori Einsidler (both Northwestern students) have just dropped their first rap offering on the hip hop public in the leather-clad guise of Damn Straight.

Damn Straight describe themselves as “Two hood chicks straight out of E-town, making their rap debut as SloMo and Small Fry and together forming Damn Straight– the most skilled, most serious and most swagged out rappers in the game.”

Click the album cover to download some Damn Straight joints. Dig SloMo and Small Fry as they rock & rhyme their way from the streets to the clubs, laying down their mad beats and taking on the haters along the way.

Peace out.

(Or is that too square nowadays? I don’t know. I can’t keep up.)

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One Song: Four Artists

A great song has many lives.

Those who write a song give it life – but after that, their song takes on a life of its own: shaped and reimagined through the experience, talents and style of the artists who cover it. And when the song is a great piece of work – a composition that puts a deeply human, emotional message to a beautiful melody – it will have a long life. A great song will be addressed, caressed and blessed by many musicians over the course of decades.

Some great songs seem impossibly visionary and too emotionally mature to have been written by the callow youths who penned them.

Inspired in a dream, 22-year old Paul McCartney gave us “Yesterday” in 1965.

Since then, there have been more than 1,600 recorded covers of that classic gem.

Bob Dylan was only 20 when he wrote “Blowin’ In The Wind” in 1962.

It’s amazing that such poetry, passion and profound wisdom could flow from someone not even old enough to buy a drink in the Greenwich Village folk clubs.

And Jimmy Webb was just 19 years old when he wrote the brilliant romantic musical short story, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” around 1965.

Listen to that song again – and picture a teenager building that heartbreaking classic, verse by verse.

Right around the time that the prodigies Webb and McCartney were writing songs that would become standards, 16-year old Jackson Browne wrote an introspective ballad called “These Days”.

It would be nearly a decade before Browne put the song on his second album, “For Everyman”, in 1973.

Here’s a much older Browne performing “These Days”. The song seems perfect for an older and wiser man looking back on a long, hard life. But as you listen, try to strip away the years – and picture a 16-year old kid writing such lyrics.

Now, I’m not a big fan of Nico, but she did have the good taste to record “These Days” in 1967. Pay attention to the arrangement of her version. Four decades later, you’ll hear the influence of Nico’s arrangement in Glen Campbell’s 2008 cover.

Gregg Allman recorded his own cover of “These Days” for his debut solo album, Laid Back, released in 1973, like Browne’s “For Everyman”. (Allman and Browne were both 25-years old at the time.)

Here’s 41-year old Allman performing “These Days” in 1989, harmonizing with the great Graham Nash. It’s remarkable what an additional 16 years of life experience brings to the performance of a song originally written by a kid who had only been alive for 16 years.

The first time I can remember hearing “These Days” was when Glen Campbell featured it on his 2008 album, “Meet Glen Campbell”. Glen was 72 years old when he sang it – and listening to an older and wiser Glen connect with the song, I thought Jackson Browne had written it recently. Surely, a man with something like Glen’s years and experience created those lyrics, and the melancholy yet somehow hopeful melody they’re strung upon. Maybe Jackson had even written it for Glen? But no.

It’s just another moving example of how a great tune written by a soulful young songwriter of preternatural talent can be given new life by a great artist.

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Trapped in Their Echo Chamber

Fox News, AM Talk Radio — and the Narrowing of the Conservative Mind.

How living in its own echo chamber could doom the GOP at the ballot box this November – and beyond.

For the past two weeks, social conservatives and the Republican Party they dominate appear convinced that they can score electoral points on President Obama by rallying against birth control.

We’ve all heard the breathless back and forth on Fox News and AM radio over “Obama’s War on Religion” as the GOP joined with Catholic bishops to oppose a Federal policy on insurance payments for contraceptives that 28 states already require.

Why are Republican Party leaders picking a fight with President Obama over birth control — when the latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows that 65% of Americans support his position that insurance plans of religiously affiliated employers should cover the cost of birth control – including 64% of independents, 72% of women, and 67% of Catholics?

Why have Republican bigwigs signed on so loudly and stridently to such an unpopular position?

Ironically, the cause of this self-inflicted wound has been the right wing’s greatest success: the institutional and media infrastructure that helped to bring so many conservatives to power since the Reagan era — a vast echo chamber built over the past four decades.

According to Wikipedia, “An echo chamber is a hollow enclosure used to produce echoing sounds, usually for recording purposes.”

But the “echo chamber” I’m talking about is “any situation in which information, ideas or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission inside an ‘enclosed’ space.”

 That “enclosed space” is Fox News, AM talk radio and all those conservative think tanks.

The extreme right wing takeover of the GOP can be traced to the founding of The Heritage Foundation in 1973. Paul Weyrich and Joseph Coors established The Heritage Foundation because they considered President Nixon too liberal. (Imagine that!) The Heritage Foundation was followed in 1977 by The Cato Institute, founded by Edward Crane and Charles Koch, CEO of the second largest private company in America. Together, these two conservative think tanks helped elect Ronald Reagan to the Presidency.

In the 1990’s Fox News Channel became another brick in the conservative echo chamber wall. To run Fox News, Rupert Murdoch hired Roger Ailes, a media consultant for GOP presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. Fox News was launched in 1996 – and has become the dominant cable news network in the United States. This year, Fox News Channel is celebrating 10 years as the top cable news channel – its viewership topping that of MSNBC and CNN combined.

And then there’s conservative talk radio, which rules 90 percent of the political airwaves today.

Right wing gasbag Rush Limbaugh signed an 8-year, $400 million contract extension with Clear Channel in 2008. Twenty years earlier, his national radio career began on WABC in New York. Spouting – and often creating – a litany of right wing talking points, Limbaugh’s fame and influence grew throughout the 1990’s.

Today, Republican leaders fear Rush’s wrath – and fashion their policy positions accordingly.

If you listen to Fox News, AM talk radio and the pundits from conservative think tanks that populate the network and cable news shows and newspaper Op Ed pages, you’d have to believe that opposition to higher taxes on the very wealthy, denial of global warming, and opposition to same sex marriage, contraceptives and labor unions are supported by the majority of Americans.

In the huge echo chamber they’ve created, right wing pundits and politicos, armed with talking points supplied by facile propagandists like Frank Luntz (who for too many years managed to pass himself off as an impartial pollster, quizzing post-debate focus groups on CNN) have beaten the drum for extreme conservative positions while the American electorate has wised up, sized up – and moved to the left.

Trapped in their echo chamber, the GOP fights any tax increase on the wealthiest among us — while according to a January 2012 poll, a whopping 76 percent of Americans support “The Buffett Rule” which would require folks who make more than a million dollars a year to pay the same 30% tax rate that most middle class people pay.

Slaves to their echo chamber, GOP Presidential candidates must deny global warming — despite a recent poll that says the percentage of Americans who believe in global warming has risen to 83%.

In fact, a Yale/George Mason survey way back in May of 2011 found that 71% of Americans think global warming should be a priority for the President and Congress.

Of course, if you pay attention to the right wing echo chamber, there’s nothing more reprehensible than same sex marriage. If gay people are allowed to marry, than all heterosexual marriages are threatened – even Newt Gingrich’s three marriages. Yet a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this February 10th showed that 53% of Americans support gay marriage. That’s a clear majority in favor of Jack marrying Jack and Jill wedding Jill. And those numbers are only going to grow more in favor of same sex marriage, as intolerant dinosaurs die off and today’s far more open-minded youth come of age.

Buoyed by the conservative echo chamber, Republican Governors and legislatures in the Midwest have launched an attack on the labor unions that, for the past eight decades, have fought for worker’s rights and built the American middle class. Yet, despite continuous right wing attacks since Reagan busted PATCO (the air traffic controllers union) in 1980, a majority of Americans are still sticking with the unions. Even though public approval of labor unions is near its low, it’s still at 52%. (And that’s the national number. Don’t mess with the unions in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio.)

While the GOP echo chamber savages President Obama every damn day for indulging in “class warfare” – an increasing majority of Americans are waking up to the reality that the average Big Business CEO is raking in 350 times what the average worker in their company earns. In the right wing echo chamber such obscene income disparity makes sense. But according to an increasing majority of Americans, that’s unfair.

Romney. Santorum. Gingrich.

These three fatally flawed candidates are the gifts of the conservative echo chamber. Their flat-footed feet are nailed to a radical right wing floor.

I have a message for the GOP echo chamber.

In 2012…

You lose…

You lose…

You lose.

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Top Ten Political Bumper Stickers of 2012

I can’t remember who sent them to me*, but not long ago I was sent a link to dozens of new political bumper stickers. These are the ten best.

This first one says it all. “He Won, Get Over It”. Now, I don’t want to say that all the Right Wing resistance to President Obama is based on race – but it’s hard to ignore the virulence that has characterized the GOP response to Obama’s three years of bipartisan outreach. Obama has taken a lot of heat from the left for trying to work with Speaker Boehner and Minority Leader McConnell – but it’s hard to escape the notion that the Old Boys simply won’t (or can’t) play ball with the Jackie Robinson of the American Presidency.

George W. Bush took Democratic President Bill Clinton’s big budget surplus and turned it into a multi-trillion dollar deficit. Remember how George W and his evil henchman, Dick Cheney, mislead (lied) us into the war in Iraq? Now you’ll never hear a GOP candidate mention his name. But we must not forget. George W and his GOP Congress dug us into the impossibly deep hole that President Obama has been trying to dig us out of.

The more you know – the more you’re liberal. That’s why conservatives are dead set against public education. Ignorance is a winner for the GOP. Is it any wonder that Republicans are always attacking public schools? Liberals don’t burn books. Liberals don’t home school. Liberals don’t adopt an anti-intellectual, anti-science pose. Progressives believe the vast majority of scientists on the reality of man-made global warming – and the simple minded folly of “Drill baby, drill!”

I was raised Roman Catholic. So were the 90% of Catholic women who use birth control. The Catholic faithful don’t subscribe to everything the Bishops tell us anymore. Those old men in robes lost the moral high ground even before we knew they looked the other way while priests were buggering children. And don’t even get me started on those 6,000 year-old Earth freaks. I love Jesus and I honor his message of compassion for the poor, the sick and the oppressed. But I don’t believe that so-called “conservative Christians” have any clue about what Jesus was trying to tell us. According to the four Gospels, Jesus said nothing about homosexuality – but he had plenty of negative things to say about divorce. Based on the Gospels, Newt Gingrich’s marital history is far more unchristian than the same sex marriages he opposes.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned the American economy around after three Republican Presidents (Harding, Coolidge and Hoover) ran us into a deep, desperate ditch known as The Great Depression. President Bill Clinton built a budget surplus after 12 years of increasing national debt under Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. And now, President Obama is turning George Dubya’s Recession around. Given the evidence of the past century, the GOP has NO credibility on the American economy, public spending, or the national debt.

Again, I was raised Roman Catholic and attended Catholic school from Kindergarten through 12th Grade – and I do not recognize Right Wing Jesus. If the Jesus of the Gospels had been a U.S. Congressman, He would’ve written the legislation that established Social Security and the social safety net. (Sorry, Newt, but He would have also tried to outlaw divorce.)

Both House Speaker John Boehner (R. Ohio) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R. Kentucky) have stated their primary objective is to make Barak Obama a one-term President. To that end, they’ve done all they can to depress job growth. Unfortunately for Boehner and McConnell, Obama’s Stimulus Package, the Detroit auto bailout, the extension of unemployment benefits, and other economic initiatives against which the GOP fought and lost have led to positive job growth and a slowly but steadily growing economy. Now, the GOP is in the sorry position of having to root against American progress.

Big Blue liberal states like New York and California pay more in Federal taxes than they get back in Federal funds. However, backwater Tea Party states like Alabama and Mississippi pay less in Federal taxes than they receive in Federal funding. So, let’s make a deal, all you Red State conservatives. We in the Blue States will keep 100% of our tax payments – and you good ol’ boys can keep 100% of yours. Good luck building a highway, or a school, or a hospital, you principled Tea Partiers. You’ll be lucky to get your garbage picked up.

‘Nuff said. George W. Bush said he didn’t really pay much attention to Bin Laden. Obama did. Game over.

I hate to say that this virulent Right Wing animus toward President Obama is due to race. (And I’m willing to overlook all the Tea Party rally posters depicting Obama with a bone through his nose, etc.) But the GOP mainstream didn’t accuse President Bill Clinton of being a fascist and a communist and a socialist all at the same time. So, what drives that kind of unreasoning hatred? When Newt Gingrich calls Obama “the food stamp President” – I think his motivation is clear. Am I wrong? Sadly, I doubt it.

Election 2012 is shaping up to be an epochal contest. But don’t assume the good guys will win. Fight. Argue. Vote. We have nothing to fear but our national ignorance.

* Turns out it was our good friend Rob Mendel who forwarded the bumper stickers to me.

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Rockmes @ Mayne Stage

On December 30, 2011, The Practical Theatre Company’s semi-legendary house band Riffmaster & The Rockme Foundation closed the triumphant two-week engagement of “The Vic & Paul Show” at Mayne Stage in Chicago with a raucous night of traditional American garage rock & roll. Here’s a brief glimpse of that gig: two original Rockme songs, performed with the band’s characteristic playful passion. (Dig the groovy rock & roll fans dancing in the foreground!)

The songs?

“Gallery Girl” by Riffmaster Peter Van Wagner (sung by Paul Barrosse & Brad Hall) and “New Orleans” by Paul B. & Rush Pearson (sung by Paul and Rush).

Audio and video recording by Robert Mendel. Thanks, Robbie!

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The King & Abe…

While few Americans other than American Civil War buffs like me seem to be aware of it — we are in the midst of the sesquicentennial of The War Between the States. (Or as many southerners refer to it, The War of Northern Aggression.)

150 years ago today, our country had been at war with itself for nearly ten months — ever since rebellious hotheads in South Carolina fired the first cannonball at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on Friday, April 12, 1861.

Until the 150th anniversary of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 2015, this blog will celebrate the Civil War Sesquicentennial by periodically noting interesting and significant days in Civil War history.

We begin with Monday, February 3, 1862 — and an event that had no military impact, but is damn interesting nonetheless. In fact, as much as I’ve studied the Civil War, today’s 150th anniversary was news to me – and, as I discovered, a subject of debate among Civil War historians.

On this day President Abraham Lincoln wrote what some have called one of the most eloquent letters of his Presidential career. Lincoln had been given a letter from King Mongkut of Siam (originally written to Abe’s predecessor, President James Buchanan). The King of Siam (AKA King Rama IV) offered to send war elephants to America — but Lincoln’s tactful missive noted that he was unable to accept the King’s offer, as the United States were located at a latitude that did not “favor the multiplication of the elephant.”

The King of Siam’s curious letter arrived late in the Buchanan administration, but like other larger problems, Buchanan left it for Lincoln to deal with.

Though it’s a much more exciting story, contrary to popular myth, King Mongkut did not offer a herd of war elephants to President Lincoln for use against the South. Instead, he offered domesticated elephants to use as beasts of burden and a means of transportation. The royal letter was written before the Civil War started, and by the time it reached the White House, Buchanan was no longer in office.

In his reply on February 3, 1862, President Lincoln didn’t mention the Civil War. He declined the King of Siam’s proposal, politely pointing out that steam power had overtaken the need for heavy animal power of this kind.

This exchange between Lincoln and the King of Siam has inspired a great deal of fanciful conjecture. What if the Civil War armies had used war elephants? How would herds of huge, charging, armored pachyderms have changed the course of the critical battles at Fredericksburg, Shiloh and Gettysburg? Would Pickett’s Charge have fared better if Lee’s troops were mounted on elephants?

Here’s the text of Abe Lincoln’s letter to King Rama IV of Siam…

To the King of Siam
February 3, 1862
Abraham Lincoln
President of the United States of America

To His Majesty Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut

King of Siam

Great and Good Friend:

I have received Your Majesty’s two letters of the date of February 14th, 1861.

I have also received in good condition the royal gifts which accompanied those letters, namely, a sword of costly materials and exquisite workmanship; a photographic likeness of Your Majesty and of Your Majesty’s beloved daughter; and also two elephants’ tusks of length and magnitude such as indicate that they could have belonged only to an animal which was a native of Siam.

Your Majesty’s letters show an understanding that our laws forbid the President from receiving these rich presents as personal treasures. They are therefore accepted in accordance with Your Majesty’s desire as tokens of your good will and friendship for the American People. Congress being now in session at this capital, I have had great pleasure in making known to them this manifestation of Your Majesty’s munificence and kind consideration.

Under their directions the gifts will be placed among the archives of the Government, where they will remain perpetually as tokens of mutual esteem and pacific dispositions more honorable to both nations than any trophies of conquest could be.

I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this Government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised on our own soil. This Government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States.

Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land, as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.

I shall have occasion at no distant day to transmit to Your Majesty some token of indication of the high sense which this Government entertains of Your Majesty’s friendship.

Meantime, wishing for Your Majesty a long and happy life, and for the generous and emulous People of Siam the highest possible prosperity, I commend both to the blessing of Almighty God.

Your Good Friend,
ABRAHAM LINCOLN
Washington, February 3, 1862.

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