Monday, June 19, 2017

On Trump and Goat Gonads

On Snake oil, Country Music and the Future of the Planet

In 1991, when French super-model and future first-lady of France, Carla Bruni, was falsely accused of having an affair with Donald Trump (by Donald Trump), her response was that she had no romantic interest whatsoever in someone she termed, “the King of Tacky.”[i]
Observations like this were commonplace in news outlets back in the 90s when Trump was manipulating journalists into portraying him as a “playboy”. And indeed, who would care whether he was or not. Right?

But let’s not fool ourselves. Large swaths of Americans spend their waking lives caring very much about such things and, due to the craven nature of for-profit journalism, such things found their way into print and the airwaves ad naseum. It was no secret, then, to anyone even mildly paying attention to the proclivities of headline writers that, long before he rocketed himself into his present gig by manipulating craven journalists into similar contortions, Trump was a sleaze. In fact, he was quite proud of it and, in the under-regulated high-powered business world created for sleazes by every president since Reagan within which he operated, he used his sleaziness to his financial advantage.

Now that he’s our president, we find that he is still a sleaze, and we are shocked? This is just an observation, and I don’t want to make too much of it because, God knows we’ve had some close calls before. Nixon comes to mind, Bush the Younger, Bill Clinton etc. etc... but Trump is the Proof in the Pudding. The Genuine Article, a certified sleaze with verifiable Mafia connections as our president, and so it seems to me we should be able to use this as a Learning Moment for the advancement of our ultimate betterment.

Which of course we’re not doing, dammit! And furthermore, what kind of Kool-Aid has the aforementioned-craven punditocracy been drinking that they must now collectively gnash their perfect teeth and rend their trendy garments in public displays at how horrified they are that such an unimaginable thing as a Banana-Republic-quality crook in our White House coming to pass? And furthermore still: What kind of sleeping pills has America been on all these years to not have seen this train wreck meeting a wrecking ball coming? (Hint: television, but that’s for another blog).

Well, as a folk musician as well as a mere mortal, I like to pretend I know the answers to hefty questions. After all, human pathos and the quirky stories spun off of that amoeba are what folk music is all about, isn’t it?

Reality, though, is something that folk musicians like to ignore as much as anyone else, and so I have to admit that--in reality--folk music doesn’t give you any more insights than, say, herding chickens. But I do think it does give you some hints at a few of those hefty answers’ clues which, I know, is pretty tenuous grounds to opine from on such a subject as fascism (which is the subject I’m talking about). But since any attempt to explain the origins of this mess from any other quarter, from physics to psychotherapy to homeopathy, has been equally nebulous, and since walking on clouds (nebulae) is the essence of music in general and folk music in particular, I insist on making the attempt.

Therefore, drawing on the depth of my decades of experience singing country-western songs with my tongue firmly in cheek (which takes lots of practice, let me tell you!) I’d like to at least suggest a perhaps-more pertinent question that addresses our present fascist moment:

What is it about snake oil salesmen that Americans just can’t seem to resist?

To point: In 1923, a 38-year-old man bought a radio station in Kansas to promote his booming business of transplanting goat testicles into men’s scrotums to cure impotency. KFKB was one of only four radio stations in the whole country at the time and by 1928, when Dr. John R. Brinkley had it ramped up to 5 kilowatts, it was one of the most powerful stations licensed by the newly-created Federal Radio Commission (FRC). Ironically, the FRC was created specifically to referee this new and powerful mass-medium on behalf of the “public interest”. This was because after only a few years of existence these newly discovered public “airwaves were being sorely abused by the likes of--you guessed it-- Dr. John R. Brinkley, who was making himself a small fortune by airing “hillbilly music” to attract listeners in order to hawk his goat-gland operations as well as to sell large quantities of such formerly-rare items as autographed pictures of Jesus. Given the power of these newly-discovered airwaves, maybe this was inevitable, and don’t get me wrong. It really was miraculous how many autographed pictures of Jesus turned up after commercial radio appeared. But our ever-perceptive Congress duly-perceived that something, even if only a little something, needed to be done, and so they did it, and in so doing they rocketed the goat-gland “doctor” into radio and country music history as a pioneer of both. Not bad for a man who, far from being a real doctor, started his career as an actual snake oil-salesman back before synthetic snake oil was invented. “Dr.” Brinkley was the Real Deal, the Genuine Article and, as with “President” Trump, he was no ordinary man.

Briefly: Brinkley grew up poor in North Carolina where his father, a Confederate Army medic who parlayed that bloody experience into becoming a “country doctor” back home, started out his own working life at 16 with Western Union as a telegrapher. Honest enough work, and it apparently got him by, but he figured himself destined for greater things than tapping out Morse Code over thin and fickle wires. He wanted to be a doctor, and as soon as he came of age, he and his young wife went on the road posing as Quaker doctors, travelling the rural circuit giving medicine shows where they hawked virility tonics and other “patent medicines”.

After a while they settled in Chicago where Brinkley attended Bennett Medical College, an unaccredited school specializing in “eclectic medicine”. After some ups and downs he eventually finished his “studies” which amounted to his purchasing a degree from the Kansas City Eclectic Medical University, a diploma mill. After that, he pulled a stint in North Carolina where he and a partner opened up a storefront clinic selling shots filled with colored water they claimed was “electric medicine from Germany” and then there was a quick exit from that town and its creditors. But his “eclectic” medical degree allowed him to practice medicine in eight states, and Brinkley finally answered an ad to take over the office of a doctor in Milford, Kansas, which is where he set up his goat-gland “treatment” clinic.  After a short series of serendipitous publicity coups, including the birth of a child who, if you followed the thread of the con to its natural conclusion was part goat, business blossomed and more opportunities availed. Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times, became a “believer” and “reported” on him, which gave Brinkley the free publicity he needed to expand his business to movie stars (Sound familiar? In modern Trumpian terms, think CBS, Ted Nugent and Clint Eastwood). He would have moved his “clinic” to L.A. except that California was one of the states that didn’t recognize “eclectic” medical degrees.

What Brinkley had done, and what the “eclectic medical schools” had no doubt taught him, was to tap into the ancient, bottomless—and huge--demand for aphrodisiacs. Brinkley, who apparently had an intuitive understanding of capitalism (i.e., you don’t need to be honest to be successful, you just need a good business model and a good line) hired an advertising agent, began a direct mail blitz and promoted his soundbite. “Be the ram that am with every lamb.” And Voila! Lessons learned about selling snake oil in America. First: have a good business model and second: speak American, the latter being far more important than the first and has been used by every one of a long, long line of successful charlatans in this country who followed him. Don’t over-worry about telling the truth, the Golden Rule goes, but whatever you do say, say it in American.

And lo! Business boomed some more, and by the time commercial radio came along, Brinkley was well off enough to buy a station, and through it he quickly proved that by applying the Golden Rule of Piracy (er…I mean Capitalism) to this now-limitless audience, you could reap spangly success, which is what he did. People came from all over the country to rejuvenate themselves, and, as was inevitable in the course of such things, more than a few of them started dying. No one knows how many people actually paid the ultimate price for horniness, but Brinkley officially signed several dozen death certificates for people who showed up healthy at his clinic and then headed south. A chain of events followed: The American Medical Association got wise and started hounding him, the FRC was invented by Congress (in 1928, in no small part to further hound Brinkley), and eventually he lost his license. His response was to sue the FRC and run for Governor of Kansas, which race he lost by a mere hair. He lost his lawsuit, too, and in doing so established one of the early landmark cases in broadcast law. The 1931 decision, KFKB Broadcasting Assoc. vs FRC, answered fundamental questions concerning how far the newly-minted FRC could go in denying station licenses by determining what programming is or is not in the public interest. It defined our newly-discovered airwaves as being Public Domain, to be regulated by the FRC (later the FCC) for the public good. That meant (and, notwithstanding the punditocracy who tells you differently, still means) that you can’t legally use your expensive bandwidths to sell such things as goat-testicle operations, autographed pictures of Jesus or almost any of the various snake oils that have been the cornerstone of FoxNews and Clearchannel these last three decades since Reagan flushed the core of that decision, the Fairness Doctrine, down the toilet (again, another blog).

So Brinkley lost his license but remember, Brinkley, like Trump, was no ordinary man. He was a visionary, could see the future in fact, and like so many mountebanks who followed in his footsteps he also headed south, physically, to Mexico. The reason for this was that when the United States divided up North America’s bandwidths, it gave none of them to Mexico where the “public interest” apparently did not apply in the minds of the dividers. Mexico got righteously pissed-off at its ever-imperious northern neighbor (an old, old story) and were glad to grant Brinkley a fifty-thousand-watt radio license that could step all over America’s radio stations. Brinkley's XERA AM became the first of what would be a plethora of X-series radio stations, the so-called “border blasters”. Brinkley set up XERA in Villa Acuna, Coahuila, just south of border from Del Rio, Texas, where he in turn built his new, expanded “clinic” and dubbed XERA “the sunshine station between the nations.” Thus on the border, Brinkley re-applied his possibly-most-important rule of American Snakeoilsmanship once again, and once again Americans flocked, business boomed.

As Brinkley well knew, fifty-thousand watts was more than enough to reach Kansas, so he ran for governor there again, using the telephone to call in broadcasts to the transmitter. When Congress declared this assault on the public interest illegal (specifically via the Brinkley Act) he pioneered the first pre-recording technology in order to circumvent his namesake law. He lost his second bid for governor, but XERA quickly ramped up to 150,000 watts, and then to a million, making it the most powerful station on the planet and, almost incidentally, more powerful than the Governor of Kansas. It could be heard as far away as Canada and along the border towns it could be tuned in over barbed wire fences and dental devices. Healthy? No. American? Yes.

So that’s how Brinkley became a pioneer in radio broadcasting, institutionalizing the form of early-20th century tonic-hawking that has now, unfortunately, become unquestioned staples to us, and this is a big thing to thank a snake oil salesman for. But maybe the biggest thing we can thank Brinkley for is pioneering the paradigm he established for radio entertainment, the “hillbilly music” medium through which he sold his goat gonads and Jesus paraphernalia.

The genesis of modern, commercial country music is usually traced back to the Bristol, Tennessee sessions, which, in a general way, is true. The Victor Talking Machine Company, under the direction of Ralph Peer (talent scout, record producer and pioneer in field recordings) recruited a few talented locals steeped in the regional Appalachian music, recorded them at a warehouse in Bristol and then sold the recordings on the burgeoning “hillbilly” record market that Peer was also helping to establish. Jimmie Rogers and the Carter Family showed up at these sessions, Peer recorded them and those recordings in turn established the commercial standard that still reverberates deeply throughout the industry today, in no small part because of XERA AM.
Jimmie Rogers had died of tuberculosis by the time Brinkley cranked up XERA in the mid-30s, but by the late 30s the Carter Family was a live staple on the air, along with many other up-and-coming country acts like Red Foley, Patsy Montana and Gene Autry. Music historian, Bill C. Malone has written that “the border stations popularized hillbilly music throughout the United States and laid the basis for country music's great popularity in the late '40s and early '50s," [ii] which is about right. Waylon Jennings, who grew up in Littlefield, Texas, remembers his father pulling the family truck up next to the house and running battery cables to the radio so he could listen to the Carter Family. Johnny Cash cites the border stations as having a major influence on his music as well as being where he first heard his future wife--June Carter, then 10 years old—sing. Brinkley’s influence on modern American culture—and snakeoilsalesmanship—can’t be overestimated.
The Carters came by their material honestly and organically, through the folk-process of listening to other people play the old, old songs and tunes and then copying it, and copying it well. Their material remains among the gems of the public domain and I am thankful they were preserved. But something else besides cultural preservation was going on in Peer’s mind and, later, in Brinkley’s. The music of the ages became a product, a copyrighted one, to be bought and sold, and to be used to sell other “products” such as goat-gonad operations and pictures of Jesus, which is exactly what Brinkley used early commercial country music for and, as an industry, it has never fully recovered.

I’ve had conversations with now-elderly people who gravitated toward 50s-era rock ‘n roll because they couldn’t stand country music. “It’s so commercial!” they would say in various ways, and I would wonder about that, because I always use the music in its truncated form, as songs, and I dearly love them. The best of them speak to a history most of us have forgotten. But I’ll just make a leap hear and leave you to your own wondering (or damning):

Have you ever wondered how we got to the state of affairs where someone could get in front of a T.V. camera and claim with a straight face that Obama was a Kenyan? Or that Sandy Hook didn’t happen? Or that military-style weapons with mega-round clips should be sold in supermarkets? Or that a sleazy real-estate mogul who lies about his sex life in front of millions would make a good president?

Well, they’re just following in the footsteps of Dr. John R. Brinkley, early pioneer of radio, and, sad to say, "politicians" like the current Donald Trump. When you add in the evolution of country music, it’s plain that the problem goes right to the core of our being. We let the bastards get away with it with our own culture! And now the con virtually IS our own culture! What to do?

How about, for a start, speaking American? It’s got (that’s right—not “it has”) a proven history of spangly success, much more so than position papers or intellectual talking points about animal rights. Follow the basic rule that any credible artist in any medium follows, even the con artists. Consider your audience, and then speak to it. You don’t have to be a snake oil salesman and God knows, it’s not rocket science and it ain’t cheatin’.

And I ain’t lyin’.

[i]Johnson, David Cay; ‘The Making of Donald Trump’, Melville House 2017, p. 143

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Special Prosecutor Now

In “days of old when knights were bold and toilets weren’t invented…” the Royal Ones whom we nostalgically elevate and glorify in movies and TV shows (“Game of Thrones”, “Star Wars” etc. etc. etc. etc…), were, in reality, monsters. For instance, “charity” in those days meant, to the Royal Ones at least, throwing the rotting leftovers from your sumptuous meals out into the streets in a location meant for beggars to pick through. Given the fact that the European strain of American democracy that fermented on this continent was conceived and predicated on the notion that that sort of thing was to be forever verboten here, a dispassionate observer (say, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional Tralfalmadorians[i]) wouldn’t be able to avoid noting how ubiquitous, constant and inexplicable this nostalgia about long-gone royalty from an alternative-facts world is.  As Vonnegut observed in his book about an American Nazi during WWII, ‘Mother Night’, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”[ii]
All this is a lot to expect a reader to digest in one paragraph, I know. But you’ll have to agree it’s nothing compared to the latest tidbit that fell off the edge of the Trump Dynasty’s golden spread last weekend? Are all you beggars ready to chomp down on this one? Here goes:
“…As supporters and opponents digested the provisions of the healthcare bill passed by the House…a letter revealed the Pentagon was finalising a lease on a privately owned apartment in Trump Tower for the use of the White House Military Office, which carries and safeguards the “football”, the device that contains the top secret launch codes the president needs if he wants to order a nuclear attack…”[iii]
Remember that bacteria was unknown in medieval times, so if you threw up or died from eating rotten food it was considered the Will of God. So consider, as we devolve back to those good ol’ Dark Ages when everybody knew their place (etc. etc. etc. etc…), is it the Will of God that our Orange Despot-wannabe is arranging to have “the button” secreted away on his “private property” at our expense for his financial gain??!!?
What kind of monster is this, and what kind of monsters have we become to allow such a thing?
Call your representatives. Now. Demand a special prosecutor. Now. Call Mitch Mcconnell (202) 224-2541 and Paul Ryan (888) 752-4050. Call them traitors. Be polite if you want to be, but I don’t think it’s necessary at this point.
Make them jump. 

[i]...they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber's friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time…” Slaughterhouse Five, p. 26
[ii] Credit to author and playwright David Macaray for remembering that one.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Talkin' Bomb Shelter Blues

Steal This Song

Our "leaders" and our craven media are once again trying to sell us on the idea of nuclear war as a do-able thing. This has happened before. Below are the lyrics to "Talkin' Bomb Shelters Blues", a song I wrote in the early 80s when the Reagan people (every bit as crazy and murderous as the Trump team) were trying to sell us on the idea of "refurbishing" our bomb shelters as a first step down the mental rathole of accepting the idea of nuclear war. 

Well I picked up a paper the other day
and was surprised to see the front page say
our bomb shelters were under stashed
in the event of a nuclear holocaust.

Our concerned president was underway
to try and get us citizens to pay
for a years supply of canned air and grits
so we'll be prepared for when the big one hits.
(y'know, everything that makes life worthwhile, canned asparagus, DVDs, condums…)

I remember bomb shelters from long ago
when folks were spendin' lots of dough
diggin' holes in their backyards and fillin' 'em with cement
and callin' 'em security, an investment!
(They'd take out loans on 'em, which is mighty strange when you think about it a certain way, but what's stranger was the banks would give 'em to 'em!)

Well, I put down that paper and I felt sad
it took a little while and I got mad
about all the jive that I have heard
'bout how the world has had it, so give it the bird.

There's Mister Big saying' bigger is better
and the bigger the big, well the better the better
and if we gotta fight big to get the better
lets all get fried in the glorious together!
(we'll make the whole world one big strip mine. Then we'll all be rich…right?)

And there's plenty of Doomsday tales for you
some comet's gonna split the Earth right in two
California's gonna shake of right about Texas
or the planets lining up for a big Solar Plexis.

And theres all those religions goin' round
circling' down on the ol' common ground
Say the end is comin' and it's comin' fast
so forget this world, save your spirit's ass.

But wait a minute…

Have you seen the sky turn grey and then turn blue?
Have you listened to the rivers and the mountains, too?
Don't you think there's something bigger here than me and you
tryin' to tell us get together before it's through?

And if they push the button like the sayin' goes
and the world turns on like a big light bulb
and you're down in some hole with no night or day
What the hell you want to live for anyway?

So when you're talkin' bomb shelters, you're talkin' defeat
when you fix 'em up you can have my seat
I'll be up here tryin' to make ends meet
not down in some hole playin' hide and seek.
(I ha….ate canned asparagus!!!)

Any questions?

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Remember Nuclear War?

Donald Trump Holding Court at Mar-A-Lago Grasping Golden Tomahawk Missiles While President Xi Jinping (in background) Runs Away
Leaked Virtual Brain Imaging (VBI) from Trump's thinking on April 6, 2017, compiled from state-of-art Ratheon Spying technology

Here's a quiz.

Do you know where your president was when he launched World War 4 (with North Korea and China)?

We know he launched World War 3 (against Syria, Iran and Russia) from his vacation palace at Mar-A-Lago (which, in Spanish means: "Sea-A-Lake" which is a perfectly normal name) while having a friendly visit with his friend, Chinese President Xi Jinping, which is perfectly normal for "the Trump Era"[i].

While some expert pundits who are very impressed with the size of Trump's missiles are not sure whether there have actually been any world wars launched from vacation palaces since the days of the Louis the 14th (the Sun King) and his Palace of Versailles a few hundred years ago, they are comfortable with the notion that a U.S. president vacationing through existential world crises of his own manufacture is, in a word, normal. In fact, everybody who's anybody is valuing their "down time" over our species' survival these days. It's all the rage.

Just look at Congress, the pundits point out to their consumers (us). Right after World War 3 was safely launched from Trump's overstuffed throne, and also immediately proceeding their criminal embedding of a corporate fascist into our Supreme Court, this corporate, fee-for-use Congress went on their own vacations, leaving Trump at peace to start the military gears churning toward World War 4 (against North Korea and China).  

Pundits generally agree then, and it should furthermore go without saying to any premature Putin-lovers out there, that too many cooks spoil the broth, and that there is obviously no need for Congress to do any of that arcane and expensive advise-and-consent stuff. Why not save the taxpayers a few bucks then, and let the Congress just go home for a little golf or whatever, which of course should not include reaching out to their constituents (consumers) to gauge how We The People (consumers) actually feel about all of this perfectly normal stuff because, you know, reaching out is very, very expensive, not normal in the Trump Era and therefore no longer necessary.

So I want to be very clear here, that I also think all of this is very, very normal and that I really don't mean to blame those poor, overworked pundits and congresspeople for not doing their jobs during an existential worldwide crisis of their own making. After all, they earned their stock options just with their Gorsuch heist, don't you agree?

But something is bothering me, nevertheless, and I have to say that I'm still wondering where Donald Trump physically was when he launched World War 4 (against North Korea and China).

Did he actually have the audacity to launch two world wars from an overstuffed throne at his vacation palace? 

I know it's just a technicality now, because all of this is so very, very, very normal. But what I'm wondering is this: 

Are there any U.S. leaders not on vacation while they collectively threaten to fry our whole wide world including our children, grandchildren and hope itself?

All Hail the Sun King, then?

When America was Great
Atomic Annie bombing the Nevada desert because it chose to resist.

[i] Jeff Sessions, 4/11/17