Saturday, September 30, 2017

Manifest Destiny: A Pilgrim's Perspective

When I think of Bigotry in America I think of 1979 and of my friend, Bob, who firmly believed that mixing food and whiskey was a waste of both.
We were working for a fish-buying company located on the west coast of the Olympic Peninsula, about 100 miles north of Fort Clatsop, where Lewis and Clark ended their westward march through the Native Nations. I was a twenty-something dockhand, Vietnam War vintage. Bob was in his mid-fifties. World War Two vintage. All of us lived in a makeshift seasonal settlement located on the beach right behind a corrugated metal icehouse--me in my hippie van, Bob and his wife in a travel trailer. The office Bob worked in was an old converted refrigerator truck parked on blocks at the end of the dock. 
The beach, as well as our own picturesque existence, was within a small Reservation belonging to the Quileute Nation, and sat adjacent to Olympic National Park, whose rugged, unpopulated coastline was as wild and clean—at that time--as the American Frontier I imagined my ancestors have known for hundreds of years. I liked Bob in part because he reminded me of who I thought they were. He had the essential elements of a genuinely rustic character with the sophisticated edge to at least have thoughtful opinions about whiskey, He wasn't getting rich, or even trying to. He was there because he wanted to be, just like me, and in that way we were related. I felt lucky, and I guess he felt it, too.
1979 was a watershed year for non-native fishermen. Indigenous salmon populations were starting their inevitable decline due to dams and overharvesting. Worse for fishermen of Northern European descent, with whom our fish dock mostly worked, a recent U.S. District Court decision had given half of the yearly allowable salmon harvest to tribal members in belated acknowledgement of treaty rights. The Boldt Decision (after Judge George Boldt who made the ruling), effectively docked non-native boats in the harbor for more and more days of an already limited season. When they could go out they didn't catch as much as they used to because there weren't as many fish. So their debts mounted up like memories, and some began to go out of business. A good few of them were looking for someone to blame.
          One afternoon, Bob and I were sitting in the sun sipping whiskey. It was a “closed-season” day, so we had time on our hands, which meant we weren’t making any money. But it was one of those rare, radiantly blue Olympic-coast summer days, the kind you aim your life towards in the hopes of hitting as many of them as you can, and as we watched a tribal member motor his hand-carved cedar canoe out to check his gill net near the river mouth across from us I was feeling pretty smug. Bob must have been feeling equally smug, so smug that he decided to let fly with a comment that was transcendental for me, because I never knew til then that I could live through history, touch my pioneer ancestors on the back of the neck and ask them “What the hell?”
"These Indians", Bob announced, "should just feel lucky we didn’t decide to exterminate them." As though we weren't sitting smack dab in the middle of their reservation, which we were, on whose permission we depended for our jobs, which was the case. "That's how it usually works.”
He took a sip from his tumbler. “ They're a bunch of ingrates is what they are,” he concluded, then he asked if I agreed with him.
I don’t recall my response, but I’m sure I was evasive because I always was, in those days, with guys like Bob. 
One year later, in 1980, Ronald Reagan ran a purposeful campaign on a platform of glorifying a couple hundred years of Bob's Nits-Make-Lice philosophy and the whiskey that went with it. Being forewarned, I said an audible 'uh-oh' to that and, sad to say, I was right. Not because I was an uppity progressive (a hippy in those days) but simply because I was there in the hinterlands to watch it happen. Reagan, for you young pups who have been systematically beat over the head since birth with revisionist corporate history, began his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., nine miles away from where the bodies of 3 civil rights workers—James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—were found only 16 years earlier. He literally preached “states rights” to the television camaras, of the inviolability of “private property”, intentionally using the the very rhetoric that precipitated our Civil War when those two phrases were synonymous with Slavery. All the racists in the South got it, and he never let up in his calculated political ploy to suck up white, working-class voters who were feeling unappreciated and put upon, and who were looking for someone to lead them in their blaming. And remember this, children, if you don't remember anything else--it worked. Eight years later, when the brains behind the Reagan presidency—George H.W. Bush, ran for the White House with the first the million-dollar "Attack Ad", it hit the barroom television sets with a bang because that very first "Attack Ad" was overtly racist. ‘Willie Horton’ the one that corporate America decided to cut its diamond studded fangs with. All the Bobs were watching, and understanding.
Like so many other European-Americans, I have inherited family attitudes threading back through all this nation’s epic events—including all wars—and not all of them good and wholesome. My great-grandfather, whom I didn't know, "fought injuns" along the Overland Trail for the Union. His son, whom I did know "voted for Eisenhower cuz Lincoln won the war", and thus my family--because we generally bred late--passed on a living memory of what a brief point in our history we now label as our "founding" was trying, and failing even then, to guard against. Bigotry, according to documents written on the outer edge of the European Age of Enlightenment, always trumps self-interest in a rigged game, with the church usually acting as the dealer. Demagoguery is their sleight-of-hand, always has been, and we constantly have to be on guard against it. This "guarding" has been called various things: empathy, the common good or whatever, but short of these it’s measured in biological terms. It’s significant enough, then, for considering within the course of human events, when, left to their own devices, our governing elites never fail to profess amnesia about what the hell this country was founded on. Those documents, for instance, were as much about repudiating the Church as a governing institution as they were about anything, and “Christian Nation” be damned for the damnable lie that it is. 
We are living in watershed times. Reagan is only one example of how, when our leaders are allowed by us to nurture bigotry while pulling cards from up their sleeves, the house (in the colonial days the Monarchists and the Church—in these days the Corporatists and the "religious" Right) always wins. 
The modern patriot/militia movement, from the Oklahoma City bombing to our latest Tea Party spectacle and now Trump, steeped in nativism and its younger brother Nationalism, with perverse interpretations of the Bible and the Constitution and their distinct racist underpinnings to justify a horrendously-xenophobic message, was born in those angry 80s, and has been nurtured from the very beginning by those same corporate house dealers who wear Church robes to fool the rubes  they need on their side in order to pull off the ruse. And, listen closely children: in the saddest of ironies, they dominate our local and national governments to this day. Why we let this happen I’m not sure. But I do know that this is the history I witnessed, not because I’m an old hippy (which I am) but only because I exist--in my rural community as well as in my country. This cynical playing of We The Rubes has worked like a Chinese assembly line cranking out plastic crap (such as those "we support our troops" yellow ribbon magnets), and it's a much scarier world because of that much-exploited fact. 
Oh Bob, I think of you much these days, as I watch us being led over the cliff of wars that are designed to never end, by those stripping our freedoms off us whole cloth while grandly speaking of the day coming soon when the world will be patterned after the American Model. 
As for this veteran and descendent of Pilgrims, I’d say that Manifest Destiny has found its final angle of repose when leaders who are elected on platforms of polarization speak openly of 'usable nuclear weapons'. Nits make lice, indeed.
So here it is, Bob, wherever you are or your soul is. You're right: mixing food and whiskey IS a bad idea. But you're wrong in letting your bigotry get in the way of your common sense.
That said, if it's just want company you want, I'll buy you a drink. Let's talk.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

On Trump and Goat Gonads

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 here 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 neoliberal position papers or intellectual talking points about animal rights. Follow the basic rule that any credible artist in any medium follows, even 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