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Gimme the Prize: Reflections on the RNC

24 Jul

RNC Cleveland

“I am the one, the only one,

I am the god of Kingdom Come

Gimme the prize!

Just gimme the prize!”

— Queen

Who wants to talk about the Republican National Convention? I wanna talk about the Republican National Convention. But I don’t wanna talk about the Republican National Convention, because to talk about the Republican National Convention is to acknowledge that the Republican National Convention actually happened: four days of preschool bugout, each vituperative highlight scribbled and shot for embarrassing posterity. It was like a high school reunion where everyone grew up to be, uh, embittered Republicans mired in midlife crises: This is not my beautiful house! This is not my beautiful wife! Well, how did we get here?!

Ah, but we know how that happened, don’t we? The GOP’s pretended to wear such personae for years. It’s the ultimate conservative fantasy: the angry populist magnate. All Trump did was swipe the template and crank it to a Nigel Tufnel 11. He’s faking it, too, but resonating with the rabble.

His party’s only pandered to that base; Trump, however, empowered it. His central message: “Cluelessness is conviction. Believe what you want, for belief is superior to truth.” And he continues to be its living embodiment. Fact-checkers dog him — in fact, they tore his convention harangue to pieces — but his apostles care not, because his statistics sound right. And besides, they might luck out and get to shoot somebody.

As a spectacle of lunacy, the RNC barely registered as a sideshow. It was more of a toilet-sale blowout at an El Segundo junkyard. Commandeering the dais was a ceaseless procession of “Murder, She Wrote” guest stars, quacking imbeciles, sports-world zeroes, cover bands, one-shtick jabronis, ring-kissers, ankle-suckers, withered emperors, jowly groupies and future Brutuses.

This is your Republican party, folks, flown in from a 1970 Grayline bus to Reno, spiffed in newer, toothsome Solo-cup-soccer-mom skin and christened, in homage to apprentice saint Nixon, the Silent Majority. (Though if you spend any time online, you know they’re anything but silent.)

But it’s a lost, divided party, as evidenced by Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who formally endorsed Trump for the nomination in words that must have tasted like an ancient Zima crawling back up his throat. During his speech, party chairman Reince Preibus spat the usual sawdust, but his eyes seemed to beg for a Flavor-Aid dunk tank.

Momentary hero Ted Cruz performed his equivalent of Sid Vicious’ “My Way” by refusing to acknowledge his ex-tormentor as future king. Unfortunately, it was just a premature salvo in his 2020 bid and not a principled stance, although he managed to steal the night’s momentum from Trump’s official benediction and up-yer-bummed it back to the cheap seats, where he’ll continue to live forever.

So the convention was less a celebration of unity than a dysfunctional family reunion, where everyone hates Uncle Donnie, but he’s rich and mean and might cut them from his will. So they endured a lot over four useless days.

Its only relief was Ivanka Trump, given the on-deck spot that final night and for once countering the convention’s madness with love. Hopefully, she escapes her father’s shadow. The candidate was less benevolent with his third wife, Melania, banishing her to Night 1 with a cribbed Michelle Obama speech and throwing her to the press. (His other kids were sprayed haphazardly into the lineup.)

Trump also invoked the wrath of Queen for swaggering out to “We Are the Champions” when “Gimme the Prize” would have been more appropriate to the event’s tenor, followed by a group singalong to “Who Wants to Live Forever,” led by the ghosts of Abraham Lincoln and John Kasich, as the Quicken Loans Arena fainted toward the Cuyahoga. It may as well have done just that after Trump’s concluding Thursday night speech: a botched litany of apocalyptic booga-booga that gave liberals hives, fact-checkers whiplash and Orwell a cheap thrill.

And then, for once, I felt for the Republican party. Because like me, all it could do for now was watch. Bye, Jumbo.

Wrazz Wreviews: The Phone Book

18 Jul

0717091549

2009-2010 Albany-Lebanon & Surrounding Areas
(The Local Pages of Oregon LLC)
3.5 stars

Yesterday saw the air-pocket WUMPH! of this year’s tome, and believe you me, it’s another corker in the only successful ongoing series to not feature a boy wizard and his puberty-stricken pals. Granted, naysayers will bemoan its rote predictability (alphabetical listings, the usual maps) and its tendency to rely on an outdated organizational formula, but adroit and patient readers will be rewarded with astonishing secrets and slight alterations befitting this most complex exploration of humanity. After all, the phone book seems to quietly reason, how much do we truly change from year to year, aside from the usual influx of newcomers and the life cycles of local commerce? In this sense, 2009-2010 is a most valuable tome, edited as usual with care and precision and presented in fetching tones beyond the blase white/yellow contrast of our youth.

As always, the introductory blue section is alternately a familiar delight and a reminder of who to contact when our sewers belch bilge into our manicured lawns. Of particular interest to your faithful skeptic was the “Area Code & Time Zone Map,” helpfully stretched across two pages for maximum edification. I found myself nostalgically navigating previous area codes (503, 562, 818, and 310, if you’re interested; the first formerly covered the entire state of Oregon until the mid-’90s) and becoming reacquainted with the oft-neglected Mountain and Central areas, whose rugged monikers filled me as a child with awe and envy, specifically as they applied to television schedules. “Tonight!” an announcer would intone way back when, “It’s a city under siege, with no backup to separate law and order from chaos and hell. All bets are off! It’s an explosive Sheriff Lobo, 9 p.m. Pacific, 8 p.m. Central and Mountain.” I didn’t understand what made our neighbors so special that they got to watch my favorite programs an hour earlier. As a result, I begged my parents to move our family to Colorado or even Alberta, for the cheap rents. Central and Mountain, you thought you were awesome, but you were so totally not!

Of less interest are the international codes; what reason would I possibly have to call Islamabad? Also useless: the 2009-2010 calendars — not enough space to pencil in your nephew’s coronation. But the minimal faults dogging the Blue Page experience are overshadowed by the helpful “Hard to Find Numbers” tab, although I must subtract several plaudits for not catering to me personally. Where are the numbers of old girlfriends or movie stars? However, I’m grateful for easy access to Homeland Security, should I decide to report my landlord’s monthly terrorist activities.

Speaking of activities, the exhaustive section also includes a hard-copy calendar (though no perforation for easy removal) of local events. I puzzled at the nonexistence of the traditional Timber Carnival and made a mental note to attend the Stand by Me Cruise-In & Sock-Hop in Brownsville this August 15, in hopes that Wil Wheaton will surface to repay, with accumulated interest, the 50 cents he borrowed for a Pepsi in the summer of 1985.

After the sparkling vivacity of their set-up, the Albany/Lebanon White Pages can only pale in comparison. They begin promisingly with the usual array of merchants vying for eyeballs from the lead-off spot; this year begins with A-1 Charlie’s Towing Service of Albany, followed by A-1 Coffee Service of Jefferson. These early entries provide intriguing fodder for personality studies. For instance, what compels proprietors and their services to stake the forefront? Market research? Brash confidence? In any case, there’s a certain nervy je ne sais quoi, a purposeful exposure that in many ways rivals the elaborate advertisements peppered throughout the book or the business names highlighted in yellow for insistent emphasis. A1, especially, implies unsurpassed excellence, and according to this year’s tome, my search for a reputable towing company, coffee company, and garage-door and gutter installers ends before it really begins, freeing the rest of my weekend to shop for a competent satellite television provider, which I locate easily in the adjacent column (A Advanced Satellite Television).

The residential listings are a brisk plod through characters both familiar and new. Among this year’s bombshells for longtime readers is the division of Alma and Clevon Merkin into separate addresses, which is unfortunate considering their former status as a phonebook staple (since 1974!) and the example they set for unrepentant romantics like myself. Also, the Behlmans have relocated from 25004 Broadalbin S.W. to 89972 Fulton St. S.E., affecting any offspring of school age. (One of the Local Pages’ most glaring liabilities is its lack of character depth; one laments the passing of the ’80s alternate edition, which listed children, their year of birth, and the homeowners’ respective vocations.) The section concludes with James and Irene Zylva of Lebanon, who unseat longtime epilogues Art and Kathy Zylp of Shedd. Reached for comment, Irene chirped, “Oh, yes, they called last night with their congratulations. Lovely couple, and Art’s a hellcat at canasta. We ‘bottom-feeders’ hit it off wonderfully, and we owe it all to that shrink-wrapped brick dropped on our doorstep.”

To compete with Switchboard.com, the Local Pages have audaciously added a reverse directory slathered in pink and brimming with all sorts of revelatory facts for the die-hard numbers freak. For instance, were you aware that a certain number in Lebanon connects you to both the Pearlmans and the Cumbersons? Or that one slip of the finger might find you conversing with Eric Quaite instead of the receptionist at Duncan Dental? Something to ponder the next time you assault your keypad with such reckless abandon.

The Yellow Pages open on a controversial note with “Abortion Alternatives,” a divisive hot-button issue that grips the reader immediately and tugs him through another 255 pages to the tongue-in-cheek “Zippers-Repair.” A subtle moral statement, perhaps, but a cunning full-circle summation, nonetheless. The section itself is divided by a separate white-page block devoted to restaurant menus, an addition likely appreciated by employees whose ears still throb from years of “ummmmm.” Efficiency is crucial in our breakneck, knockabout, easily distracted culture, and customers may now hail the Broken Yolk Cafe with requests at the ready: the 3rd Street Scramble, Triple-Decker Reuben Club, and a Yee-Hah for Vern.

Alas, the 2009-2010 directory cannot maintain this momentum, ending in anticlimactic fashion by covering snooty, whitebread Corvallis, which is akin to Iceberg Slim wrapping a gritty tale set in Harlem by jetting to Martha’s Vineyard. Indeed: while the Albany chapter begins delightfully working-class (A-1 Charlie’s Towing), the denizens across the bridge are introduced with the affluent shallowness of A 1 Auto Glass, as in “Wily Ted attempted to christen the windshield of my Beamer with a ’75 Barolo Vezza Riserva Piemonte at the Alumni Dinner.” The individual departments at Oregon State University are blessed with a smaller font size in an ageist scoff at older readers. Not to say the section isn’t without surprises: I was shocked to learn anyone in the coverage area would admit to family names beginning with “z,” that most uncouth of letters. But here they are, stretched over two-and-a-half columns, ending with Arvis L. Zbornak, whose voicemail begins, “You have reached the McMansion of academic/consultant/painter/poet/filmmaker/saxophonist Arvis L. Zbornak. I can’t come to the phone right now, as I’m at the country club skinning the flesh off proletarians. Please leave your name and number after the tone. However, if you earn less than $50K per annum, you will be disconnected posthaste.”

Class warfare lies at the heart of any phonebook, but frankly the division grows tiresome. However, as a convenient guide or disciplinary weapon for pets and children (the newspaper’s not so thick these days), 2009-2010 Albany-Lebanon & Surrounding Areas remains — at least for now — the yellow, blue, pink, and white standard for modern communication.

“Saturday Night Live”: Wanna Bite the Hand That Feeds Me (Miskel Spillman Meets Elvis Costello)

6 Jul

On the evening of October 8, 1977, Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels sat behind the same desk from which he’d presented a $3,200 check to The Beatles the week before, and made an offer that was just as genuine — one that, unlike his Fab Four pipe dreams, would yield genuine results.

“How many of you out there watching this show right now,” he began, “are saying to yourselves, ‘You know, Madeline Kahn‘s pretty good [the actress hosted that week], but I think I can do a better job than that’? Well, here’s your chance. Because now, anyone can host Saturday Night Live. All you have to do is write a postcard and state in 25 words or less why you want to host Saturday Night Live.”

This was not a sketch. An address was provided as Lorne explained the details. After the November 1 deadline passed, the entrants would be winnowed to five finalists, who would then be flown to New York to read their entries on-air, and the winner would host the December 17 Christmas episode, with the series’ $3,000 hosting fee as a quite generous gift.

“We don’t care who or what you are,” Michaels concluded. “If you can lick a stamp, you’re on your way to stardom.”

Some 150,000 tongues and minds went into overdrive over the next three weeks as Saturday Night Live was deluged with pithy correspondence.  “I’m an 80-year-old grandmother,” read one. “I need one more cheap thrill since my doctor told me I only have another 25 years left.” Volumes of submissions were considered and discarded, before finally being pared down to five finalists. The following week’s emcee, Buck Henry, announced the news on the November 12 episode hosted by Ray Charles and added that the lucky competitors would appear with him on November 19.

Sure enough, seven days later they were trotted out for Saturday Night Live‘s cold open, each in matching blue button-down sweaters differentiated by the letters A through E, a regular malt-shop quintet. Gilda Radner introduced them on camera as a “cross-section of America” (to the disappointment of Garrett Morris, who complained of a distinct lack of ethnic variety). And a curious cross-section ’twas: David Lewis, a gangly, bearded “unemployed guy” from Oregon; Deb Blair, a housewife and mother from Peoria, Illinois; Connie Crawford, a Vassar freshman; Richard Kneip, the governor of South Dakota; and, finally, Miskel Spillman, a petite 80-year-old grandmother from New Orleans, Louisiana, who stood out with her bob of shocking white. Introductions were made, but the audience favorite was quickly established when Buck cajoled from the genial octogenarian “I’m Miskel Spillman. I’m old.”

The five were given the honor of announcing, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” and appeared intermittently throughout the show, first during Henry’s monologue, where it was discovered that David Lewis may have been a little too eccentric even for SNL. (After Lewis’ turkey impression fell flat, Henry deadpanned, “Obviously, we didn’t throw all the weird letters away.”) Later they surfaced in a Gary Weis short chronicling each finalists’ underhanded attempts to influence the host (Crawford came on to him, Kneip offered him a government job, Lewis spun a wild story of animal cruelty, Blair suggested that perhaps her children wouldn’t have a merry Christmas after all, and Spillman announced, “Something’s going to happen around New Year’s Eve. I’m going to kick.”) They were brought back out for the cast farewells at home base, with Spillman admitting over the adulation, “I’ve had the most wonderful time in my life.”

Connie Crawford, today an acting and directing instructor at Brown University, fondly recalled both the episode and Mrs. Spillman in an interview with TV.com’s HelloStuart last year:

For me, it was brilliant. [The show] was exciting and smart and funny, and people were very generous and kind and patient. … With us there, us five, doing what they did with us, bring us into this, not only did they put on a live show in less than a week, but the material was very edgy and they asked five complete civilians to join them. That was quite risky. The show on its own and the way they were doing it was quite raw, and to bring us in … that was reality TV.

[E]verybody knew [Miskel] was going to win. Come on. She was an 80-year-old woman from New Orleans having an adventure. … I expected her to win, so it all made sense. … [S]he was a lovely woman. She was a charmer, she really was. I wouldn’t have done anything differently.

David Lewis concurred in his own 2008 exchange with TV.com. “[Spillman] was a prime example of many who are past retirement age, yet so full of life, rich with wisdom and experience,” said the performance artist/songwriter. “By the end of the show, it was obvious who the sentimental favorite was.”

(Of the remaining finalists, Deb Blair’s whereabouts are unknown, and Richard Kneip, who followed his South Dakota governorship with a Presidental appointment to U.S. Ambassador of Singapore, died in 1987.)

After all the votes were tabulated from postcards, phone calls, letters and specially printed TV Guide ballots, Spillman was the clear victor by some 15,000 votes. The sprightly senior citizen, pending any natural life occurrences, was locked in for December 17.

Her musical guest, however, was not. The Sex Pistols, the melodic scourge of the U.K. sneering inroads into the stateside press, were initially scheduled to perform, but their notoriety and criminal records made visas near impossible. (The Pistols did arrive early the following year, disintegrating in San Francisco on January 14.) Luckily, Elvis Costello & The Attractions were then touring the United States and Canada to promote their debut, My Aim Is True; a few phone calls later and a New York stop was scheduled.

The Saturday Night Live staff may have been relieved, but the 23-year-old Costello was anything but. He gritted his teeth as Columbia Records, his U.S. label, began instructing him on what songs to perform. They wanted established tracks, naturally, but the band leader blanched at a request for “Less Than Zero,” a composition whipped by its angry writer after watching ex-British Union of Fascists head Oswald Mosley snivel on the BBC. Costello felt the references were too obscure for Americans; it was a decidedly English phenomenon. The label, however, insisted. Costello fumed.

His anger is evident even in the night’s first musical performance. Costello snarls through “Watching the Detectives,” almost challenging the cameraman to track him. He advances upon the lens, ducks its gaze, and evades its path. He seems to have little regard for blocking, which didn’t match his perception of “live” spontaneity. In fact, Costello wasn’t all that impressed with the show, period. “Maybe something got lost in translation,” he mused in Rhino‘s 2002 reissue of 1978’s This Year’s Model, “but none of the humour seemed nearly as ‘dangerous’ or funny as they seemed to think it was, or perhaps they were just having a bad show.”

Even with a private citizen serving as “host,” Saturday Night Live pulled few punches in its presentation. In the cold opening, Laraine Newman admonished John Belushi (who eerily prophesied, “Don’t worry, I plan to be dead before I’m 30” — he was only off by three years) for sharing a lethal strain of bud with the 80-year-old to relax her nerves. “John,” gasped guest-guest host Buck Henry, “your joints overwhelm even an experienced drug user like myself!” Miskel, for her part, was game, wandering into her monologue on Henry’s arm and marveling at “the colors.”

Spillman was used sparingly for the next hour-and-a-half. She sat and listened to Jane Curtin recite an alternate version of O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi that ended with a trademark Belushi outburst and the still-nascent cry of “But nooooo!” Later she had a brief walk-on as the mother of a desperate Vietnam War vet (Bill Murray) in the existential buddy-cop drama, Sartresky & Hutch. Her most prominent showcase came as Belushi’s college girlfriend in a sketch chronicling a student’s holiday homecoming. Otherwise, the episode did contain two future classics: E. Buzz Miller’s sleazoid exploration of the artist Titian and Al Franken’s Yuletide tirade against his parents.

Spillman was nowhere in sight or earshot when Elvis returned for an encore; announcer Don Pardo announced him instead. The artist dutifully adhered to his record label’s wishes with an ice-cold stare through “Less Than Zero” — until he hit the line “There is a vacancy waiting in the English voodoo.” At “waiting” he abruptly shouted, “Stop! Stop!,” dramatically flailing his arms. As if confidentially, he turned back to the microphone and apologized. “I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “there’s no reason to do this song here.” Then he turned to his bewildered Attractions and called for “Radio, Radio,” a song they had yet to even record (after that night, the song would go unheard in America until This Year’s Model the following fall). As Elvis told Tom Snyder in 1981, it made for riveting television. “They didn’t have my camera cues, which supposedly, from a professional point of view, isn’t very good. But from a live TV point of view, I would’ve thought it was great,” he quipped.

Apparently, he was alone in that sentiment. “[T]he producer did not agree,” Costello recalled on the Model reissue. “He stood behind the camera making obscene and threatening gestures in my direction. … We were chased out of the building and told we ‘would never work on American television again.'”

Miskel must’ve been unaware of such backstage drama. As the cast gathered for goodbyes, the by-now-beloved grandmother, resplendent in a Mrs. Claus outfit that complemented her brilliant white head of hair, wrapped with “I want to thank everyone in the world for voting for me. I’ve had the most wonderful time in my life.”

It was a life that would continue for another 14 years, past, sadly, both Belushi and Gilda’s. She was a spry and feisty 92 when People caught up with her for a 1989 SNL retrospective. “I love the current cast,” she said, singling out Dana Carvey as a particular favorite. “I take naps in the afternoon so that I can stay up. I’d love to host again. I have 13 more years left, you know.”

When the issue hit newsstands on September 25, 1989, it had been exactly six months since Elvis’ triumphant return to Saturday Night Live after an 11-year absence. This time he was Mary Tyler Moore’s problem. However, the bespectacled icon, by now a respected artist, made it through the show without incident, flowing smoothly through “Veronica” and “Let Him Dangle” with nary a hint of surprise. He was invited back in May 1991 to perform “The Other Side of Summer” and “Candy.” One wonders if Miskel Spillman watched either with interest. She passed away less than a year later, on March 30, 1992, at the age of 94 and remains, to this day, Saturday Night Live‘s only non-celebrity host. As for Elvis, he has long been forgiven, even ribbing his youthful defiance on Saturday Night Live‘s 25th anniversary special in 1999, by barging in on the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” to lead them through “Radio, Radio.”

If You Like Pina Coladas, Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah Blah…

14 Jun

Released in ’79 on Rupert Holmes’ Partners in Crime LP (8-track! Cassette! Woo-hoo!), “Escape” was so popular it had to be reissued with a subtitle so people would actually buy it.  No one knew the song by its original title, but everybody brayed that chorus wherever heavy drinkers congregated: “If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain.” Something about those images stuck in the psyche, so the track resurfaced as the Holmes/label compromise “Escape (The Pina Colada Song).” Naturally, it body-shot to #1 and was, in fact, the last chart-topper of the decade, meaning there was an abundance of assholes in Hawaiian shirts trying to put the lime in the dance-floor coconut that New Year’s Eve.

“Escape” has become so ubiquitous that it’s all but lost its original meaning to become a cultural punchline, or a cheap laugh at its own expense, like Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now,” a fairly accurate snapshot of early-’90s global optimism, or pretty much anything recorded by The Carpenters. With its soft, melodic chunder and evocations of a Coppertone getaway, “Escape” is shorthand for camp cheesiness. It so transcends generations that even ten-year-olds get the joke, although none were around to hear it mocked in Norm MacDonald’s Dirty Work back in ’98, when its use was, as always, lazy and trite. We’ve transferred our response down bloodlines; it’s part of our collective DNA. Now the song’s being mangled in a popular Taco Bell ad, with bored drones — thanks to The Office, everything’s set among zany cubicle jockeys now — improvising new lyrics to get them through a day of vapid bosses, annoying meetings, and passing Frutistas through their colons.

Of course, “Escape” is more than just its raised-glass chorus. In fact, it’s what we call a story song. Rupert loves to tell stories. After this ditty ensured he’d never have to climb out of bed again except to retrieve his royalty checks, he became a playwright and novelist. (He’s released a few more albums too; can’t exactly accuse the man of sloth.)  Anyone familiar with Holmes’ work as a songwriter might recall a tale he weaved for The Buoys in 1971: “Timothy,” which reached #17 on the Pop chart despite being blacklisted from most U.S. radio stations for its objectionable content. Let me tell ya, pina colada fans, this gut-wrencher would’ve turned your tropical-themed soiree into an all-out hoinkfest, with margaritas and daiquiris taking northbound elevators to daylight. “Timothy,” see, was about three desperate miners trapped underground who get a mite peckish. Two emerge with the third on their breath. Alas, poor Tim.

“Escape” has a much happier ending. Dissatisfied with the predictability of his longtime relationship, the narrator peruses the personals in his hometown daily (tres quaint!) for a possible fling. He finds a notice that sounds perfect:

If you like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain
If you’re not into yoga, if you have half a brain
If you like making love at midnight in the dunes of the cape
I’m the love that you’ve looked for; write to me and escape.

Yowza. Who could resist that? Once he tucks his eyes back in, our hero replies:

Yes, I like pina coladas and getting caught in the rain
I’m not much into health food, I am into champagne
I’ve got to meet you by tomorrow noon and cut through all this red tape
At a bar called O’Malley’s, where we’ll plan our escape.

As a writer myself, I’ve always dug the intentional contrasts between the characters’ prose. Hers has a more poetic flow; his sort of plods along.

We then cut to the anxious fellow at the appointed time and place as he nervously awaits the arrival of Chapter Two. She enters. He sees her. There’s an instant chemistry. A familiar one. That smile. Those curves. It’s his own girlfriend, the one who snoozed as he sat in bed quietly responding to her anonymous ad. Seems they were both hungry for excitement. If any consumption took place in “Escape,” it happened discreetly after the fade and was likely more pleasurable. Alas, poor Tim.

David Carradine (1936-2009)

4 Jun

“We own nothing. Even our bodies are loaned to us. Empty shells. Concentrate on the infinite and ignore the temporal.”
— Kung Fu

There was always something so wry about David Carradine, so watchable, even in the worst of his films. Luckily, this is not one of those.

Zai Jian, Kwai Chang Caine.

Selected Excerpt from Grover’s Memoir, “Deep, Blue Something”

29 May

INTRODUCTION

Hello, everybodeeeeeeeeee!

Writing a book is very hard! Every time I open my laptop and say to myself, “Self, you are going to put lots of words in this white space right now!” all the white space does is look white all day. All the memories want to dance first and they are all so wonderful I cannot choose which one is best! But then I wonder if it should be happy or sad. Then I think of sad things, and I am sad. Then I eat a cookie or a banana and I feel better! But then it is time to brush my teeth and go to bed. So I do. And I wake up the next day to tell my editor that I will try extra hard right after a good breakfast! He says I have already missed three deadlines, and there are no special deadlines for monsters, even furry, lovable ones! He is so funny! So today is the day I make him very happy to have me as a client! Look at how many things I have said!

Perhaps I should look out the window. I have heard that is what writers do. I do not know why. Maybe they see something. Oh! Pretty butterfly! In the distance is Kermit the Frog interviewing the letter C. I like Kermit. Kermit is a very nice person! Everyone on Sesame Street is nice! Even Oscar the Grouch is nice, once you get to know him! He is just grumpy sometimes. He was never the same after Mr. Hooper went away. I miss Mr. Hooper too. Sad again….

Happy now!

A lot of people ask me about Elmo. Critics say he is a cheap knockoff of me and Telly. I do not know about that. He is a sweet kid who means well. He deserves all of his success. The only thing I do not like is his voice. He talks like a baby! I keep telling him to be himself. Our audience is children, not babies! But he says that is his character, what he calls a conscious affectation, like when I purposely do not use contractions. I remind him that what I do is subtle and not blatant. Oh, well. It is his personal choice. He will find his way!

Writing is fun! I have so much to tell you about my life. I cannot believe it is mine! Ha ha! Just then I was thinking about something that happened in the 1970s. It was a wackier time. I was working as a waiter in a restaurant and there was this customer who ordered a hamburger. Mm-hm. Yeah. So I brought him a hamburger. I was a good waiter! But he complained it was too small! I told him that he did not want the big hamburger and I did not know why it was still on our menu. He insisted, though. So I said okay and went into the kitchen to tell the cook. Wow! I thought the cook was going to swallow his own eyes! All of a sudden it was like the whole building wanted to get up and walk away! But he cooked the big burger, and when it was finished, I took it back into the dining area. I had to carry it in both arms, it was so large! Ha ha! You had to be there. They used to do stuff like that at discos too. Anyway, that was just one of many jobs I have had. I have even made record albums!

There is lots to talk about, but right now I am sleepy again. Outside the sky is dark, and fireflies are forming the number 12. Which is funny, because there are only 11 fireflies. No, there are 12 fireflies. Oh, where is Count when you need him!

It is at moments like this where I am very happy. The house is quiet. The fish are sleeping. Good fish. I close my eyes too. And then I am in the sky, flying over my life. I am at rest. I am at peace. I am…Super Grover.

“All Along the Watchtower”: An Alternate History

22 Mar

NOTE: The following is a complete work of fiction, save a stray fact.

“[A]t the conclusion of the last verse, it is as if the song bizarrely begins at last, as if the myth began again.”

—British scholar Christopher Ricks
on “All Along the Watchtower”

“All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.”

Robert Zimmerman had heard the music all his life. Little fragments, half-remembered, from a lullaby his mother Betty used to sing at bedtime. The original lyrics escaped him, something about jokers and thieves. One line, however, remained crystal clear: “There must be some way out of here.” Something in that sentiment alternately frightened and intrigued him, even as child.

It returned some 20 years later, after the world had come to know and embrace him as Bob Dylan. He was a worldwide music icon by then, much to his surprise and amusement. Camera crews followed his amble, and sometimes he deliberately led them into walls. Writers too. They scribbled his every breath as sermons from the mount. He was so beloved that not even an infamous decision to “go electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival was enough to cloud his mystique. It was equally true now, as he lived in self-imposed isolation from the fans and journalists who continued to hound him nonetheless. He was holed up in his Woodstock, New York, sanctuary, recovering from a motorcycle accident, or so the press dutifully reported. It wasn’t as bad as all that. What had really put him out of commission was that he’d heard those words again.

There must be some way out of here.

Over the last few months he’d been trying to piece the song together from memory. His mother wanted to help but was stuck for real details, aside from the revelation that she’d picked it up from her father. She supposed it was something akin to an oral family tradition, the lyrics elastic and adaptable, but the story remained the same. As far as she knew, it was the equivalent of a church hymn or a spiritual that traveled on the wind.

“I picked up as many reference books as I could find, really,” Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1969, “everything from tall tales of the Old West to medieval legends to even the Bible. So I went way back looking for it. [laughs] I couldn’t find anything. The closest I came was the Book of Isaiah, though it didn’t literally match the visions I had, which were crazy to begin with.”

Pressed for details, an already uncomfortable Dylan, in the words of interviewer Ben Fong Torres, “turned bone-white and began turning over words in his hands, as if carefully checking for holes.”

The thing is, the phrase and the story are older than even the Bible. If you think about it, it expresses a feeling that’s as old as we are, you know, humanity. The Book of Isaiah is about the fall of Babylon, the violent transfer of old-world thinking to a collective understanding of God as God of everybody, and if you’re not hip to that, so long. ‘There must be some way out of here’ — how do we get from there to here? How do we get to a better place? It’s an eternal question. I saw a few similarities between Isaiah and this image I’ve always had of travelers, these explorers from without and beyond, looking for a new home, so when I wrote ‘All Along the Watchtower’ I deliberately infused it with Biblical allusions calculated to mislead; otherwise, I couldn’t explain it. It was too weird, man, like science-fiction!

With “Watchtower” finally on the page, Dylan began assembling material for his first acoustic foray since Bringing It All Back Home in 1965, as well as his first new album, period, in 18 months. Inspired by his recent research, the song cycle revolved around folk legends and Biblical figures, which, the artist later admitted, “were like the template for all that folk-hero stuff, really.” There were music-biz allegories in the form of “The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest,” the scammed and scammer, respectively. A Latin theologian materializes in “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” Eli, the high priest of Shiloh, dispatches a “Wicked Messenger.” The memory of 18th century radical Thomas Paine haunts “As I Went Out One Morning.”

Perhaps most important is a figure long familiar in the contemporary imagination, Texas gunslinger John Wesley Hardin, a slippery outlaw who cast a long, romantic shadow over the evolving American West. It was Hardin’s name, augmented with a “g,” that would grace the LP issued in the twilight of 1967. Lillian Roxon later reflected on its reception in her seminal Rock Encyclopedia:

JOHN WESLEY HARDING gives some clues as to what happened in Woodstock, reflecting its (and perhaps Dylan’s) rustic calm. . . . The acid generation is somewhat disappointed . . . but there are plenty more who welcome the new tranquility.

That tranquility, Dylan later admitted, was due in part to his religious conversion and to the relief he felt at finally setting his childhood vision to rest. “I got it out of my system in ‘Watchtower,’ ” he explained to Kurt Loder in 1984. “I still experience it every now and then, but it no longer feels like my burden alone. It was like I’d done what I was, perhaps, ‘programmed’ — to use the modern vernacular — to do from the beginning: ‘This is the message. Do with it what you will.’

“And,” he chuckled, “almost immediately, someone did.”

If the so-called “acid generation” was less than enthusiastic about John Wesley Harding’s apparent step back, one of its top representatives heard plenty of promise in its bounty. Jimi Hendrix had gotten his hands on Harding and brought it to London’s Olympic Studios in January 1968, where he was recording songs for what would become the last Experience album, Electric Ladyland.

“Jimi was knocked out by ‘Watchtower,’ absolutely floored,” recalled former manager Chas Chandler in 1988. “He kept saying, ‘Listen to the words, the words.’ The line that really sold him was ‘Plowmen dig my earth.’ It was a pun to him. You could take it quite literally or hear the word ‘dig’ as ‘love.’ He thought that otherworldly beings landed here eons ago and approved our planet as suitable for their purpose. ‘What purpose is that, Jimi?’ ‘To live, man. Do their thing. Make life possible.’ I’d ask if they were aliens. ‘Are aliens among us, Jimi? Little green men?’ [laughs] Really taking the piss. But he’d shake his head and laugh like I didn’t get it.”

“Jimi talked about space travel a lot,” Experience bassist Noel Redding chuckled in 1995. “You could say it was an obsession. He would tell me that we were descended from space travelers. He said they were the original gods and they lived here on Earth after their home planet was destroyed. That curious ‘…And The Gods Made Love’ mess which opened our record was supposed to be about the birth of modern man. It was the sound, Jimi said, of a ‘descending spacecraft.’ ”

Jimi himself elaborated for the BBC in April 1969:

Q: On the new album you’ve recorded Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower”—

A: Yeah.

Q: –and it’s really quite amazing, but not like Dylan’s song at all. What attracted you to it?

A: Well, I think Bob’s the greatest poet of all time, and “Watchtower” is probably the best song he’s written yet. He’ll write more, I’m not sayin’ he’s finished, but I mean that’s about as groovy as words get. And it’s a message anyone can dig, especially right now. We gotta find a way out of Vietnam, we gotta find a way out of the ghetto, we gotta find a way out of our own minds. I dug what the cat was sayin’ and I felt it was something that needed to be, y’know, uh, AMPLIFIED. [laughs]

Q: How do you feel about the song’s Biblical quality?

A: It’s a good story. [laughs] But I’m not really thinking about the religious aspect when I sing it or play it. I’m more into spirituality, which is different from religion; whatever gets you off, if that’s an authentic response for you, that’s cool. Church isn’t my thing — really, it’s just another institution, like school, with rules and, uh, dress codes, and it’s not really all that tolerant of anyone of a different mind, whatever your intention. Anyway, when I heard the song for the first time, it spoke to me as a, uh, a, uh, the origin of the human race as I see it, which is hard to explain unless you’re hip to an alternate vibe.

Q: Which is?

A: That we started here, but we’re originally from somewhere else.

Q: You mean other planets.

A: Yes, other planets. Dead ones, vanquished ones, tall ones, skinny ones. [laughs] See, some of those planets up there are just ghosts, y’know, abandoned neighborhoods we used to call Earth. We left when conditions got hairy, or when it couldn’t sustain us no more, or when someone swooped in and kicked our ass. So we’re all a mix of different surviving species; this is just our current form.

Q: Wait a minute: you’re saying we’re aliens?

A: No. See, that word is a human construct. We use it to describe what we refuse to understand. It’s a derogatory word, really. “That’s foreign.” “That’s weird.” “That’s alien.” Right? We’re not aliens. There are no aliens. Just wanderers and nomads looking for a place to crash.

Q: But if this happened, according to you, at the beginning of our history, how did they get here in the first place? How was space travel even possible? We’ve only developed it ourselves within the last decade or so.

A: See, you’re confusing “ancient” with “primitive.” Where these cats came from, technology caused the problems in the first place. They had the best of intentions, but they couldn’t be trusted with the promise of infinite possibility. It eventually got away from them. So when they came here, they gave up everything they had, to keep history from repeating itself. Of course, that was a long, long, long, long, long, long, long time ago. Once the original settlers died off and were forgotten, progress was inevitable.

Q: Sounds like Earth was almost a vacation destination.

A: Yeah, man. Like a big Holiday Inn. [laughs] But it’s only a matter of time before we gotta split this world and go find us another. It’s like — remember Peter Pan? The Disney one? “All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” Like I said, we fuck up when we think of “All Along the Watchtower” as an ancient parable, like “Whew, glad that’s in the past.” It’s a warning for all times.

As it turned out, Jimi left for good long before the human race did. He died on September 18, 1970, in London at the age of 27. Discussing the tragic loss 30 years later, former Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell, who continued to back the legendary guitarist after their band’s 1969 dissolution, mused, “It was sad for us all. Unbelievable, really. One moment he was here, the next he wasn’t. For a young man of such extraordinary talent to leave so soon when he still had so much to offer was devastating.

“But, in retrospect, I think he might have realized his time among us was short, so he said musically everything that was necessary. Electric Ladyland was his grand statement and, really, quite an epitaph. The title was a reference to a recurring dream he had, of a planet inhabited by a race of people, half-human, half-machine. ‘Good and evil lay side by side while electric love penetrates the sky.’ Absolute poetry. And he believed it was a real place. Who knows? Maybe it was. You never knew with Jimi. He never quite seemed entirely of this world, right? It’s like he said: ‘If I don’t meet you no more in this world, I’ll meet you in the next one/Don’t be late.’ And you know what? I’ve a feeling he’s there.”