Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael Jackson, RIP

I remember where I was when Jim Morrison, the lead singer-songwriter of the Doors passed away. I was in a camera shop which had decided to branch out into different kinds of merchandise and had just started selling stereo equipment. One of the units on the shelves was tuned to the local top-40 AM station. As I was leaving, after having picked up some darkroom supplies, the national news came on. The top story was that Jim Morrison of the Doors had died of a heart attack in a hotel in Paris, where he and his girlfriend were living at the time. I never even knew he was living abroad. From that point on, their latest single “Love Her Madly” would haunt me every time it was played.

I remember where I was when John Lennon was assassinated. I was in the bedroom of my three-room postage-stamp apartment on the second floor of an unassuming 19th-century house in a working-class neighborhood, owned by a sweet old Jewish lady. I was listening to the local album-rock FM station which the general manager of the college radio station I DJ'd for had a paying gig at. At about 11PM, he interrupted the show he was DJing to read the Associated Press bulletin. He read the copy exactly as it came off the wire. He was on the verge of tears. I myself was stunned. Who, I wondered, would want to shoot a Beatle?

I remember where I was when I learned that Frank Zappa had died. I was in my girlfriend's living room listening to National Public Radio when the talk show Fresh Air came on. Host Terry Gross relayed the Zappa Family's announcement that Frank “had embarked on his final tour”. I did what thousands of his fans did, and called friends to tell them the bad news.

When Michael Jackson died yesterday, I was on a bus returning home from a health care rally in Washington, DC. A passenger's daughter had text-messaged her father that Mr. Jackson had passed on. Our group leader broke out her laptop and surfed a few websites before finding a story stating that Jackson had been taken to the hospital, with no word on his condition. Only about an hour later did we learn that the King Of Pop had indeed, died of cardiac arrest.

As a teenager, I'd always lumped The Jackson 5's music in with a late 60's-early 70's musical trend called bubblegum. Bubblegum to my peers was little more than light-duty pop marketed to impressionable pre-teens, with trite lyrics only a notch or two above the Mother Goose rhymes we got tired of halfway through nursery school. The Jackson 5 TV cartoon series only served to reinforce this notion. Looking back, I think we were a bit hasty in our judgment of the Jackson music family. Yes, The Jackson Five's music was aggressively marketed to children, but nonetheless Motown Records built the Jackson's catalog with the same approach which had made the Supremes, the Temptations, and Stevie Wonder household names. Where other bubblegum productions often used session musicians, Motown threw the Funk Brothers into the mix. Not many bubblegum tunes get played on oldies radio, but songs like “ABC” and “I Want You Back” (most notably covered by British pub-rocker Graham Parker) have stood the test of time. Samples from Jackson 5 records have powered many hip-hop tracks.

I was never a big fan of Mr. Jackson's later releases after he'd grown, though I must concede that I never gave his all-but-pivotal album “Off The Wall” an adequate hearing. Its sound set it squarely apart from the avalanche of cookie-cutter disco of the era in which it was produced. I scoffed at his 1980's efforts like Beat It, though I thought his collaborations with the pop icons of earlier decades, Mick Jagger (State of Shock) and Paul McCartney (Say, Say, Say) were rather brilliant.

Michael Jackson to me epitomized everything that was wrong with the music business. His concert ticket prices were among the highest in the industry. A rock critic who attended three Jackson shows on three consecutive evenings noted that each show was literally identical to the last. Every second of those shows, including things that were supposed to be spontaneous, was in fact scripted and acted out to a fare-thee-well. His appearance at the White House with then-president Ronald Reagan, a Doctor Feelgood who massaged the egos of American voters while his administration did its best to undermine the social progress of the previous two decades, was as grotesque to me as Elvis Presley's impromptu photo-op with Richard Nixon.

And then there was his appearance. As a young man, Jackson was an attractive African-American. In recent years, he became a grotesque parody of himself. He bleached his skin almost white. His facial features, the product of several plastic surgeries, some of which his doctors actually advised him against, made him look. androgynous and almost mannequin-like. And that voice. How did the pipes of that sweet little boy, that handsome young man become transmogrified into the alien, robotic whine of recent years?

Much – let me correct that, not enough has been said about Jacko's terrible childhood. Yes, the kid had talent, industrial quantities of it. But when any kid gets pushed to succeed as Jackson was, you've got to wonder what's going on when the camera lights are off and the microphones are closed. According to various sources, his father, a brutal taskmaster, would literally whip the preadolescent Jackson into line by among other things, holding him upside down by one leg and beating him on his back and buttocks. There were also allegations of sexual abuse. And according to Wikipedia, the elder Jackson had other interesting pastimes: One night while Jackson was asleep, Joseph [Michael's father] climbed into his room through the bedroom window. Wearing a fright mask, he entered the room screaming and shouting. Joseph said he wanted to teach his children not to leave the window open when they went to sleep. For years afterwards, Jackson suffered nightmares about being kidnapped from his bedroom.

Now the man who embodied incredible talent combined with incredible excess is gone. We shall probably not see his like again. The tragicomedy of Michael Jackson's life is over, at what's usually referred to as “midlife”.

That's sad.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Yes we can! (Can't we?)

Are you among those of us who think that Barack Obama isn't quite getting the “hope” thing right? I mean, health care “reform” that leaves insurance companies in the drivers' seat? Financial “reforms” that seem to be merely cosmetic? Environmental “reforms” that do almost nothing to address the issue of human survival?

Barack Obama is no way the surrender monkey that Bill "NAFTA" Clinton was. But why does it seem that the man who represents our first, best shot at real reform in far too long might be too willing to compromise with the people who made the mess that we're in? For the answers to these and other questions, I'll turn over the floor to our greatest stand-up political analyst, Mr. Bill Maher.

Take off that sweatsuit. Now.

Trust our man, Keith Olbermann to remind us that there are no limits to the absurdity of political punditry!

Recently, Mr. Olbermann showed us a clip from one of Rush Limbaugh's most recent daily talk shows. Through logic so circular as to make me dizzy from hearing it, the Republican Party's de facto leader attempted to convince all who would listen that the real reason for escalating health care costs in America is not drug company profiteering or out-of-control insurance company bureaucracies, but – don't laugh – people who exercise daily. Yes, the Rushster asserts that those of us who jog, bicycle, swim, lift weights, or play team sports for the sale of our health are really deluding ourselves, that we are actually engaging in self-destructive behavior. This, despite the fact that thousands of Americans exercise daily, not only with no ill effects whatsoever (apart from an alarming tendency to wear badly-coordinated exercise outfits) but with proven beneficial effects upon their general health. Despite the fact that yours truly used to stay fit by putting in mile after mile on my own 10-speed bike (until I went over to the dark side, and got a car).

Does it sound too incredible to be true? Here, watch Mr. Olbermann present the aforementioned clip for yourself!

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way to point B...

With a Ku-Klux muu-muu in the back of the truck

If you ain't born-again they wanna mess you up, sayin'
“No abortions, no siree,
Life's too precious can't you see!”
What's that hangin' from the neighbors' tree?
Why, it looks like colored folks to me!

Would they do that?
They've been doing it for years!

- Frank Zappa, “Jesus Thinks You're a Jerk

Note: This article was written before the assassination of Dr. Tiller.
Last week I had an epiphany. You know, one of those moments where something goes "click", and your ideas about something fundamentally change forever. It happened while I was driving down a rural road in upstate New York.

As you might have gathered from reading some of my previous postings, I happen to be very much in favor of reproductive justice. (I've never been comfortable with the popular label, “Pro-choice”. It's not specific enough. Anyone who who likes deli mustard instead of the regular yellow kind on his hamburgers, or puts up light-fuchsia drapes in her living room rather than red ones can be called “pro-choice”.) Nonetheless, like a lot of people of my persuasion, I sometimes had doubts about my beliefs, born of cultural and religious indoctrination, not to mention the unceasing crocodile-teared guilt-barrage of religious (or perhaps more accurately, quasi-religious) blowhards, cracks in my will where pronatalist slogans and ideology could infiltrate. Therein lies the chief difference between those in the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” camps. Those of us in the former camp may experience occasional doubts about the validity of our beliefs just as those in the civil-rights movements of the 1950's and 60's may have at times doubted the wisdom of theirs (I wonder how many African-Americans back then dealt with internalized racist indoctrination?). Let's face it, it's tough going against a prevailing ideology, especially one which is backed up by millions of dollars and power on a national scale. Most of those in the “pro-life” camp have no lingering doubts about their beliefs. Life is a lot simpler when you're told what to believe (or else).

Any such doubts and misgivings all but vanished from my mind in the moment of which I spoke earlier. Since I was driving a car, I obviously wasn't reading “feminist” literature. I wasn't listening to a “liberal” talk show. What I was listening to was a podcast called Storylife, an audio magazine hosted by Chris Bolton. It is modeled along the lines of This American Life. The particular episode in my car stereo was called The Underwater Birth of Francis Henri. It showcased a birthing procedure popular in some circles called water-birthing (which is definitely not to be confused with waterboarding) and it featured a live recording of such a birth as it happened. The newborn infant's first cry shattered the relative quiet of my car and any illusions I might have had about the “pro-life” movement being the least bit concerned with the welfare of young human beings. It wasn't simply my mind that got made up at that moment, it happened at a body level; it was a gut reaction. From that point on, I could never again take seriously the notion, the fallacy, that any so-called pro-life pundits, pastors and politicians and their sheep- or pit-bull-like followers say what they say and do what they do out of anything remotely resembling love. (At least their allies in the Westboro Baptist Church are honest. They put their cards smack-dab on the table; their God, they declare, is a hateful God). Put another way, when was the last time you heard of anyone from Operation Rescue showing up at the front door of a single parent's home with a case of disposable diapers and a voucher for five years' worth of day care?

Addendum 1: The “pro-life” movement of today is a lot more radical and dangerous than that of thirty years ago. Back in the day, they were merely anti-feminist groups. According to Chip Berlet on Democracy Now, today's pro-lifers have solid connections with neo-Nazi groups.

Addendum 2: Susie Bright has posted the story of one of Dr. Tiller's patients on her blog. I highly recommend it.