Hicks Keeps it Real

ON THIS DAY
On Sept. 27, 1964, the Warren Commission issued a report concluding that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in assassinating President John F. Kennedy.

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Elvis Is (Still) Dead, Long Live The King!

Poor Elvis.

The one-time king is now more often the (big) butt of jokes (see?).

But his musical and cultural imprint remains huge and will forever be impossible to escape from. This is, for the most part, a good thing. Just consider the number of musicians who have covered, copied and imitated the Great White Hype. In part because hype and purloined material aside, the man was, well, kind of a big deal.

In honor of the day he absconded his throne (while on the throne…see? One can’t help oneself), here are ten artistic invocations of Elvis, ranging from the good to the bad to the very ugly.

1. In one of the great scenes from one of the all-time great comedies, here is Spinal Tap saluting The King (argh: the full scene is not possible to embed, damn it. Go to YouTube and look at up “Spinal Tap Elvis grave” for a bit too much perspective):

2. The immortal Bill Hicks keeping it (un)real:

3. A more reverential tribute from the guitar god Danny Gatton:

4. Speaking of “Mystery Train”, here’s some love for (and from) Jim Jarmusch:

5. You think that’s weird? Ever seen Wild at Heart? (Nic Cage when he was only pretending to be crazy…mostly):

6. No list would be complete without Public Enemy’s eviscerating ‘dis. “Motherfuck him and John Wayne” is one of the great slams in rap history. I’ve never heard a song that could hurt and heal all at once quite like this one:

7. Okay. Some comic relief, STAT. Enter personal hero, Tortelvis. If you are not down with Dread Zeppelin, you should be. If you have never heard them, listen to what your life has been lacking all these years (from the enthusiastically recommended –no, really– album 5,000,000):

8. From Dread to Led. Recently discussed from the all-time album that supposedly sucks (but does not), “Hot Dog” is the hilarious and genuinely reverential and rocking Elvis tribute from Led Zeppelin’s In Through The Out Door:

9. And another Elvis-inspired number, this one from the magnificent Freddie Mercury. Rockabilly plus Elvis plus Brian May = epic:

10. Last and far from least, a song that sort of ties it all together, courtesy of Living Colour: guest vocalist Little Richard (!) gets the definitive last word, as well he should. Great vid (attention to detail always making the nice little differences: note the peanut butter and bananas in the shopping cart: RESPECT!):

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More on Hicks for Those Arriving to the Show, Already in Progress

In case you didn’t catch my review of Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection from last fall, it is an appropriate companion piece for yesterday’s take on the new Hicks documentary. If you are new to Hicks and looking to understand what all the hype is about, start with this stuff.

It’s a crying shame that Bill Hicks is no longer with us; we sure could use him right about now.

It’s a laughing shame (the sort where you laugh until you cry) when it occurs to you —and if you’re a Hicks fan it’s always occurring to you— how relevant his material remains. Of course this has less to do with Hicks and more to do with us: our collective chicanery copies itself, evolving with each succession of charlatans who occupy our public offices. And, naturally, there is never a shortage of slack-jawed and self-righteous types in our media, our academic institutions and especially our self-worshipping entertainment industry. In fact, as they get better (i.e., worse) with each new wave of mutilation, truth tellers like Hicks are more essential, if elusive, than ever. And his routines and ineffable one-liners still kill, allowing you to actually laugh while you weep.

They say geniuses are seldom recognized, or appreciated in their lifetimes. They also say the good die young. They say a lot of other things, and whether or not any of them are true, here are two facts: Bill Hicks is, as hindsight makes increasingly clear, the most gifted and enduring comedian of his generation, and he died entirely too young—at 32—intolerably too young. It makes you want to destroy something, like your TV, if you linger on it. But keep your boob tube intact and pop in some Hicks. While we’re fortunate to have the recordings and videos, up until now the sample size of available material, considering Hicks’ brilliance, is painfully slight. It is, therefore, a most welcome development to get a new and exhaustive installment. And this should tide us over until the next batch of unreleased goods are released from the vaults (we know there’s more in there and we want it).

Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection might not be the ideal introduction for prospective Hicks fans. Those folks should probably begin with the DVD Sane Man or the compilation Bill Hicks Live –Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian in order to see him bringing his fully-formed A game. For anyone who already has the available merchandise, this set should answer some prayers. For Hicks freaks, this qualifies for pinch-yourself status. An extremely generous four-disc package comprising two CDs and two DVDs, along with an online code for an album of original music, this sucker is well worth the price for the video footage alone.

The two CDs constitute a “best of” culled from his seven official releases, including a handful of unreleased nuggets. Quite simply, whether considered as an introduction, bonus material or a refresher course, these discs are just a jukebox of comical bliss. Some of his immortal bits are represented, like “Marketing and Advertising” (“if anyone here tonight is in marketing, kill yourself”), “What is Pornography?” (“the Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic that causes sexual thoughts. No artistic merits and causes sexual thoughts. Hmm…sounds like every commercial on TV doesn’t it?”), “Burning Issues” (“no one has ever died for a flag…they might have died for what the flag represents, which is the freedom to burn the fucking flag!”).

The DVDs, however, are where things get really interesting. The first disc, featuring four sets recorded in his hometown of Houston (and one in Indianapolis), covers the years 1981 —when Hicks was still a teenager— through 1986. The quality is hand-held sketchy, but it is remarkable that this footage exists at all. We see the actual development of Hicks, both in terms of his material and his incendiary stage presence, as it occurred in real time. From the start, a disdain for authority and an astute eye for sanctimony were the obsessions that informed his sardonic observations. It is fascinating to see the whip-thin comedian initially deliver PG-rated material, then slowly incorporate topics like drugs and a new cigarette habit into his routine. (“Can I bum a cigarette from someone? I left mine in the machine.”)

By the 1985 (Indianapolis) show Hicks is sufficiently confident to begin working in his airtight —and hilarious— eviscerations of the carnival of hypocrisy that is our American Fundamentalist Christian/religious right-wing. Needless to say, it’s a topic that provided him with ceaseless ammunition, and while he relished tipping over those sacred cows he was, as usual, distressingly prescient about the political clout these cynical hucksters (and their obedient flocks) would bring to bear in the ensuing decades.

The 1986 Houston (in two parts) gig illustrates the first signs of serious envelope-pushing, with Hicks testing —and occasionally cajoling— the crowd to see how far he could go. It is worth mentioning that Hicks never crossed the line unless it was in the service of hammering home a point. And if he succeeded at anything, his special gift was in delineating the prurience —and profit-seeking— that has always hidden in plain view beneath the puritanical façade our politicians, priests and TV producers obligingly maintain. Another classic bit all Hicks fans will recognize is his vision of the ultimate advertisement; the one they want to show: it involves nudity, flirtation and an almost incidental mention of the actual product. We’re not there yet but we’re a hell of a lot closer than even Hicks would have imagined 20 years ago.

The second DVD contains the oft-bootlegged, much-discussed cult film Ninja Bachelor Party, a multi-year side project/drug-inspired labor of love Hicks worked on with good friend Kevin Booth. This will be a huge draw for the people who follow Bill Hicks the way some folks follow Harry Potter; for almost everyone else it will qualify as a semi-amusing lark that won’t require repeat viewings. The other interesting, ultimately expendable feature is the inclusion of Lo-If Troubadour, a collection of original Hicks songs available via a download card. Hicks, as his act repeatedly indicated, took music very seriously and he spun gold out of observations that venerated his heroes (think Hendrix) and annihilated the hacks (think Debbie Gibson and Billy Ray Cyrus, among many others). Hicks is a competent guitarist and he acquits himself more than respectably. The lyrics, alas, are a bit embarrassing and his voice, while intriguing, probably won’t make many people wish he’d spent less time on his comedy.

The real gift, from the second DVD, is The Austin Bootleg Series and it includes gigs from 1991, 1992, and two from 1993. This is Hicks while he shone brightest, just before cancer overtook him in early-1994. This material was recorded at and around the same time he was doing the material collected on CDs like Arizona Bay, Rant in E-Minor and the DVDs Relentless and Revelations. There is less politics (though there is plenty to savor: commenting on the shameless spectacle of well-remunerated politicians admonishing the citizens to tighten their belts —sound familiar?— Hicks volunteers to tighten his belt—around their necks) and more sociology, and it is clear he has spent time tweaking—and perfecting—his carefully cultivated sad clown/angry guy misanthropy. Segueing from a scorched-earth bit about abortion and pro-lifers, Hicks teases the parents in the crowd and reminds them that their kids are not “special”: “I’ve wiped entire civilizations off my chest with a grey gym sock—that’s special.”

His riff on “company man” Jay Leno will make you cringe and then laugh, loudly. He dismisses fellow comedian Carrot Top by describing him as the alternative for people who didn’t “get” Gallagher. And then there is the stuff that is at a whole other level, like the famous “Positive LSD story” (“Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we’re the imagination of ourselves…here’s Tom with the weather!”) Suffice it to say, the outlaw comic is firing on all cylinders, and this is exactly the soul medicine we count on from Hicks.

So what else is there to say, other than suggesting you make it a priority to own this set? A few final words might be in order. Read the liner notes, watch the interviews, go to the Internet: try to find someone, especially a comedian, who was not impressed with or influenced by Bill Hicks. (Take Denis Leary, please. While the damning and irrefutable evidence of Leary’s wholesale thievery is well documented and old news, seeing vintage Hicks skits again is an often painful reminder of the career Denis built on Bill’s coattails.) Speaking of painful: boy is it enticing to imagine what Hicks would have made of George W. Bush, The Patriot Act, Katrina and Change We Can Believe In. By losing Bill Hicks we lost incalculable opportunities to laugh, learn and “explore inner and outer space together, in peace.”

When we discuss our departed artistic MVPs, too often it involves the clichéd and tragicomic self-induced sabotage by drugs or drink. More distressing, and inexplicable, are the geniuses who are almost cruelly snatched out of their own rarefied air. Hicks, though he had an appetite for destruction for many years, was clean, sober and stalking the world like a lion when Fate intervened. Life is just a ride, he often said at the end of his shows. He knew it and was probably better prepared for it, however short it turned out to be. Perhaps, in the final analysis, it wasn’t so much that he died but became, suddenly, extinct. We certainly won’t ever see anything like him again in this world.

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‘American’: The Bill Hicks Story

Not familiar with Bill Hicks? You need to be. Check this out:

Coming so soon after last fall’s release of Bill Hicks: The Ultimate Collection, getting a full-blown Bill Hicks documentary may seem almost too good to be true. The fact of the matter is that American: The Bill Hicks Story has been around for a while, and is only now being released stateside. Directed by Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, this film was actually released in late 2009 in the UK, which is not as surprising as it may sound, considering that Hicks was far more popular there than in his home country before he died.

For the growing legion of Hicks fans who can’t get enough, there is much to recommend in this new feature. For those who haven’t seen any of his performances, this may not be the most appropriate or enlightening introduction. Certainly this documentary goes to great lengths to explain and discuss Hicks, but without the context of his material, it may not make sense why it’s important to watch a full documentary (plus an additional five hours of bonus material) about him. It is, and you should—but you may first want to check out some of his readily available, and essential, performances.

Even for the faithful to whom Hicks is quite familiar, American may invite more questions than it answers. The filmmakers, presumably in an attempt to get the “true” story of the “real” Bill Hicks, conduct extensive interviews with his family (his mother and his older brother and sister) and several of his closest friends, some of whom were/are comedians in Houston. On one hand this is an effective decision, since these intimate sources most definitely have personal, often touching stories to relate. On the other hand, a great deal of time is spent on these recollections which, even when revolving around Hicks, call attention to the peripheral subjects doing the speaking.

After a while, one can’t help wondering if no effort was made to contact established comedians and critics, or if those individuals were unwilling to participate. The latter scenario seems unlikely, since so many comedians are already on record, and their approbation of Hicks is pretty well universal.

Many, including myself, are of the opinion that Hicks is far and away the best—and most important—comedian of his generation. Having done, and enjoyed, the homework to understand and appraise his evolution from teenage phenom to (very) angry young man and finally to the unadulterated genius he became, the evidence is already there. The existing footage, as well as the sparse but intense accolades from fellow artists, makes the case quite compellingly.

While welcome, it’s not clear how necessary it is to have family and friends reminiscing about how special Bill was or how he influenced their lives. On the other hand, it could be argued that it’s equally questionable how useful more encomiums from famous and influential comics would be.

Here’s the deal: even after watching (and enjoying) every second of this exhaustive feature, I found that there are still many issues unresolved. Indeed, there are quite a few matters that are never addressed at all. With a talent like Hicks, whose life was not without controversy, this seems more than a little negligent. Worse, it tends to confirm that the ultimate endeavor here was more about beatification than explication.

For example, it’s well documented that once Hicks began drinking to excess (and abusing drugs), his moods—and his act—became increasingly dark and a great deal of anger obviously festered inside him. Understanding that he was raised in a religious household, and initially made the (mostly loving) mockery of his parents a cornerstone of his routines, one might suspect there was some resentment or confusion. However, all the interviews with his mother would lead one to believe that there was a minimum of tension and turmoil in the Hicks’ household.

This unwillingness to dig under stones of deeply personal family history is understandable, even respectable. However, any documentary that declares itself “The Bill Hicks Story” does everyone a disservice by not finding—and presenting—some countervailing intelligence.

In an era when we have ridiculous reality TV shows wallowing in—and profiting from—unfortunate Americans’ problems, I’m not remotely suggesting that this documentary should have plumbed deeper into whatever uncomfortable depths did or do exist. In fact, there’s absolutely no question that Hicks loved his parents and got along with them remarkably well: the fact that he chose to be with them in the months before his death says all that needs to be said.

Still, in the context of the hours (!) of conversation, whatever issues preceded and exploded during his extended period of excess are mostly tip-toed around. (That Denis Leary shoehorned entire chunks of Hicks’ act into an HBO special called No Cure For Cancer, which promptly made him wealthy, while Hicks died…of cancer, is equal parts ironic and intolerable. Leary is mentioned exactly zero times in the course of these five-plus hours, which is odd. For now, any further details or insights must remain between Leary’s soul, the devil and the deep blue sea.)

That said, it’s often amusing, and frequently wonderful, to see and hear how much love Hicks attracted. His family adores and respects what he accomplished and the man he became; his friends remain in awe of him, and one gets the sense that he was a special person in many senses of the word. James Ladmirault aka “Jimmy Pineapple” (who gets name-checked in Hicks’ Sane Man DVD) admits that he may not have achieved sobriety without Hicks’ assistance and encouragement.

Childhood friend, and working comedian, Dwight Slade, with whom Hicks was inseparable through high school, has several hilarious and heartwarming stories. One in particular: on their football team the two boys wore numbers 9 and 20; this became their secret code during phone discussions. When Slade learned Bill died at 11:20 (in Texas), he realized he had been onstage, the night before, at 9:20, Canadian time.

Of course, the impressive trajectory of Hicks’ career is abundantly and competently covered. From appearing at local nightclubs while still a minor to forgoing college and driving directly to Los Angeles, it’s abundantly—and sometimes painfully—obvious how difficult it was even for a comedian with his ability to break through. In fact, he spent most of the next decade not breaking through.

Early support from Jay Leno landed him on Letterman’s show, where he would return many times (infamously just before his death, where his act was censored, something Hicks never got over and Letterman claims to have always regretted). His dangerous dance with the drugs and booze can and should serve as a cautionary tale; his dedication to sobriety and the subsequent productivity he enjoyed are genuinely inspirational.

The last years of his life remain difficult to reconcile. Finally finding rock star-level fame in the UK (as well as Canada), his confidence was uncontainable. He was also playing his guitar, and the documentary spends time illustrating how important making music remained for him, even when he got sick. After his diagnosis, Hicks shared the news with as few people as possible and kept working as much as he was able. As much as he always hated traveling, he continued to do it because he had to. He also maintained, understandably, that when he was on stage everything else went away.

The recordings made during these last shows represent some of his best work (see Arizona and Rant in E Minor). It’s still excruciating to experience the cognitive dissonance of this footage: pale and entirely too thin, Hicks is still full of passion and it’s as though he can barely keep up with his mind. Clearly he was in a zone, eager to express these thoughts, share that energy, and do his best to get it all out. A few months later he was dead, at 32.

It’s easy to recommend American because anyone who makes the Hicks connection is going to want everything they can get their hands on. This documentary does not tell the whole story, however, but it doesn’t need to. It provides a valuable service by collecting the recollections and impressions of the people who knew Hicks best.

In terms of the critical insight (and/or input) missing here, that seems a minor quibble: if one thing is certain it’s that Hicks is only getting more popular with each passing year, so there will be many more features in our future. This is a good thing, since it’s unlikely we will ever stop evaluating, mourning and celebrating the man and his work.

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Down With The King: Wherein the Mysteries of Easter are Contemplated (Revisited)

Right.

So what’s scarier: a grown man dressed in a bunny costume, an actual adult-sized Bunny, or whatever chemicals comprise these things?

Or, you know, this “bunny”.

Or Jimmy Stewart and his imaginary companion (which is more disturbing: that his friend is invisible or that he’s a bipedal rabbit?); did he eat too many Peeps, read the Bible too much (or not enough), and is this some deep allegory about faith (or the more mundane and secular realm of schizophrenia)?

Which begs the question: what is ultimately more difficult to comprehend: the plot of Donnie Darko or the concept of a man who wasn’t really a man; who was the son of God, but really God, who is nailed to a cross, dies and is resurrected to save us from eternal damnation because of the sins committed by two naked humans eating an apple in a magical garden? And that in order to redeem ourselves, we eat his body and drink his blood? I’d say it’s a push.

Then there is this, which always makes me so happy that it almost compensates for the Catholic upbringing.

For all those concerned about my immortal soul, two things: don’t worry about it and, I’m pretty certain that The Big Guy upstairs has as much empathy for sinners like myself as He has a sense of indignation about cretinous proponents of Creationism who insist the Bible (written by men) proves that Christ lived with the dinosaurs because, you know, the Earth is only six thousand years old.

On the other hand, I’m down with the King:

But enough about Run DMC.

I’m on board with concept of Christ, even as a fictional character. Seriously.

Assuming J.C. is just a top tier model of literary inspiration, it’s hard to find a better guy to follow. (And by follow I mean the example and not the whole drop everything and squeeze through the Eye of a Needle. I’ll leave that between God and the wizards of Wall Street.) Christ, aside from being the Endless Enigma, is (if considered a fictional creation) the most fecund source of fictional creations. Art, literature, music and movies. Especially movies. Some of the movies have actually been satisfactory.

Others, not so much:

But that is the problem when overly earnest believers foist their visions of Christ on others (in artistic venues and less artistic venues of performing arts, like churches): it is propaganda as opposed to honest product. Or worse, it’s an endeavor that reveals the mastermind’s honesty in stark, unavoidable strokes. In Mel Gibson’s case, his hate-mongering, anti-Semitic, bullying and backward conception of Jesus Christ is long on the sadism and short on the compassion. It’s a useful illustration of weak craftmanship backed by a strong wallet, resulting in a blatant advertisement (albeit an unintentional one) for an individual’s bigoted sensibility. It also begs the question of just how deeply repressed Gibson’s homoerotic impulses are. Based on his work on and off the screen, he is straining credulity.

And then there is this, original source here (link found here, well worth visiting just for the comments section):

Speaking of which, Christians would do well to embrace the reality that Christ (the man, the myth) was not a honky.

Put another way:

Put another way, Jesus looked a lot more like this guy:

And not a lot like this guy:

But we can probably all agree that this guy is the Antichrist.

Yet far be it from me to hate on this Holy weekend. The ’70s did not suck!

In conclusion, it is with considerable confidence that we can assert Jesus was black and he had game. In fact, He wore number 15:

Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (AKA “Black Jesus”). That’s some gospel I can get down to.

I’m not certain about any ultimate answers, but as always, I’m content to let Bill Hicks have the last word.

Happy Easter!

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The Power of Magical Thinking: Reflections on Reagan

Part One: Fact

The fortieth president turns 100 and a religious cult (also known as the Republican Party) can’t name buildings after him quickly enough.

Is there room for Reagan on Mt. Rushmore?

I’ll leave it to the inimitable Bill Hicks who suggested: “Let’s put him under Mt. Rushmore.”

But on the occasion of The Ill Communicator’s centennial, it is important –if not particularly instructive– to remember what actually happened, and how we got to where we are today: a political landscape where any conservative has learned to praise the holy trinity: Reagan, God and country.

It’s too easy, right?

Has it really come to this? (Has it always been thus?) All some Americans need is a person to play the part and tell them how great they are, how amazing we are, and then, no matter how much the unemployment rate and the deficit spikes, it’s all good because we feel good? It is too easy and that is too simple. But the more one looks at Reagan (the man, the myth, the legend –literally), the more difficult it becomes to reach any other conclusion. What exacerbates the inanity of this (very remunerative, just ask He Who Is Incapable of Shame, our old friend Newt Gingrich) enterprise is the fact that virtually everything today’s wide-eyed republicans want to believe about St. Ronnie doesn’t square with the, well, inconvenient truth of his actual record.

But, after considerable deliberation, oceans of black ink (er…galaxies of electronic ink) and head-scratching intense enough to furrow trenches on sentient scalps, it turns out that it really is that easy.

It is the power of magical thinking, the fulcrum upon which most religious and political momentum swings: all it requires is uncritical, unblinking fealty and you’d be amazed how simple, and ceaselessly restorative this exercise can be for the unenquiring mind. All of a sudden the world shrinks, Santa Claus exists, America is God’s favorite country, God is white, Jesus is a capitalist and the New Testament is a socialist primer.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled, Baudelaire once wrote,  was convincing the world he doesn’t exist. Well, the greatest trick the GOP ever pulled was convincing its flock that the devil does exist. The way to keep the Evil One at bay is to close your eyes and believe a few immutable commandments: no taxes ever on anyone, the media is liberal, government is the problem (by far the most invoked and insidious lie of Reagan’s legacy), and never, ever question The Man –unless he happens to be a Democrat.

How else can you get people to consistently vote for policies that devastate them, counter every teaching of the (honky) Jesus and weaken our country except, of course, for the obscenely wealthy who rewrite the rules as they go along.

So…what does any of this have to do with Reagan?

To paraphrase the not-so-great Donald Rumsfeld: “You go to war with the president you have, not the president you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

So it was in 1981.

We did not go to war, of course, and that may –or may not– be the point. Is there a point (literally, figuratively) to reimagining the causes, effects, errors and triumphs of a particular presidency? It happened. I’m at peace with it (what choice do I have?), and if I refuse to call Washington National Airport by another name, so be it; in fact, Christopher Hitchens put it best when he opined that it was already named after a rather important president, thank you very much.

The good folks at ThinkProgress have done some nice work, reminding people who already know (the people who don’t know and need to read this will never go to that site, naturally) the facts vs. the fabrications. It’s a good primer in the event you find yourself discussing Reagan’s dubious legacy with a true believer. Check it out.

Then, of course, we always have the aforementioned Bill Hicks, who saw through the B.S. (even before it went into the full-power spin cycle) two decades ago:

So let’s review the facts.  Historical fact (as in: the record, on file, which is growing and decaying before our widening eyes) would make it challenging to counter the assertion that Reagan’s enduring legacy is one of exclusion and inequity. Many people would love to argue the point, and many have been. Of course, it always helps to consider who is doing the spinning. As we’ve seen in the very short time since his death (indeed, in an initiative that kicked off years before he even kicked the bucket), a very intense and targeted effort was undertaken to ensure that the beatification of Reagan became the cause nearest and dearest to those who stand to profit the most from his hagiography. Led by the insufferable conjoined twins of neo-con nationalism, Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, it became good business to do everything humanly possible in the way of rehabilitating an image that was far from lionized in the late ’80s.

Fortunately, in the week some celebrate his life, we can revisit two fantastic pieces debunking the very cynical (and appallingly successful) attempt to mythologize this very simple and radioactive political poseur. William Kleinknecht here and Will Bunch here do some heavy lifting in the service of truth. And to say the scales covering the eyes of the hoodwinked are heavy is understating the obvious, as Reagan becomes the conservative alternative to Che Guevara. To say that we are in dire need of some uncomfortable (for some) corrections for the sake of perspective, particularly as we see the soiled seeds of this Reagan Revolution bearing full fruit in our imploding economy, is scarcely stating the case strongly enough.

Part Two: Fiction (sort of)*

Like everyone else I know, I grew up—really grew up, if I’ve ever actually grown up—in the Reagan 80’s. Take my childhood, please. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. During the extreme periods of boom and busted, pro and convicts, the majority in the middle seldom feel the pain, they rarely see the cocked fists and hoisted heels. It’s the people on the poles, the haves and haven’ts, who taste the changes the have lesses can afford to ignore.

But now, after the 90’s—on the verge of oblivion, as always—we have anti-inflation. We’ve got more money than we know what to do with; we’ve gotten so good at counting it we need to make more just to keep up, we keep making it so that we will still have something to do. Capitalism isn’t wrong, but neither is intelligence: you cannot spend money and make money—someone is always paying the tab (and it’s usually the poor suckers who can’t spend it who take it in the ass so that anonymous, ancient bored members can pulverize their portfolios). In other words, working where I work, with neither the best nor the brightest bulbs in the professional firmament, I can see for myself that this has nothing to do with talent, necessarily. It’s about numbers. Like an army, like America. Whether you’re a company or a cult (like an army, like America), you simply want to amass enough manpower so that nothing else matters. Quality? Integrity? Originality? Nice, all, but they’ve got nothing on the numbers. When you’re big enough, you don’t have to beat anyone up, your rep precedes you and quells all contenders. You don’t have to fight anymore. Safety in numbers, sure, but there’s more at stake than simply survival—people are trying to make money.

Look: I’m not unaware of the wealth our deal cutters are creating, and I’m not unappreciative when they sign my paychecks. In the 80’s, or any other time, you had the fat-walleted fuckheads trying to multiply their millions by any means necessary; they didn’t just disregard the reality of putting their foot on nameless faces to divide and conquer, they reveled in it. It wasn’t personal, it was strictly business, and it wasn’t their fault they excelled at it, it isn’t their fault they were born into this. The only responsibility they had was to ensure that all this affluence they had no part in amassing stayed safely outside the reaches of normal, taxpaying proletariat.

Let’s face it: it’s not as though the five or six folks who actually flip the switches and decide who gets what (after, of course, they’ve had theirs) ever consented to this sudden, and by all accounts inexplicable, turn of events. They certainly didn’t plan it this way. And you can be certain they don’t condone it or in any way seek to keep it around if they can help it. But that’s the thing: they can’t help it. They never saw it coming. I definitely didn’t see it coming. I see it every time I look at Otis: who could possibly have predicted this? The guys that—if they were lucky—were going to be chain restaurant managers and counter-jockeys at Radio Shack suddenly had the keys to the kingdom, because they understood how the world-wide-web worked.

But I’m willing to bet some of the money I’m supposedly worth that these unsettled old sons of bitches are very interested in redirecting wealth back into the hoary hands of those used to handling it. How, they must stay awake during the day worrying, can this country continue to run right when so many regular people start getting involved? It happened before, in the 20’s, and if they had to eliminate alcohol for a few years then maybe it’s time to start confiscating computers.

Still, I can’t shake the suspicion that these visionaries are doing many of us a disservice by manufacturing this much money, for making it so easy. Everyone loves their job these days, and it’s for all the wrong reasons. It’s all about the money. The money this and the money that. You lose money to make money, you make money to make money, you take money to make money, you make up anything—to make money. Right now, as the new century sucks in its gut for the changing of the guard, unearned money hangs heavy in the air like encouraging ozone: a soft rain’s gonna fall eventually, inevitably, and everyone will wonder why they’re soaking wet and insolvent.

*taken from a work of fiction, written before it all happened to come true in 2008.

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November 24, 1963: Take Two, Times Two

ON THIS DAY:

On Nov. 24, 1963, Jack Ruby shot and mortally wounded Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President Kennedy.

You think that is irreverent? Here’s Hicks:

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A Dose Of Dennis Miller With An Ian Curtis Chaser

I saw something the other night that really depressed me. It concerns a genius who, for a variety of reasons, could not maintain control. His implosion can be attributed to many of the usual ailments: self-doubt, self-loathing, self-aggrandizement, solipsism, projection, and a latent condition that medicine did little to ameliorate. Oh, and the presumptive intake of questionable substances probably didn’t help either. After some remarkable highs and a steady series of lows bordering on flatlines, he flamed out, career cut tragically and nonsensically short. It was incredibly tough viewing, but I hung in there and (barely) made it through.

And when Dennis Miller’s latest HBO special was over, I watched a movie about Ian Curtis.

More on that in a moment. First, let me attempt to articulate why I found myself –for the first and hopefully last time– actually giving my TV the finger. Boy has Dennis Miller left his lofty perch as one of the premier comedians (and minds) of his generation and careened down to the earth as a shambling cliché of craven opportunism, cynical hackery and anti-intellectualism the dishonesty of which is only exceeded by his shamelessness. And this is coming from a writer who already raised an R.I.P. on his career almost two years ago, begging the question: how much lower can you go than D.O.A.? The answer, alas, is: pretty fucking far. His latest routine, while having its moments (you would know –and be correct to– not take me seriously if I did not happily concede that the man is still capable of displaying wit and invoking laughs; he has a perspicacity that does not dissipate overnight; he is not quite the post-lobotomized Randall P. McMurphy from Cuckoo’s Nest but damn is he headed there at twice the speed of sense), is so bogged down by misplaced bile and blame-the-victim banality, the bright spots are sufficiently shit-stained that you just want to look away, after covering your nose and checking the soles of your shoes.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

When I wrote my review of his then-recent collection of HBO specials (in early 2009), I figured Miller had gone about as low as a once-sentient citizen could go, and perhaps once the economy revealed itself to be the bad hairpiece it was, even a suspiciously hirsute fellow like Dennis would see the error of his ways and maybe, maybe even offer up a mea culpa of sorts. Not a chance. He has double…no, tripled down, and he not only has no regrets about the Dubya debacle, it’s quite clear that he misses the man whose boots he used to lick on Fox News. Perhaps I should not be surprised by this (and I reckon I wasn’t) but it’s a testament to how much I once respected Miller that I can’t help being disappointed.

Here is how on-target his present-day political acumen is: he ridicules the health care legislation (“Obamacare” apparently is the agreed-upon G.O.P. code-word to denigrate the initiative) by suggesting that with young adults (some may still call them kids) allowed to remain on their parents’ health plans for a few more years (while they are busy looking for the jobs that don’t exist), we are turning this country into a bunch of medical marijuana smoking slackers. Aside from the inanity of this observation, I wanted to tell Miller it was still a tad too soon to be auditioning for Andy Rooney’s role as out-of-touch-asshole Emeritus. His riff on Guantanamo (“what’s the problem? it works!”), aside from being factually wrong, morally repugnant and farcical on purely logical levels, is on par with the Fox News ethos: hold your breath, put potato chips in your ears and, well godamnit, GO U.S.A.!

He continues to ridicule global warming (“hey, this means I can play golf in December”, etc.) and shrugs off the national debt (which, obviously, Obamacare and neither voodoo economics nor those moderately expensive –and, naturally unmentioned– wars has wrought) by saying “Hey, we’re America: let’s just not pay it!” For a man who is ostensibly concerned about the next generation being a bunch of Bill and Ted’s on a government-sponsored not-so-excellent adventure, he sure sounds like a man whose mind has been hijacked by Keanu Reeves. In a particularly grotesque bit of starstruck sycophancy disguised as an anecdote, he rambles on about getting to meet the great Frank Sinatra. Ironically, this is in many ways as revealing as the political shtick: at this point in time even the most sentimental saps who love the Old Blue Eyes legend –as well as his music– can acknowledge that the man himself was a bigoted, bullying shmuck. What then does it say about someone who is already famous drooling over the opportunity to spend time with the then-senile and increasingly misanthropic crooner? Maybe they had the same scalp surgeon. Or perhaps it has something to do with getting old and washed up and increasingly falling back on jingoism and nostalgia for the good old days when white bread was what you ate and who you ate with.

Remember This Guy? Neither Does Dennis Miller

Here is a Cliffs Notes overview of my lengthy, aforementioned assessment from two years ago:

Miller was never a liberal; he ridiculed pomposity and idiocy which is always abundantly represented on both sides of the political spectrum. Of course, he had a particular penchant for calling out the bullying tactics of media blowhards and the baser instincts (fear, power) that the most cynical politicians prey upon, so it’s impossible to ignore the sad irony of seeing him prostrate himself (for a paycheck?) at the fortress of Pomposity and Idiocy at Fox News. It certainly doesn’t make his old material any less funny; it just makes it a tad bittersweet to look at, all these years later.

The devolution was slow and increasingly brutal: by the time an HBO special from ’96 rolls around, he spends an insufferable chunk of time lambasting the ACLU and has little to say about politicians or the powerful. At one point he declares “I’m looking to make a little bread, build a wall, take care of my loved ones…and stay out of the crosshairs.” Die-hard Dennis Miller fans may have to Windex off their LCD screens (if they ever see) that one. By 2003 it was all-ugly all-the time: (when) he starts in on the Middle East…things begin to derail as the stand-up turns into an occasionally ugly right-wing rant. As America was about to deploy forces to Iraq Miller, like many like-minded citizens of the time, is blasé to the point of cockiness. He not only returns to the hackneyed ad hominem toward the French, he boasts that once we’ve “won” in Iraq (quickly and decisively, obviously) the French will be sorry that they blew their chance at the spoils. It’s embarrassing. Miller actually pauses mid-performance to utter the words “I’d like to thank George Bush for allowing me to respect the American presidency again.” It is, as they say, to laugh—even if it’s for the wrong reasons.

Bottom line: at issue is not whether Dennis Miller, after 9/11, lost his mind and starting cheerleading for Bush, Cheney and the Iraq War (he did). It’s also not an outrage that, coincidentally or not, he is no longer near as nimble or gratifying as he was in his prime (he isn’t). What’s important to acknowledge is that, while his newer material is sorely lacking, when he was on his game, he was among the baddest—and brightest—stand-up comedians in the country.

All of which has to be the oddest segue ever into a discussion of Ian Curtis. If you are a Joy Division fan you probably caught Control when it first hit the screens (and streets) in 2007; if you still have not seen it, you should. If you are not a Joy Division fan, you should be. If you don’t believe me, believe this and this and especially this. 

If you are still not convinced, try this:

If you’re still not convinced, isn’t there a Dennis Miller special you should be watching?

Having just written in some detail about the sad, redemptory and mostly inscrutable life of Syd Barrett, it was impossible not to make several connections between these two extremely brilliant and deeply sensitive souls. Each of them gave us a lifetime of work in the most abbreviated artistic lives, and each was gone from the scene before most folks ever had a chance to catch up to them. Arguably, many folks are still struggling to keep pace with what they did more than thirty and forty years ago, respectively. And while there is no question that a cult of personality is inevitable when charismatic rock stars die early (Hendrix, Joplin, Holly and Stevie Ray), particularly if they die by their own hand (Cobain, Curtis and, to varying extents, Morrison, Moon and Bonham), there is still a difference between the ones who left too soon and those who may have changed the world –even more than they already did– had they managed to stick it out. Therefore, envisioning what Ian Curtis may have offered in the ’80s and beyond is…difficult. Far be it from me to fan the facile flames of myth-making, but Ian Curtis has more in common with Syd Barrett than a handful of albums that continue to influence musicians today.

Think about it: what would Syd’s music have sounded like in the ’70s? (And after?) I’m not suggesting or implying it wouldn’t have sounded incredible, but I also wonder. And I don’t think his enigmatic end justified the means, but I’m content not only with the handful of documents he did leave behind, but the import they accrue considering a would-be career cut off so bluntly. Likewise, was there anything else for Ian Curtis to prove? Changing the face of music (listen to these songs: even if you have never listened to a Joy Division song, if you were alive in the ’80s and have had ears the last two decades you’ve heard them channeled through the myriad acts who’ve absorbed them like oxygen) was, arguably, enough and quite well done for a two-year tenure. If Piper At The Gates of Dawn and Unknown Pleasures are not on the short list of all-time great debut albums nobody else belongs in the debate.

Considering the legacy of Syd Barrett, I suggested the following:

There was so much more for Syd to achieve… or was there? Do we dare ask for or expect more from any artist who gave so much? Is it both selfish and short-sighted to wonder what he may have achieved in the ‘70s and beyond when we consider what he’d already done? Did Syd pay the ultimate price for fame and artistic immortality?

I could have said the exact same thing about Ian Curtis. Watching the movie (and I also strongly encourage anyone who is interested in Joy Division, or that era in general, to check out the magnificent 24 Hour Party People, featuring the incomparable Steve Coogan), I mostly felt a tremendous sadness. Before he was an artist he was a father, a husband and a human being. On all of those levels, even (or especially) the prospects of fortune and fame could not quell the desperate gloom he struggled to keep at bay. (His offstage and onstage epileptic seizures are the stuff of Dostoyevesky, figuratively and literally.) It makes your heart hurt, and then the music helps heal you; if only it could have healed them.

Finally, I want to resist the urge, but since I also just wrote at some length about Bill Hicks, I can’t help myself. Comparing and contrasting the lives and careers of Ian Curtis and Dennis Miller on the same day goes beyond cheap irony and seems to suggest a sardonic reiteration of artistic inequity, as it’s tended to play out past and present: the great ones are too often hampered (and/or inspired) by their fragility and are inexorably broken by the world, their pieces an ineffable legacy we are left to ponder; the hacks thrive once they suicide their souls and feed their flesh, growing old and obscene by eating their unjust desserts, applauded all the way by the unreflective Hoi polloi.

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Laugh While You Weep with ‘Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection’

It’s a crying shame that Bill Hicks is no longer with us; we sure could use him right about now.

It’s a laughing shame (the sort where you laugh until you cry) when it occurs to you —and if you’re a Hicks fan it’s always occurring to you— how relevant his material remains. Of course this has less to do with Hicks and more to do with us: our collective chicanery copies itself, evolving with each succession of charlatans who occupy our public offices. And, naturally, there is never a shortage of slack-jawed and self-righteous types in our media, our academic institutions and especially our self-worshipping entertainment industry. In fact, as they get better (i.e., worse) with each new wave of mutilation, truth tellers like Hicks are more essential, if elusive, than ever. And his routines and ineffable one-liners still kill, allowing you to actually laugh while you weep.

They say geniuses are seldom recognized, or appreciated in their lifetimes. They also say the good die young. They say a lot of other things, and whether or not any of them are true, here are two facts: Bill Hicks is, as hindsight makes increasingly clear, the most gifted and enduring comedian of his generation, and he died entirely too young—at 32—intolerably too young. It makes you want to destroy something, like your TV, if you linger on it. But keep your boob tube intact and pop in some Hicks. While we’re fortunate to have the recordings and videos, up until now the sample size of available material, considering Hicks’ brilliance, is painfully slight. It is, therefore, a most welcome development to get a new and exhaustive installment. And this should tide us over until the next batch of unreleased goods are released from the vaults (we know there’s more in there and we want it).

Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection might not be the ideal introduction for prospective Hicks fans. Those folks should probably begin with the DVD Sane Man or the compilation Bill Hicks Live –Satirist, Social Critic, Stand-Up Comedian in order to see him bringing his fully-formed A game. For anyone who already has the available merchandise, this set should answer some prayers. For Hicks freaks, this qualifies for pinch-yourself status. An extremely generous four-disc package comprising two CDs and two DVDs, along with an online code for an album of original music, this sucker is well worth the price for the video footage alone.

The two CDs constitute a “best of” culled from his seven official releases, including a handful of unreleased nuggets. Quite simply, whether considered as an introduction, bonus material or a refresher course, these discs are just a jukebox of comical bliss. Some of his immortal bits are represented, like “Marketing and Advertising” (“if anyone here tonight is in marketing, kill yourself”), “What is Pornography?” (“the Supreme Court says pornography is anything without artistic that causes sexual thoughts. No artistic merits and causes sexual thoughts. Hmm…sounds like every commercial on TV doesn’t it?”), “Burning Issues” (“no one has ever died for a flag…they might have died for what the flag represents, which is the freedom to burn the fucking flag!”).

The DVDs, however, are where things get really interesting. The first disc, featuring four sets recorded in his hometown of Houston (and one in Indianapolis), covers the years 1981 —when Hicks was still a teenager— through 1986. The quality is hand-held sketchy, but it is remarkable that this footage exists at all. We see the actual development of Hicks, both in terms of his material and his incendiary stage presence, as it occurred in real time. From the start, a disdain for authority and an astute eye for sanctimony were the obsessions that informed his sardonic observations. It is fascinating to see the whip-thin comedian initially deliver PG-rated material, then slowly incorporate topics like drugs and a new cigarette habit into his routine. (“Can I bum a cigarette from someone? I left mine in the machine.”)

By the 1985 (Indianapolis) show Hicks is sufficiently confident to begin working in his airtight —and hilarious— eviscerations of the carnival of hypocrisy that is our American Fundamentalist Christian/religious right-wing. Needless to say, it’s a topic that provided him with ceaseless ammunition, and while he relished tipping over those sacred cows he was, as usual, distressingly prescient about the political clout these cynical hucksters (and their obedient flocks) would bring to bear in the ensuing decades.

The 1986 Houston (in two parts) gig illustrates the first signs of serious envelope-pushing, with Hicks testing —and occasionally cajoling— the crowd to see how far he could go. It is worth mentioning that Hicks never crossed the line unless it was in the service of hammering home a point. And if he succeeded at anything, his special gift was in delineating the prurience —and profit-seeking— that has always hidden in plain view beneath the puritanical façade our politicians, priests and TV producers obligingly maintain. Another classic bit all Hicks fans will recognize is his vision of the ultimate advertisement; the one they want to show: it involves nudity, flirtation and an almost incidental mention of the actual product. We’re not there yet but we’re a hell of a lot closer than even Hicks would have imagined 20 years ago.

The second DVD contains the oft-bootlegged, much-discussed cult film Ninja Bachelor Party, a multi-year side project/drug-inspired labor of love Hicks worked on with good friend Kevin Booth. This will be a huge draw for the people who follow Bill Hicks the way some folks follow Harry Potter; for almost everyone else it will qualify as a semi-amusing lark that won’t require repeat viewings. The other interesting, ultimately expendable feature is the inclusion of Lo-If Troubadour, a collection of original Hicks songs available via a download card. Hicks, as his act repeatedly indicated, took music very seriously and he spun gold out of observations that venerated his heroes (think Hendrix) and annihilated the hacks (think Debbie Gibson and Billy Ray Cyrus, among many others). Hicks is a competent guitarist and he acquits himself more than respectably. The lyrics, alas, are a bit embarrassing and his voice, while intriguing, probably won’t make many people wish he’d spent less time on his comedy.

The real gift, from the second DVD, is The Austin Bootleg Series and it includes gigs from 1991, 1992, and two from 1993. This is Hicks while he shone brightest, just before cancer overtook him in early-1994. This material was recorded at and around the same time he was doing the material collected on CDs like Arizona Bay, Rant in E-Minor and the DVDs Relentless and Revelations. There is less politics (though there is plenty to savor: commenting on the shameless spectacle of well-remunerated politicians admonishing the citizens to tighten their belts —sound familiar?— Hicks volunteers to tighten his belt—around their necks) and more sociology, and it is clear he has spent time tweaking—and perfecting—his carefully cultivated sad clown/angry guy misanthropy. Segueing from a scorched-earth bit about abortion and pro-lifers, Hicks teases the parents in the crowd and reminds them that their kids are not “special”: “I’ve wiped entire civilizations off my chest with a grey gym sock—that’s special.”

His riff on “company man” Jay Leno will make you cringe and then laugh, loudly. He dismisses fellow comedian Carrot Top by describing him as the alternative for people who didn’t “get” Gallagher. And then there is the stuff that is at a whole other level, like the famous “Positive LSD story” (“Today, a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. There’s no such thing as death, life is only a dream and we’re the imagination of ourselves…here’s Tom with the weather!”) Suffice it to say, the outlaw comic is firing on all cylinders, and this is exactly the soul medicine we count on from Hicks.

So what else is there to say, other than suggesting you make it a priority to own this set? A few final words might be in order. Read the liner notes, watch the interviews, go to the Internet: try to find someone, especially a comedian, who was not impressed with or influenced by Bill Hicks. (Take Denis Leary, please. While the damning and irrefutable evidence of Leary’s wholesale thievery is well documented and old news, seeing vintage Hicks skits again is an often painful reminder of the career Denis built on Bill’s coattails.) Speaking of painful: boy is it enticing to imagine what Hicks would have made of George W. Bush, The Patriot Act, Katrina and Change We Can Believe In. By losing Bill Hicks we lost incalculable opportunities to laugh, learn and “explore inner and outer space together, in peace.”

When we discuss our departed artistic MVPs, too often it involves the clichéd and tragicomic self-induced sabotage by drugs or drink. More distressing, and inexplicable, are the geniuses who are almost cruelly snatched out of their own rarefied air. Hicks, though he had an appetite for destruction for many years, was clean, sober and stalking the world like a lion when Fate intervened. Life is just a ride, he often said at the end of his shows. He knew it and was probably better prepared for it, however short it turned out to be. Perhaps, in the final analysis, it wasn’t so much that he died but became, suddenly, extinct. We certainly won’t ever see anything like him again in this world.

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One Nation Under A Groove or, Burn, Baby! BURN!

Another great moment in American douchebaggery!

Despite the fact that we’re on somewhat of a losing streak in recent years (thanks, Wall Street!), one of the reasons America remains a place so many people want to live is that we do so many things so very well. That whole Constitution thing is pretty swell. The Bill of Rights turned out to be pretty righteous, wouldn’t you agree? And despite our occasional internecine struggles, it’s mostly been a family affair; we are all in this together. We’ve kept it real as one nation under a groove: the black, the white, the red and the brown, the purple and yellow, as that statesman and patriot Wonder Mike once put it.

We keep it real, which isn’t to say that we are not immune from being real wrong. Our mistakes are indelible stains on our history, no matter how hard some of us endeavor to deny or conceal them.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose, eh?

In February, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was issued. That is, the infamous presidential/executive order that, validated by America’s state of war, gave a president (FDR) the power to consign various ethnic groups (see: the Japanese) to internment camps. Not too coincidentally, the individuals targeted happened to be Americans belonging to the ancestry the U.S. was concurrently fighting in WW II (the aforementioned Japanese, as well as Germans and Italians). Over 100,000 Japanese-Americans were spirited away to these camps. Not unlike the concentration camps, one thinks about this period in history and thinks (hopes?) it was far back in our past. Considering the 20th Century was already half-over puts it in immediate, and painful, perspective. About sixty years ago, millions of Jews were being slaughtered in Germany and tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans were being forcibly sent to internment camps. Less than two generations. On good days, we look at this and say “how could it have happened?”. On other days, we look at Guantanamo and it’s difficult to feel too proud of the progress we’ve supposedly made. 

 

This picture has haunted me ever since I first saw it, over a decade ago.

A Japanese family, en route to an internment camp. Neither defiant nor indignant (they could not afford to be), they are quite obviously eager to illustrate their solidarity. Acquiescence. Approbation. The miniature American flags, the victory signs, the smiles. The fear behind those forced gestures. (Not forced because they were fake, but because they were obligatory; imperative as the bare minimum to ensure that the worst was not automatically assumed.) Look closely at how the father sets the tone: he understands the score. Smile, this is your life. The kids are either too old to protest (the older daughter) or too young to fake it (the son). But it’s the young girl in the middle (middle of the picture, middle child in the family) that conveys the intolerable hypocrisy and inhumanity of the situation: she is the only one without a smile on her face or a flag in her hand. She is old enough to understand, but young enough to be understandably petulant about her circumstances. No matter her age, she knows this unwilling exodus is unnatural, unacceptable. And her face (more than a million subsequent words decrying the conditions that led to this embarrassing moment in U.S. history) is able to convey the very human cost of counterproductive policies begat by hysteria.

Never again, one thinks, looking at that picture. It was unfortunate, but that was half a century ago, we’ve evolved into e-mail and instant communication across the globe, certainly we shan’t act that rashly again. Surely we’ve seen enough of this appalling history to ensure that it’s never repeated. Obviously we have made amends and are stronger, as a nation, for what we commissioned in the name of national security. Clearly we could never dive into the deep end again, indulging the uglier side of our collective sensibility. Fortunately we’ve come a long way since the dark ages of our (parents’) infancy.

Haven’t we…

Which brings us to this Quran burning crusade.

Fortunately, it looks like even the most reprehensible ringleaders of anti-Muslim sentiment (see: Sarah Palin) have declared this activity an “unnecessary provocation.” Which begs the question: how far over the edge (and/or desperate for an audience –and cash) are you if you manage to make Sarah Palin sound like a sane voice of restraint? We’ll have plenty of politicians on both side of ideological fence taking an opportunity to talk tough (into cameras) and remind us about American values which, apparently, don’t extend to mosques (that aren’t really mosques) being constructed on Ground Zero (even though it’s not really at Ground Zero).

Personally, I’m grateful to this “pastor” and the cretins who will put fire to paper on 9/11 in order to prove a point. Because, unbeknownst to these imbeciles, the point they are making is that, as those commercials used to say, a mind is a terrible thing to waste. And while we can’t (or shouldn’t) waste too much time trying to convert the willfully ignorant to enlightenment, we can (and should) keep a wary eye on these very un-American activities. How ironic, by the way, is that? As ever, the people most vocal (and ostensibly concerned) about conduct contrary to America know the least about our history, including the intent of those immigrants (!) who wrote the documents they believe they are defending. If you want to strain the metaphor, it might not be unreasonable to suggest that when anyone burns another person’s bible, they are indeed setting ablaze our Constitution.

These folks, who, we know roam our nation in greater numbers than we might have imagined, (and are so easily whipped into a frenzy by their masters), are more than a little behind the evolutionary curve. While Fox News gets their Fascist on, and Rush gorges his fat ass on profitable cynicism, these has-beens and never-will-be’s (the bigots, the uneducated, the willfully ignorant, the impotent imbeciles, as well as the doctors, lawyers, teachers and parents) find the voice that never answers them in church, or at the office, or in their cars, or in the bedroom or –worst of all– in their own dark and empty heads when the lights go out.

One on hand, you have to laugh at these simpletons who want to “bring our country back”, meaning the good old days when blacks and women knew their place, homosexuals dared not show their faces in public and the bible held firmer sway over a greater portion of the populace. Presumably these same tea baggers  don’t want to also bring back cars without air conditioning and houses without running water, smallpox without vaccine and surgery without anesthetics and a few dozen other of our least favorite things from a time when the world was a whiter shade of pale.

And it’s not at all difficult to connect the dots between the type of magical thinking employed by the bible thumpers and the Ayn Rand-obsessed Libertarian lunatics (how perfect –and appalling– a commentary on the cultural Koyaanisqatsi we are currently struggling through that the son of the Libertarians’ savior is named after the most humorless and phlegmatic popular novelist of the 20th Century. Painfully popular. And imperceptive. (And influential. Right Alan? Atlas shrugged; Jesus wept.) Indeed, the only redeeming thing I can think about Ayn Rand is that she partially inspired one of Rush’s great early albums.

The part that is not funny, of course, is that this is still happening on our watch. As a nation we are deciding what we tolerate and what we will stomach. It’s useful to know how much work is left to be done, and bigots burning bibles is a reminder that we need to get busy. The last few months leave little question that it will be harder (now, later) to whitewash –pun intended– these regrettable instances. They have been scattered through American history like a resilient rash: those times we remained idle while darker hearts strangled our collective souls.

Well, what are you going to do about it, Whitey?

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