IT’s Good to Be KING: Stephen King at 70

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FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

~

Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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In Defense of Stephen King (Revisited)

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(For the remainder of the month, I’ll be revisiting some personal favorites, all of which are available in my recently-released collection, MURPHY’S LAW VOL. ONE, which is available NOW!)

FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

~

Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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Why Is Prog Rock So Inadequate, Simplistic, Reductive, Portentous and…Perfect? (Revisited)

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It’s always crucial, when talking trends—musical or otherwise—to contextualize the times and remember that wardrobe malfunctions, chemical excess and unspeakable atrocities like porn-star mustaches never exist within a vacuum. To properly remember, and assess, the good, the bad and the ugly of what accelerated (or, in some cases, stunted) our collective forward progress, we should feel obliged to stop, look and listen. And taste, and smell. And always make sure to program our perspective and especially our sense of humor for what we’re about to experience. For make no mistake: when it comes to lessons learned, unfortunate choices and free comedy, progressive rock remains a gift that keeps on giving.

Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. And, for the most part, this was a wonderful thing. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend started crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut.

And then, emboldened, or inspired—or both—wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s. What some of us still refer lovingly to as progressive rock held sway over the sonic landscape: with side-long suites and literary allusions in overdrive, prog rock became an enterprise that launched a million air guitars. These songs (these albums) were of their time in every regard and invoke inextricable connotations of the decade itself: bloated, hazy, earnest, misguided, visionary, awkward, awesome.

So it behooves us, if we want to have a sober discussion of which music from this era is worthwhile, and why it endures, to remember just how much overly produced music was made by overindulged acts throughout the ‘70s. The excesses—both aesthetic and recreational—informing the scene also sorted the field, separating contenders from has-beens and assorted flavors of the Billboard Hot 100. Put bluntly, these were the not-so-good old days when coke-snorting executives in leisure suits green-lighted hit singles by acts destined for the dustbins and oldies circuit. Put even more bluntly, acts like Barry Gibb, The Bay City Rollers and K.C. and the Sunshine Band all managed to be millionaires.

No need to invoke Dickens; it was neither the best nor the worst of times. At one extreme we had dancing queens and dry ice edging ever closer to the public (and publically accepted) stage; at the opposite end of the spectacle we witnessed the emerging proposition of punk rock. To its credit, the punks’ do-it-yourself ethos scorned the self-parody of both dinosaur arena acts as well as the aforementioned jungle boogie bandwagon jumpers. This raw wave crashed in a spray of broken glass, safety pin piercings and bloody spittle that served to shake up the power-pop vanguard. The prevailing formula had suffocated on its own self-importance, and the new fashion harnessed hairspray and spite in equal measure to establish brand new ground rules.

Or at least that’s the generally sanctioned version of events we tend to hear entirely too often. Raise your hand if you’ve read (one time or one hundred times) the facile and hackneyed account of how punk killed progressive rock so that we could all live miserably ever after. The reality, as it stubbornly tends to be, is much messier and more complicated. Progressive rock came and went (and came back), but opinions differ on what specific years it covered and which artists epitomize it. Perhaps this is unavoidable, because this so-called era isn’t easily packaged into a particular time period or specific aesthetic, and what we are left with is the all-encompassing moniker of prog-rock, which manages to be inadequate, overly simplistic, reductive, portentous and… perfect?

A form of musical expression that, for lack of a better cliché, transcends time and place is created and exists on its own terms, so there is no barrier of language, ideology or agenda that prevents it from finding its audience. The only requirement is a sufficiently open mind and ears (or eyes) capable of picking up what is being put down. Of course this same criteria can be—and typically is—applied to any artistic expression. So why is it different, or at least more complicated, when it comes to assessing the pros and cons of prog rock? Put as simply—and starkly—as possible, many beautiful babies were thrown out with the bath water by hidebound critics who were content to snootily dismiss the more elaborate (pretentious!) works that certain bands were putting out as a matter of course in the early-to-mid ‘70s.

One of the many reasons progressive rock remains controversial, and taken less-than-seriously by the so-called serious critics, is because fairly or not it frequently gets associated with sci-fi and fantasy. Matters of musical proficiency aside, it is true to suggest that little of the material holds up especially well, lyrically speaking (of course that is true of most rock music—a topic for another time). This is not a sufficient—or necessarily legitimate—cause to dismiss it as is usually the case, but defenders can only get so much mileage discussing the unparalleled chops of, say, ELP, Yes, Rush, et al.

“I may make you feel, but I can’t make you think”. This line, from Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, serves as a succinct summation of why prog rock did—and does—inspire such intense adoration and/or aversion. The people who reject it (then, now) likely would ask, and not without merit, who wants to think? Music typically fails if it can’t burrow past your beer gut.

It’s fair to suggest that, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, the most successful music of this genre made you think. Inevitably, the artists who were too self-conscious for everyone’s sake; the ones trying a tad too hard to make you think—especially the ones who wanted to make you think how clever they were—crossed the verboten third rail of pretension and have been punished accordingly (then, now). But the best practitioners, through their lyrics, themes and conceptual ideas that occasionally spanned entire albums, went for your head as well as your heart.

For some reason the gatekeepers of the Establishment (many of whom are the ultimate hipsters, poseurs and baby-boomers; many of whom are men; many of whom, coincidentally, have written for Rolling Stone) seem embarrassed by the notion that rock music can—or should—be capable of eliciting thought as well as feeling. That it can be unaffected without the face-saving cynicism too many songwriters, the ones predictably lionized by these same besotted journalists, feel compelled to employ. What is it about prog rock in general that makes these self-satisfied scribes so uncomfortable? That is a rhetorical question.

There is, ultimately, something irrepressible and life-affirming about this music, and in a market (then, now) where opportunism and cold calculation are the default settings, this unabashed—and unapologetic—devotion to an unjaded vision could almost be considered revolutionary.

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In Defense of Stephen King

Stephen_King_we_never_sleep-256x400

FACT: STEPHEN KING, the most successful author of our time, arguably toils more diligently than any other writer. For this alone he deserves recognition and respect.

To the haters: Yes, it’s unlikely any of his works will ever be dissected in graduate seminars. But ask any writer, in whatever genre, about their ultimate goal and the honest, simple answer is to be read. On this score, King has achieved what few authors, of any time, will. For this, too, recognition and respect—however grudging—is warranted.

To the savvy social media hipsters: How many likes did you get on that pithy post? You have how many Twitter followers? Keep channeling that energy into tweets, cultivate your online presence to evanescent perfection. King just wrote another novel while you refreshed your screen.

Here’s the Thing about King: he is so incredibly, so preposterously productive it’s not unreasonable to imagine the thousands (millions?) of trees that would still be standing if he’d at any time decided to take his foot off the throttle. Then again, how can we do anything but admire an artist for shutting out the very distractions we love to lament? How much reality TV time do you think King is racking up? How many hours is he wasting on Facebook? Sure, he’s afforded himself the luxury of not needing to pay the bills, so he gets up every day and punches a different kind of clock, and his time seems regulated not by machines but the engine inside him. This drive—it can’t be for money, it’s unlikely he craves more fame—keeps him engaged and, if it gives him no rest in the superficial sense, it’s provided him peace.

If he won’t be accused of being a craftsman, he should be celebrated for putting on his boots every day, without exception or excuse, and killing more trees. Stephen King is the Paul Bunyan of fiction, America’s literary lumberjack.

~

It’s actually not that difficult to imagine some of King’s novels getting the grad school treatment; at the very least they may be ripe for undergraduate-level exegesis: “English 301: Stephen King and the Pop-Culture Apotheosis”. Here, let’s give it a shot.

Salem’s Lot can be interpreted as an extended metaphor about the increasing cycle of parasitic capitalism, forcing blue collar folks to feed off the blood of the upper classes, until egalitarianism is achieved, at last, through eternal predation. (But no, it’s just a book about vampires rampaging through a small New England town.)

Cujo was written, so the author claims, while he was putting more blow up his nose than Tony Montana in Scarface. Perhaps we can reconsider the mucus-coated muzzle of the St. Bernard as an extended allegory regarding the danger and disempowering potential of hard drugs. Or greed, or power, or any vice. (But no, it’s just a book about a big rabid dog rampaging through a small New England town.)

Christine: a car possessed by the soul of its original owner, or a car that possessed the soul of its original owner, who now possesses the car that possesses the soul of its new owner: a Borgesian labyrinth deconstructing the self-abnegation and reincarnation inherent in the act of creation? (No, it’s just a book about a car rampaging through a small New England town.)

Is it exhausting reading this? It’s exhausting just writing it. Plus, the uninitiated could simply watch the movies. Though, in fairness, even the better movies are worse than the most mediocre books (yes, for my money that includes the overly saccharine and sentimental crowd favorites Stand By Me and The Shawshank Redemption). Again, one thinks of the recurring theme of carnage and the inestimable tonnage of trees…

~

Stephen King has been a bit more defiant in recent years, and he’s earned the right to be a tad truculent about his influence. Selling more than 350 million books and making multiple generations of readers into fanatics is undoubtedly gratifying and something a fraction of writers will ever experience. And he can boast penning at least three novels that anticipated colossal cultural trends: he made vampires cool again (a few decades ahead of schedule), he conjured up a delusional sociopath jump-starting a nuclear apocalypse before Reagan took office, and envisioned a devastating pandemic before AIDS became front-page news (‘Salem’s Lot, The Dead Zone, and The Stand, respectively). This trifecta alone earns him street cred that should extend beyond literary circles. Yet clearly, the critical backlash accumulated over the years sticks in King’s craw. As an éminence grise who, it might also be pointed out, paid his dues for many years before his “overnight” success, he is aware he’ll always be a tough sell for the lit-crit crowd.

In his recent, extended interview in Rolling Stone, King is candid, calm, and not above throwing a few haymakers at some usual—and a couple of unusual—suspects. He gets his licks in on the insufferable Harold Bloom (who went out of his way to savage King when the latter won the National Book Award in 2003), whom he describes as taking “(his) ignorance about popular culture as a badge of intellectual prowess”. Fair enough. If King’s ghastliest work injures the eyes, it doesn’t quite deaden the senses the way Bloom’s sacred cow shenanigans often do. As such, King’s bitter tea tastes pretty sweet on the page, and he is justified for calling out people who dismiss him out of hand.

King correctly connects the dots between Nathaniel Hawthorne and Jim Thompson; he rightly invokes Twain and delivers some welcome insights on the ways we are conditioned to receive and respond to different mediums. And his commentary begs necessary—or at least worthwhile—questions regarding labels and poles, high-brow and third-rate, and whether the twain shall meet (they always do, of course, as Mark Twain himself proves). His observations, for instance, on Jaws—and how movies are capable of attaining a credibility seldom afforded to popular fiction—offer a refreshing alternative analysis regarding what his work is, who it serves, where it appeals, and why it will endure, in its way.

And then, with a chip on his shoulder as Big as the Ritz, he takes a curious swipe at Fitzgerald, who probably spent more time polishing a paragraph than King takes to write a rough draft. He also sets his sights on Hemingway, and his remarks underscore how simultaneously disarming and exasperating King can be. “Hemingway sucks, basically. If people like that, terrific,” he shrugs, gauntlet thrown.

These comments are not as sacrilegious as they may seem, at first. It’s difficult to deny that Hemingway—and much of what he epitomized—continues to age poorly, and some of his novels are as overrated as some of King’s are unfairly maligned. On the other hand, The Sun Also Rises establishes sufficient evidence of Hemingway’s brilliance, and many of his short stories are more indispensable than anything King has written (particularly his own short stories). For all the hype and possibly deleterious influence of Papa’s minimalism, it does serve as an aesthetic antidote for King, a writer who edits his tomes the way weeds regulate their growth.

King asserts that he has elevated the horror genre, and few would disagree, even if some might say: “So?” He compares himself to Raymond Chandler whom he credits with elevating the detective genre. It’s clear that what King covets is more respect. His disdain for the Literary Industrial Complex is understandable, but—unfortunately for him—the people he loves to loathe are typically the arbiters of these matters. On one hand, he can point to his sales stats and declare victory (that’s what Hemingway might do; it’s also what Tom Clancy—whom King hopes to distance himself from—did). On the other hand, all the clever arguments and eyebrow-raising one-liners can’t accomplish what his work must do on its own accord. If sales and celebrity are what distinguish hacks from legends, in the end it’s always the writing itself that must outlast or endure the hype.

~

Let me tell you a story.

Stephen King has been very good to me. If I haven’t read anything he’s written since the late ‘80s, I sure as shit read everything up to that point. I first encountered him in grade school: I saw ‘Salem’s Lot, then I read it. Ditto Carrie. From then on, he was always there for me, a new book every time I needed one. By the time I caught up with the back catalog, he was on his early-to-mid decade roll, cranking out Cujo, Christine, Different Seasons, etc. It was also around this time that every King effort was made into a movie, so in many regards it was all King all the time for a while there.

It was the Ulysses of my adolescence; that novel contained the universe (known, unknown) to me, circa 1987. And if it transfixed me, then, I can still admire the adrenaline and drive, the ambition and sheer endurance it takes to attempt—much less pull off—such a project. When we found out, in 1985, that he was also pumping out product as Richard Bachman the scope of his capabilities became apparent. He was Beethoven: inhuman, unreal, too prolific to adequately measure in logical terms, teenager-wise.

It was my Holy Grail; even as a sixteen year old I suspected nothing could ever be the same, I stoically anticipated the inexorable comedown: How can he follow this? How can I? Coincidentally or not, soon thereafter I went to college, girls became more than a yearning concept (where they had heretofore been mostly unimaginable, even dangerous, if not quite able to start fires with their minds able to confound and incinerate my own illusions). An undergraduate no longer requires whimsical nightmares via fiction; he is too busy instigating them in real life. Above all, I read authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time. Hemingway, too, of whom it can succinctly be stated: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” conceivably has more heft than the best 100 pages King’s ever typed. In sum, I grew up. That’s not to suggest King is more suited for children, it’s to relate that the more widely I read, the more acutely I realized ten lifetimes would scarcely present an opportunity to cover the menu I was compiling.

And yet. King made me want to write. He made me want to be a writer. He was the one who consistently made the magic happen. He cracked the furtive code of storytelling: creating memorable, occasionally indelible characters, and, through the use of words and imagination, making our world more vital, more real. (And, importantly, he has never taken himself too seriously.)

Stephen King remains as relevant as ever, as a concept if nothing else. While we behold the ongoing implosion of the traditional (and often dysfunctional, elitist, undemocratic) book publishing industry, we should commend a multi-millionaire who is still, somehow, an underdog. King is an unacknowledged legislator of sorts, the man of the people most politicians pretend to be. Accuse him of anything, but no one can say King does not care—about his characters, his readers, his craft. Quick: how many artists of any kind, regardless of rank or reputation, roll out of bed and get busy every day, including weekends?

Even if the quality is forever debatable, King’s picture could hang on any aspiring writer’s desk. Not enticed by (more) money or accolades, King goes about his business without distraction or depletion: he puts pen to paper and does the work. That King is still driven by those demons and finds his faith (in writing, in himself) intact after all this time makes him a hero of sorts. Toward the end of the Rolling Stone interview he describes his vocation as only the luckiest and most blessed amongst us ever will: “It fulfills me,” he says. “There are two things I like about it: It makes me happy, and it makes other people happy.” There is a peace there, something that combines Zen and the certainty of a difficult job, dutifully done. It is, in the final analysis, good to be The King.

*This essay originally appeared at The Weeklings on 3/31/2015.

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Sinners and Saints (File Under: The Catholic Church is (Still) Decadent and Depraved)

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So here is the best thing I’ve seen this week relating to the Pope slinking away into post-Prada obscurity.

Selena Coppock
Pope Benedict is stepping down from his official duties, but he’ll continue to ignore the sexual abuse of children on a freelance basis.

Whatever anyone wants to write (and there have been the predictable parade of ring-kissers and lotus eaters giving obligatory benedictions to Benedict), this is his lasting legacy, and it will only get worse in years to come as more insidious info leaks out of the Vatican vaults.

My various takes on religion, faith and spirituality have been liberally –and hopefully, intelligently– sprinkled throughout my writings and anyone familiar with this blog knows where I stand (for a taste on how my evolution was impacted by a love of art, and people, go HERE).

I don’t have much more to say that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll go back to the archives and dust off an old favorite, reposted below.

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

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Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

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Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

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In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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Time Stand Still: Why Rush Belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

First things first. Just because Rush is finally getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it doesn’t mean that institution is not still problematic for reasons too numerous—and obvious—to require elaboration (Hint: Look who’s not in. Now look at who is in. Draw some conclusions).

Put another way, it’s not necessarily the bands, like Rush, that have thus far been denied so much as so many of the middling acts that have been admitted that made this particular delay such an affront.

Based on any number of criteria, including albums sold, influence cited (recall the range of artists who stood up to be counted in the excellent documentary Beyond the Lighted Stage), and by virtue of creating one of the seminal albums of the modern era, Moving Pictures, Rush has always been a no-brainer. And that has long been the sticking point: brains have never been the strong suit of the style-over-substance crowd holding the keys to the proverbial kingdom.

Rush’s induction will spare us the spectacle of so many uncool and cast out acolytes storming the Hall like By-Tor on Bastille Day. Think of all the time and energy this simple act of justice has freed up now that veterans of the chat-room wars no longer have to rail against the power windows that be.

Full disclosure: I once wrote a college paper analyzing the Utopian impulse in Rush’s late-‘70s albums (the “Holy Trinity” that comprised 2112, A Farewell to Kings and Hemispheres, which was in turn followed by the holier trinity that includes Permanent Waves, Moving Pictures and Signals). (See “Emotional Feedback on a Timeless Wavelength: Rush’s ‘Permanent Waves”, and “Drag the Dream Into Existence: Reassessing Rush’s Masterpiece”.)

Assuming there will be haters and party-poopers who reserve the right to protest any kudos coming Rush’s way, let’s evaluate the evidence. There are so many angles to attack this from, that fact alone makes a fairly credible case. For starters, Rush tops a very short list of bands that have managed to stick together for 40 years.

Conversely and, for my money, compellingly, had Rush happened to be a short-lived band that put out Moving Pictures bookended by Permanent Waves and Signals—before a tragic toboggan incident claimed Geddy Lee’s life—Rush would have been first ballot material. Certain acts do themselves no favors by sticking around, just as certain acts get idolized all out of proportion based on a furious combination of potential, wistfulness and what-ifs (Exhibit A: Nirvana).

True, for most objective fans, it has been a long series of inconsistent efforts since (insert album here). For this writer, the last album that fully satisfied was 1989’s Presto. On the other hand, there are people not even born in the ‘80s who have jumped on the bandwagon upon hearing one of the albums released during the last quarter-century.

Their most recent effort, 2012’s Clockwork Angels has generated the most positive press the band has received in ages, proof positive that they can have a meaningful impact even as they approach sexagenarian status. The point being, Rush has continued to create new work and convert new fans over the course of multiple decades. In terms of longevity and relevance, this fact is more than slightly astounding, and all but a rock ‘n’ roll anomaly.

Perhaps instead of listing more of the pros, we could consider the alleged cons, many of which apply to prog-rock bands in general and are, not surprisingly, epitomized by Rush.

There are few folks who can claim, at least with any credibility, that Lee, Lifeson and Peart are not amongst the most musically proficient players in rock history. Indeed, their craftsmanship was too often used against them, especially in the early days. Like certain bands that prospered in a certain decade, they made too much music. The so-called critics who did—or do—refuse to acknowledge the compositional brilliance and execution of tracks like “La Villa Strangiato” or “Xanadu” are not unlike the clueless emperor in Amadeus, who complained that there were simply too many notes.

One consistent and irrefutable observation of prog-rock bands is that there is little or no levity. The bands seldom smile, have no sense of humor, and don’t even put their faces on album covers! If ever a band could be credited with not taking itself too seriously, it’s Rush. Anyone who has been to a concert, heard an interview, or read any lyrics (at least post-1980) understands that Rush has self-effacing wit to spare, and are downright silly compared to virtually any other prog-rock band (and by silly we mean the intentional sort).

Incidentally, and ironically, U2 take themselves much more seriously (and are much more insufferable) than any prog-rock sourpuss—with the possible exception of ELP. Naturally, Bono and the boys are worshipped by Rolling Stone, the same publication that until 2008 couldn’t be bothered to put Rush on a single cover.

But… Ayn Rand!

Okay. For the first few albums after Peart assumed writing duties (Fly By Night through 2112) the lyrics range from earnest to embarrassing, but it’s the fleet fortune hunt with Rand that, somewhat justifiably, dogged the band forever after. Acknowledging “the genius of Ayn Rand” in the liner notes is never going to win over many literate or discerning listeners (much less critics), so Rush became guilty by self-inflicted association.

Never mind that the accusations of being reactionary (misguided) or fascist (ludicrous) did not sensibly apply to a song cycle based on a future without music. Indeed, Peart & Co. have spent decades pointing out (quite credibly) that the material of 2112 had everything to do with artistic freedom and avoiding compromise, and less than a little to do with politics or social statements.

And for all the ridicule some of Peart’s lyrics rightly receive (The Necromancer! Snow Dog!), his body of work stands proudly alongside anyone (yes, anyone) who has put ink to paper in the service of pop songs. Peart’s lyrics took a “quantum leap forward” as the band’s first decade wound down and if he, understandably, cringes at some of the words he wrote during his mustachioed years, he can—and should—remain quite proud of the poetry he produced for the aforementioned “holier” trinity . (In fact, for the balance of the ‘80s Peart’s lyrics were seldom less than impressive and more than occasionally incredible).

Let’s go to the audio tape: Never mind the fact that the songs flat out kill, the words alone on efforts like “Free Will” and “Natural Science” stand alongside just about anything anyone has written in the last 33 years. His love of language (the puns-upon-puns in the album’s title and corresponding cover art are a feat that would be duplicated to delightful effect for Moving Pictures) was finally met with material that upped the ante and forced him to dig deeper. As one decade ended Rush had already made history: as another one commenced they were fully prepared to produce work that remains resilient—and relevant.

But…that voice!

Okay. Even if one concedes that the music and the lyrics are top-notch, there is still Geddy Lee’s voice to get around. It seems to be a love/hate proposition (not unlike what many people experience with Neil Young and Tom Waits, to name two of the more popular polarizers in rock circles). Is it that upper register that throughout the ‘70s often escalated to a shriek what repels people (especially women)? Is there something to be said about a band whose songs and attitude could not be less “alpha male”, and whose singer sounds like a woman, having the smallest female fan base of any prog-rock entity?

Perhaps the best way to measure, and appreciate Rush’s credentials is to consider how far they came from where they started. Like an athlete honing skills each season, Rush evinced remarkable improvement each year, leading to those “all-star” years commencing with 1980’s Permanent Waves. Afterward, as much as any act, Rush capably bridged the chasm between prog-rock’s flameout and the onset of MTV.

Discussion of Rush’s catalog calls to mind the way entirely too many people talk when (or if) they talk about jazz: strong opinions abound, and it’s soon revealed that the dissenter has listened to little (if any) of the work in question. For every skeptic who employs some or all of the objections listed above, it’s seldom acknowledged that the same band singing about necromancers and the Tobes of Hades went on to address decidedly un-prog issues ranging from AIDS (“Nobody’s Hero”), to bullying (“Subdivisions”), to suicide (“The Pass”). In fact, it may be the persistent positivity (of the band; of its material) that rankles the cynics and naysayers more than anything else.

In the final analysis, most bands—for better or worse—conjure up a time or mood or era (if they are even capable of doing that much). Even bands that have staggered past their expiration dates (say, The Rolling Stones) are more like drunken grandfathers out after last call. Rush, as much as any rock band, represents the eternal present tense. They adapted, and evolved in real time, reflecting the issues, sounds and styles of their day. And one reason, aside from merely making excellent music, that they endure, and remain so popular is that their audience has grown with them—in most senses of the word. Rush has mirrored, and described that journey, so they are never a nostalgia trip; it’s very much about the here and now.

From 1974 through 2013, and counting: Rush went from good to very good to great to as perfect as a band can be to, arguably, very good and good (your mileage may vary). Put yet another way, and perhaps the most important way: Rush has never been less than good. By all accounts they have never turned in a live performance that was less than competent (you don’t attract—and retain—lifelong fans unless you show, every night, that you care).

Regardless of whether the results, Moving Pictures aside, produce universal consensus, there is this bottom line: somewhere along the line Rush reached a different stage wherein they are the only band they can measure themselves against. This is something exceedingly few bands, in the history of rock music, can ever claim.

http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/170071-time-stand-still-why-rush-belongs-in-the-rock-and-roll-hall-of-fame/

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The Catholic Church is Decadent and Depraved: Papal Edition

So here is the best thing I’ve seen this week relating to the Pope slinking away into post-Prada obscurity.

Selena Coppock
Pope Benedict is stepping down from his official duties, but he’ll continue to ignore the sexual abuse of children on a freelance basis.

Whatever anyone wants to write (and there have been the predictable parade of ring-kissers and lotus eaters giving obligatory benedictions to Benedict), this is his lasting legacy, and it will only get worse in years to come as more insidious info leaks out of the Vatican vaults.

My various takes on religion, faith and spirituality have been liberally –and hopefully, intelligently– sprinkled throughout my writings and anyone familiar with this blog knows where I stand (for a taste on how my evolution was impacted by a love of art, and people, go HERE).

I don’t have much more to say that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll go back to the archives and dust off an old favorite, reposted below.

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

pope benedict

Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

vatican 1

Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

vat

In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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The Catholic Church is (still) Decadent and Depraved

Follow the money. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

These are the two oft-invoked quotes I kept thinking to myself as I read Sabrina Rubin Erdley’s piece, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files” from Rolling Stone. Find it here.

I encourage anyone to read it in its entirety, though make sure you’ve already eaten; it’s sure to put you off food and you’ll likely need a nap and perhaps a shower to wash yourself clean from the filth. Here is a sampler:

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America’s largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn’t until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church’s enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as “pedophiles,” the report redefines “puberty” as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by
priests are a thing of the past. “The abuse crisis,” the study’s lead author concluded, “is over.”

Bill Lynn understood that his mission, above all, was to preserve the reputation of the church. The unspoken rule was clear: Never call the police. Not long after his promotion, Lynn and a colleague held a meeting with Rev. Michael McCarthy, who had been accused of sexually abusing boys, informing the priest of the fate that Cardinal Bevilacqua had approved: McCarthy would be reassigned to a “distant” parish “so that the profile can be as low as possible and not attract attention from the complainant.” Lynn dutifully filed his memo of the meeting in the Secret Archives, where it would sit for the next decade.

Over the 12 years that he held the job of secretary of the clergy, Lynn mastered the art of damage control. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic; in a meeting with one distraught pastor who had just admitted to abusing boys, Lynn comforted the clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him. With victims, Lynn was smooth and reassuring, promising to take their allegations seriously while doing nothing to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”

This revolting but very important instance of journalism warrants as much attention as can be mustered. It is crucial that more people read about this for at least two reasons: one, these crimes are actively being covered up (there is big money behind this cult, inconceivable money) and need to be further exposed. But second and perhaps most important, it’s still seen by too many as a minor problem; the unfortunate result of the inexorable bad apples that any group large enough will produce. It needs to be understood and dealt with with clear-eyed deliberation for what it is: a systemic and institutional syndication of criminal enterprise that, astonishingly, answers to no law or due process.

Reading this latest installment of scandal made me think of this great scene from Mean Streets. It also compels me to revisit a piece I wrote a little less than two years ago. I don’t have much to add (nor do I particularly care to add more logs to this repugnant pyre). I would simply ask anyone compelled (out of fear and misguided loyalty) to deny or belittle this atrocity to consider how they would react if all of the same evidence was compiled and attributed to a more-easily marginalized cult like Scientology or better still, some third-world impoverished group we could (condescendingly, typically) dismiss as “savages”. There would be unanimous scorn and we would have public, ardent calls for justice. (More righteous indignation here).

 

pope benedict

Part One: Abandon hope all ye who enter here…

First, and appropriately, a confession.

The title is both a tribute to, and an outright plagiarism of Hunter S. Thompson’s masterful essay “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved”. And if, with that piece, he could be accused of shooting some very wealthy and insular fish in a bourbon-scented barrel, somebody had to do it. The pompous and circumstance of a spectacle like the Kentucky Derby needed to be sent up. And the thing about the good doctor during his prime, when he decided to do something, it stayed done.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, has been assailed from all sides, so any new criticism will be neither original nor particularly earth shattering. So what. It remains essential to single out hypocrisy and malificence when it is condoned or perpetrated by people or places wielding power. And despite the fact that its influence has been waning, the Catholic church is still an appallingly influential and imperious organization. To put things plainly, it is frankly because so many millions of innocent (and unknowing) human beings are impacted by this institution that its self-righteous posturing be paraded as openly and often as possible. That’s all.

Aside from Richard Dawkins, the most vocal and coruscating critic of late has been the indefatigable Christopher Hitchens. His seminal book God Is Not Great would be required reading in a sane world; but a sane world would not require that such a book be written. Of course, Hitchens correctly does not limit himself to just the Catholic church: he sets his sights on the entire notion of a Big Guy upstairs, or more specifically, our farcical and self-serving conception of same. To be certain, Hitchens does not waste his time and energy poking holes in the fairy tales and phantasmagoria that all organized religions are predicated upon. Any half-witted college freshman with a semester of Logic or Composition 101 can handle that light work. Rather, Hitchens trains his sights on the considerable violence, repression and ignorance the various religions have instilled and propagated, spanning the last two centuries. He assails the clergy, and the historically inconsistent, often hysterical dogma that they cling to for their specious moral autonomy. Hitchens argues that, for all the good deeds religion is regularly credited for inspiring, the scales are quite heavily tilted toward the negative in terms of wars, moral terror and child rape –just to pick some of the low-hanging fruit. Speaking of fruit, it remains hilarious and more than a little pathetic that grown men dressed in fancy pajamas invoke words written centuries ago as an inviolable decree to guide the contemporary affairs of mankind. (And I understand that this simple-minded insistence of following “God’s word” is the convenient catchall acting as a kind of ecclesiastical flypaper to ensnare all troublesome inconsistencies and intrusions of logic or inconvenient Truth; suffice it to say, until I see any of these disciples actually living by the letter of the onerous and inconceivable edicts of the Old Testament, I’ll remain wary and skeptical.)

For those who aren’t inclined or don’t have the time to read books about religion, check out the heavyweight champ George Carlin, who offers the most concise (and hilarious) dissection you’re likely to come across.

Hitchens has taken on all comers, and his debates are amusing (for the lucid) and, at best, embarrassing (for the indoctrinated). Have a look:

After Hitchens, Stephen Fry gets his licks in and does with erudition, panache and elegance. If Hitchens prefers a brawl, Fry acquits himself as a true gentleman and his calm evisceration would mortify anyone with a smidgen of shame. (This is part two of three; do yourself a favor and watch the first and third installment.)

Hitchens et al. are going after the jugular, debating whether or not Catholicism is a positive force in the world. This, it seems to me, is ultimately a proposition that remains largely unprovable and not particularly relevant (prolestyzers on either side of that argument can –and will– produce what they consider immutable testimony to advance their case; and both sides have sufficient ammunition). With no choice but to (belatedly, begrudgingly) own up to some of the more colossal outrages it has perpetrated, the clergy draws a line in the sand with the following concession: for all its faults, the church does endeavor to fill more potholes than it causes.

The enduring question remains: does it?

For every pedophilic priest one can point to (and the unforgivable, institutionally sanctioned cover-up of these atrocities), you also have humble men and women making genuine and heartfelt contributions to society. The vocation, whatever manifold psychological impulses it answers (or quells), seems genuine enough to have attracted hundreds of thousands of young men, at least some of whom have remained celibate and faithful. That warrants consideration, leaving aside any understandable questions about the spiritual duress and denial such a lifestyle entails.

And yet. At the end of the analysis, while it’s easy for anyone with an IQ approaching triple digits to poke fun at the snake handling or spaceship-seeing outliers on the religious spectrum (despite the considerable damage the more extreme, and whacko, religions do to its most earnest and unenlightened parishioners), it is difficult not to suppress a special distaste for the fathomless myopia that underscores Catholicism’s sensibility. One look at The Vatican (in Vatican City) is enough to salivate at what Jesus would make of that temple. No money lenders there; these are straight up faith pimps, trading favors for forgiveness going back several centuries. What these charlatans are able to pull off, in tax exempt fashion, is the apotheosis of all Ponzi schemes. But, like the simple saps that Madof ensnared, few tithers throw their sheckles in the collection jar without a preconceived quid pro quo: it’s an ecclesiastical installment plan, and Catholic guilt –inbred from an early age– creates a collective bank account that accrues interest at unprecedented rates. The Catholic hierarchy’s ultimate legacy is successfully establishing a cadre of spiritual stockbrokers.

vatican 1

Part Two: The Soup Kitchen Nazis

So, with so much to mock about the self-satisfied piety of the RCC, why now?

Well, there’s this. And this.

There you go. What brings the RCC out of the cloister? War? The outrages of Wall Street? Humiliation over its involvement in generations of profligate buggery? Of course not. Only the really crucial and relevant issues prompt such expediency: abortion and gay marriage! These are the conjoined crises that impel the otherwise oblivious foxes to slink out of the holy henhouse.

To summarize for those with short-attention spans or quick gag reflexes: in recent weeks the Catholic brain trust has picked public battles with Patrick Kennedy and D.C. area homeless. In the first instance, the smug and odious Bishop Thomas J. Tobin castigated Kennedy over his support of abortion rights. It is, the robe-wearing one whined, “a deliberate an obstinate act of will…(and) unacceptable to the church and scandalous to many of our members” (emphasis mine). Scandalous? Really? That anyone in a position of authority within the Catholic Church would have the audacity to use the word scandalous tells you all you need know about how truly clueless and shameless they have become.

This grandstanding, naturally, recalls memories of certain priests getting involved in the ’04 election, reminding their parishioners that voting for a man (Kerry) who did not have the appropriate pro-life bona fides was tantamount to heresy. This while the incumbent was actively waging preemptive war and shrinking the middle class to levels not seen since, well, the Great Depression. We all know how that one played out.

But you almost expect that type of intransigence, that level of obliviousness, from the men who have evolved from the bad old days when they burned scientists at the stake. What inspires the ongoing outrage is the fact that the Catholic church –this tone-deaf, intellectually devoid, bullying organization– ceaselessly finds ways to outdo itself. Take, for instance, the real and present outrage playing itself out, right now, in Washington D.C.

To recap: the (ultra conservative) Catholic Archdiocese of Washington has recently made ugly noise about withholding support for the homeless (about 70,000 individuals) due to its “principled” opposition to D.C.’s same-sex marriage bill. Let that one sink in for a moment. The church, ostensibly doing the work Christ instructed, is grandstanding said work over an issue that Christ never made a single mention of in the scriptures (go ahead and look it up; we’ll wait for you). Welcome to the Catholic sensibility! This is bigotry disguised as rectitude, but what else is new? Aside from the sickening hypocrisy (that word again, it’s unavoidable), this jumps so many sacred sharks it is difficult to keep track. For starters, these same churches that continue to enjoy tax exempt status are sticking their nose into the affairs of the government. Really? These same churches that are more than happy to accept government funding think it’s acceptable (legal?) to ignore said government’s laws, should they pass? The Catholic lemmings, following their Prada-wearing pontiff, have descended to the level of being soup (kitchen) nazis.

As ever, to fully grasp the illimitable duplicity of the church, one must inevitably turn to the costume-clad church elders. (Not for nothing, and with an irony that no objective reader of biblical scripture can avoid noting with a particular pang of nausea, it is the same well-fed and unreflective old men that Jesus had a special disdain for.) Look, let’s not sugarcoat the underlying issue at hand: with the world moving ever further away from biblical flights of fancy and despotic mind games, this is the sign of a desperate institution indeed. You only see this in politics and religion: when things start to spiral out of control, double down. In this instance, the decaying infrastructure and waning sway the church holds over humanity at large, makes its actions resemble those of a cult. Isn’t it funny how people (understandably) feel no compunction poking fun at the ludicrous precepts of Scientology, but bristle if anyone snickers at the apparent seriousness with which Catholics (and many other cults) regard that virgin birth thing or the notion that the Pope speaks infallibly (no, really). Farcical, sure, but also insulting, considering the man Catholics look to as an arbiter of morality, Thomas Aquinas, was last seen levitating in that cathedral (no, really).

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In closing, allow me to directly address anyone (Catholic or otherwise) who applauds (or remains merely unmoved by) the appalling positions the church is clinging to. The abortion issue is, at least, a tangible (if complicated) dilemma that people can wrestle with for spiritual and secular reasons. The open hostility toward and discrimination against homosexuals, on the other hand, is something that simply cannot be tolerated by anyone pretending to endorse the Declaration of Independence as well as the New Testament (you know, What Would Jesus Do?).

The prayerful prejudiced can hide behind the bogus claim of faith and fidelity, but in the final analysis, a bigot is a bigot. Congratulations on being, once again, on the wrong side of history and the righteous shift of love over fear.

And for the Catholic-Lite weekend warriors who don’t have the guts or the brains to, at long last, cut the cord, understand that you continue to associate with –-and, to a certain extent, intellectually and spiritually prostrate yourself to— an organized religion that goes several steps farther than these ignorant, opportunistic politicians who use pro-life positions to garner votes. The Catholic Church, despite any real evidence in the bible (!) abominates not only the practice but existence of homosexuality. Despite the much-discussed (but ever astonishing) fact that it harbors more than a fair share of closeted, (and not-so-closeted) in its cloister. Despite the fact that this obsessive and intolerant dogma is the fulcrum upon which these political types fortify their indefensible positions. Despite the fact that, even knowing —if failing to come to grips with— the considerable hypocrisy and mendacity that exists in its own sullied garden, this craven institution uses its brute force and reliably backwards (see: women, blacks, gays just to name the unholy trinity) clerical acumen to tyrannize anyone susceptible to its influence. The world that includes the powerless and dispossessed who cower, and especially the useful insects who apprehend and acknowledge this moral fascism (yes, fascism), and either choose to whistle blithely past the truth or —in inimitably Catholic fashion— obey the rules that fit and overlook or rationalize the ones that cause discomfort. Avoiding that discomfort at the expense of your innocent brothers and sisters is an abomination. It is also the essence of Catholicism.

But hey, who knows, maybe one day you’ll stand before your white, Republican Jesus and explain to him that you were only doing what he instructed you to do. Good luck with that.

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Steven Wilson: The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much (Part Two, The Fury)

Many of Steven Wilson’s mostly accurate, but increasingly tedious denunciations of inferior audio can be attributed to genuine motivations. He really does despise digital downloads and looks askance at those who would abuse their ears (and his art) by listening to them. You can usually ascertain if someone’s agenda is disingenuous by the amount of money they stand to make; in Wilson’s case, sniffily censuring consumers for their philistine proclivities is certainly not going to line his pockets. Bully for him; his browbeating-bordering-on-bullishness comes from an uncorrupted heart. Still, fans that are sufficiently removed from the sullied means of production and procurement Wilson whines about might hope he can avoid becoming known more for his crankiness than his musical proficiency.  

It’s not that he’s a snob, these fans could claim; it’s that he really cares about music. (His already notable street cred as a proponent of progressive rock was augmented by his recent undertaking to remaster–for the umpteenth time, it might be noted–the (brilliant) back catalog of King Crimson; suffice it to say, this is not a task the merely passionate producer assumes, this is an obsessive labor of love.)  

So what are we to make of Wilson’s latest jeremiad in Electronic Musician, “In The Mix: Everyone’s A Critic?” A knee-jerk analysis might be that the self-appointed physician who would ameliorate all that ails us might want to turn some of that attention inward. It is by now abundantly clear that Wilson would prefer that more people shared his opinion on how music is made, received and enjoyed. (An exalted regard of his own judgment includes Wilson in an artistic community that is neither exclusive nor in danger of diminishing its numbers.) What is striking –and slightly unsettling– about his new piece is the implication that Wilson might prefer that a great many people have no opinions at all.  

Check it out: in an observation only slight more earth-shattering than the proposition that digital files suck, Wilson rues the reality of our Internets allowing every yahoo to have a voice. Once again, Wilson’s essential position is incontrovertible: there are a disconcerting number of uninformed, semi-literate, sensationalistic folks out there blogging, tweeting and e-scribbling their two cents. It long ago ceased being news (if indeed it ever was) that anyone with web access can become a critic, and anyone who happens on their site, however unintentionally, might become, however briefly, an audience. It’s not unlike the blowhard at every dinner party over the course of several centuries, multiplied by the speed of Google.  

So…what is Wilson actually saying? Well, he spins himself back down the years to the (good old) days of our youth and name-checks the estimable Lester Bangs. (One wonders aloud what Bangs would have made of Porcupine Tree, and if perchance an unkind appraisal from Mr. Carburetor Dung might complicate Wilson’s nostalgic approbation.) Great music journalism, Wilson asserts, “reaches out beyond the music to the core of the human condition, just like the music it is about.” (One also wonders what Bangs would make of that sentence, and that sentiment.)  

As is the case with honest music reproduced on machines designed to authentically transmit it, there is little to quibble with here. An LP (or CD) played on a receiver through decent speakers is the real deal, and even the most recalcitrant hipster would likely hold his Pabst Blue Ribbon aloft in solidarity to this sentiment. Quality music journalism, like quality literature (or quality music for that matter) is always something to savor, and there is seldom an overabundance of it. The only thing worth noting is that this has always been the case (indeed, one could easily make a compelling case that the sheer volume of words being written in 2010 means that there is, pound for pound, better music journalism than at any other time in our history; of course there is many times more crapola); hence the proposition that opinions are like arseholes: everybody’s got one. The Internet, naturally (or, perhaps more to Wilson’s putative point, unnaturally) has enabled every a-hole with web access to let those opinions pollute the public spaces. So what?  

Paraphrasing won’t do it justice, so let’s smell what Wilson’s stepping in:  

Albums are praised one minute as an artist’s best, then trashed a minute later by someone else as the worst—both opinions expressed as irrefutable truth. The quality of writing rarely rises above comparisons to other bands and liberally applied superlatives. Only now, these so-called reviews are broadcast the world over, giving influence to their authors no matter how narrow their frame of reference or biased their agenda.  

Really? You mean unlike the halcyon days when artistic assessments were reached by consensus? (Or do we even want to fantasize about a fascistic purgatory where only the anointed Wise Ones determined what made the cut? We’ve read that book before, and it had something to do with Atlas Shrugging while Orwell imagined a dystopia that Ayn Rand appropriated and Neil Peart wrote a concept album about. Or something.)  

Wilson’s (somewhat surprising, considering his band’s underground origins and the semi-cult status it still retains) despair at the millions of uncultivated impressions exposes an aloofness he is perfectly entitled to possess. Unfortunately, it discounts a rather serious underlying issue: until fairly recently, the same hegemony that governed the music industry also controlled the publishing world –including, and especially, magazines. As such, there were only a relative handful of “legit” voices allowed (e.g., able) to opine, and set the agenda. If history is written by the victors, the present is written by those with entree. Often –too often– these insider types were influenced by personal relationships with bands, and integrity was just as often tossed into the paper bag with the vials and the Quaaludes.  

Does Wilson fail to see even a little bit of irony in the fact that Led Zeppelin, a band now generally regarded as golden gods, was largely reviled by the rock establishment throughout the ’70s? Ditto Black Sabbath and Rush. How many times, for that matter, was King Crimson on the cover of Rolling Stone? A conservative estimate: about 7,000 times less than U2 has been. (If you think the reason U2 has graced that exalted space so often  is because the editors genuinely believe they are the best band around, and not because Jann Wenner gets wood every time he can converse with St. Bono, I’ve got booth space at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame I’d like to sell you. Check that: the editors at Rolling Stone probably do think U2 is the best band around.)  

Obviously, our Internets have allowed every self-proclaimed prophet to shout from the highest rooftop, even if that rooftop is in their mother’s basement. But the cream generally rises, as it did even in the days when Cream made music and CREEM wrote about it. What Wilson, bizarrely, seems to overlook (and this complements his intransigence on the many positive aspects of digital technology) is that what is going on in the publishing world right now is very similar to what went down, a little over a decade ago (and is, of course, still unfolding) in the music industry. For all the shoddily crafted or hysterical hyping (and/or bashing) blogging empowers, the web is also a vehicle for dedicated, deadly serious endeavors that would have been all but inconceivable a generation ago. And for every imbecile who doesn’t think twice about submitting one-star reviews at Amazon or dismisses a particular album with unoriginal and spell check-free snark, there are music aficionados who are taking the time (and making no money) to promote the discovery of unheralded acts.   

(Speaking of blogs, it would seem remiss to not make brief mention of the fact that the haughty dismissal of these independent and/or underground ventures –however forgettable many of them may well be– calls to mind a similar, much more grave phenomenon. It’s hard to not think about the ongoing, albeit increasingly less credible grousing from the mainstream media regarding blogs and various other unsanctioned sources of news and opinion, particularly as it relates to international and political affairs. Reading Wilson’s piece, his superciliousness sounds distressingly congruent with the Bad Old Boys club of inside-the-Beltway elitism that has sought to marginalize the voices that dare dissent from the already-established narrative. These interloping hordes of “non-traditional” media types have only augmented their collective credibility as we see how supine and/or asleep our ostensible watchdogs have been for far too long.

These recalcitrant –and often unpaid– reporters and bloggers were roundly dismissed –and ridiculed– as shrill Chicken Littles by those same sober and serious denizens of the D.C. dinner party circuit. Those same well-placed (and remunerated) stenographers who breathlessly informed us of the WMDs, the trivial costs –in financial and human terms– of our imminent international adventures and the revised political and religious aligments (which anyone with a modicum of knowledge concerning the long and extensively documented history of the Middle East sniffed out on sight) that would fall neatly into place like so many shocked and awed dominoes, and turned out to be wrong, about everything.)

Would Wilson really want to roll the dice and insert himself back in a time when the prospects were a hell of a lot less salubrious for unorthodox and unsigned bands? Today, there are illimitable sources of opinion, and taste making is as democratic as it’s ever been, in part because of the abundance of voices and agency. On balance, this is undeniably a good thing, for artists and audiences. If it’s easy to get buried in this blizzard of evaluations, it’s pretty painless to seek out consistent and respected sources of guidance. The bile and disposable flame-fodder quickly dissipate into the ether, dragged down by their own ineptitude; kind of the way calculated chart-seeking detritus slinks quietly into the slipstream.

The reason bands find an audience is because they offer something of substance, something that speaks to a disparate crowd who may have little else in common. The way a writer attracts a readership is by engaging honestly and intelligently with the material at hand, respecting the intelligence and integrity of the artists who create and the people who support them. In the better tomorrow we’re always working toward, tolerant and receptive minds will eventually; inevitably find each other –either in the real world or the electronic one.

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