Fleetwood Mac: The Forgotten Years (Re-Post)

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NOTE: I just learned Danny Kirwan of Fleetwood Mac died Friday, at age 68.  Kirwan was an important member of the band before Lindsay Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined in late 1974.  He played a luscious vibrato guitar, and more importantly, wrote some of the band’s best songs.  Sadly, he suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and left the band in 1972.  Until he died Friday, he seemed to be a forgotten man.  Longitudes loves good songwriters like Kirwan (they’re in short supply these days).  So, I’m re-posting this 2014 essay about the Mac.  Thanks for your beautiful songs, Danny.

***

On a recent Sunday while drinking my coffee, I turned the TV to the long-running television program, “CBS Sunday Morning,” hosted by Charles Osgood. This enjoyable show always has at least one segment devoted to popular culture. Past shows have included interviews with Keith Richards and Gregg Allman. This particular show included a puff piece on the pop-rock band Fleetwood Mac. The rationale was drummer Mick Fleetwood’s recent (and 2nd) autobiography, which coincides with the band’s 61st (or maybe 62nd) reunion tour.

Full disclosure here: Fleetwood Mac isn’t one of my favorite bands. Their songs are tuneful, albeit in an effete sort of way. But “the Mac’s” unthreatening, southern California brand of rock was perfect ear sweetener for the somnolent mid-‘70s to early ‘80s, and there’s still nostalgia for that stuff amongst baby boomers. So I wasn’t too surprised to see them profiled on TV alongside segments devoted to the wedding of George Clooney and “The Timeless Allure of Swing Dancing.”

What really stuck in my craw, though, was the narrator using a sweeping statement, during a buildup to the gilded Buckingham-Nicks years, that “other band members came and went.” There was no mention of founder Peter Green. No mention of Danny KirwanJeremy Spencer, and Bob Welch… forget it. Seven different band members, eight years, and nine albums brushed aside.

So, once again, I feel the need to set the record straight. Nothing against Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham. But there was a band called Fleetwood Mac that existed long before those two joined in 1974 to help catapult them to superstardom. They were English. They had a curious and colorful biography, and they were very talented.

 ***

Fleetwood Mac sprouted in 1967 from John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, an English blues band that featured virtuoso guitarist Eric Clapton. Clapton was, and is, one of the most formidable blues guitarists in history. When Clapton quit the Bluesbreakers to form the legendary Cream, his place was taken by a guy named Peter Green. Not only did Green have a great first name, he also had the challenge of replacing a guitar god. Most rock critics would agree that he more than met the challenge. John Mayall felt so, too, and after only one album with Green, he encouraged Green to “go thither into the world” and form his own band.

Green did just that. Before long he selected bass player John McVie (also from the Bluesbreakers) and a drummer named Mick Fleetwood, whom he knew from two earlier bands. For added punch, he added Elmore James-influenced slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer. Being a humble guy, leader Green named the band after his rhythm section… neither of whom were songwriters!

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

THEN PLAY ON, the last album that featured Peter Green

This early version of Fleetwood Mac released three studio albums: FLEETWOOD MAC, MR. WONDERFUL, and the double album THEN PLAY ON. At this juncture their music emphasized blues-based rock, and they had a reputation for being a dynamic live act. Green was a powerful guitarist and had a distinctive guttural voice that perfectly complemented his blistering guitar licks. He was also a skilled songwriter, going from the sublime (“Man of the World” and “Albatross)” to the earthy [“The Green Manalishi (With the Two-Prong Crown)”] and “Oh Well”) to the mysterious (“Black Magic Woman,” which was covered by West Coast band Santana and became their signature song). Jeremy Spencer was also notable. He often closed the band’s shows by doing old rock ‘n’ roll numbers and mimicking people like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The band was a regular attraction at 60s-era ballrooms like the Shrine Auditorium, Avalon Ballroom, Fillmore West, Fillmore East, and Boston Tea Party.

Then the first tragedy occurred. Like so many creative artists from that era, Green began experimenting with LSD. And like Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys) before him, he became a casualty of the drug. He began wearing long robes on stage and drifting off into endless guitar solos. Although the undisputed leader of Fleetwood Mac, Peter Green had to leave the band he had founded. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic, and entered a mental hospital. In the late 1970s, there was a rumor he was working as a gravedigger.

Some people seem to pull an ace out of their sleeve just when it’s needed. Fleetwood Mac’s ace was a guitarist named Danny Kirwan, whom Green had enlisted before the THEN PLAY ON album. Although Kirwan wasn’t the singer or instrumentalist that Green was, he was (at least to these ears) the best songwriter the band ever had. Kirwan guided the band through the next three records: KILN HOUSE, FUTURE GAMES, and BARE TREES.

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

KILN HOUSE, with artwork by Christine McVie

Kirwan played a unique vibrato guitar and was responsible for some of the group’s most melodic songs, gorgeous gems like “Dragonfly,” “Jewel-Eyed Judy,” “Earl Grey,” “Woman of a Thousand Years,” “Bare Trees,” “Sunny Side of Heaven,” “Dust,” and others. For support, Kirwan leaned on John McVie’s wife, Christine Perfect McVie, who’d sung for the blues band Chicken Shack and joined the Mac during the KILN HOUSE sessions (and who created the striking artwork for that album sleeve). One of her songs, “Spare Me a Little of Your Love” from the BARE TREES sessions, became a staple of the band’s repertoire.

Kirwan, however, was always a little unstable. He was a heavy drinker and frequently succumbed to major mood swings. He was fired in 1973 after one particularly violent outburst. He later made three solo albums, the first two of which are very good (though not many people have heard them…they’re available for listening on YouTube, including the lovely “Cascades“).

Spencer, too, had quit in 1971 during a tour. While in Los Angeles, he’d gone out to buy a magazine, then disappeared for several days. The group later discovered he’d met a stranger on the street corner, who’d convinced him to renounce his former life and convert to a religious cult known as the Children of God.

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Fleetwood Mac circa 1972. From left to right, John McVie, Danny Kirwan, Christine McVie, Bob Welch, Mick Fleetwood

Fleetwood Mac’s seventh and eighth studio albums were PENGUIN and MYSTERY TO ME. They were a bit of a letdown after the creative Green and Kirwan years, but the latter LP had at least one great song in “Hypnotized,” which became a favorite on American FM radio. This tune was written and sung by Bob Welch, an unknown Californian who’d joined the Mac just after KILN HOUSE. Welch wasn’t on a songwriting par with Kirwan, but he helped in three ways: he provided vocal and writing support; he eased them into the American market with radio-friendly material like “Sentimental Lady” (which Welch later re-recorded as a solo artist, becoming a Top 10 hit); and – most significantly – he convinced them to move their offices from London to Los Angeles.

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BARE TREES, one of Fleetwood Mac’s best records

Welch was the last significant member to join Fleetwood Mac, until Nicks and Buckingham in ’74. He quit the band after the ninth album, HEROES ARE HARD TO FIND, when he became tired of touring, as well as fighting a legal battle over ownership of the band’s name (in another strange twist in the band’s history, Mick Fleetwood and band manager Clifford Davies, to fulfill a contract obligation, sent out a fake Fleetwood Mac on tour in 1974; Fleetwood later claimed he knew nothing about the ruse. This fake band later changed their name to Stretch and had a No. 16 hit with “Why Did You Do It?” which was aimed at Fleetwood).

In late ’74, Fleetwood made the acquaintance of American Lindsay Buckingham, who’d recorded an album with his then-girlfriend, Stephanie “Stevie” Nicks. He asked Buckingham to join the band to replace Welch. Buckingham agreed, but only if he could bring along Nicks. Fleetwood nodded “Yes,” and Fleetwood Mac’s long mystery train finally rolled toward that nebulous place where English blues musicians, Wall Street mercantilists, and inaugurated U.S. presidents get together to harmonize.

 ***

Today, founding member Peter Green keeps a low profile. But as late as 2010, he was doing short tours with his own band. In its list of Top 100 Guitarists of All Time, Rolling Stone magazine placed him at No. 38. Mojo Magazine ranked him No. 3.

Jeremy Spencer is still associated with the Children of God (now called Family International). He’s lived all over the world, has jammed privately with both Fleetwood and John McVie, and in 2009 appeared at the Chicago Blues Festival.

Bob Welch took his own life in 2012. His widow said he was in intense pain after recently undergoing unsuccessful spinal surgery. She thinks his pain medication may have also contributed to his suicide. In 1998, Welch was not included with other band members for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (RnRHoF). He’d earlier filed a lawsuit against the band for underpayment of royalties, and he believed that Fleetwood and the McVie’s convinced the hall to blackball him.

Not much is known about Danny Kirwan. According to Wikipedia, his mental health declined after leaving Fleetwood Mac in 1973 (he was supposedly homeless for a while in the ‘80s and ‘90s). Unlike Welch, Kirwan was inducted into the RnRHoF with other members.  But he didn’t show up at the ceremony. John McVie was quoted as saying that a Fleetwood Mac reunion with Green and Spencer is a possibility, “but I don’t think there’s much chance of Danny doing it. Bless his heart.”

 

first album

Tolling Bells?

how democracies die

A year-and-a-half into the presidency of Donald Trump, there have been a number of books about the ramifications of his election. Some are “celebrity” memoirs, such as those by former FBI Director James Comey and former National Intelligence Director James Clapper. But one book that has jumped out of the pack, for me, is How Democracies Die (Crown Publishing) by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt.

It goes without saying that the provocative title might be construed as advertising a book-length opinion editorial. This book does point a firm finger at the current government in D.C. (How could it not?) But it goes deeper and analyzes how a demagogic figure like Trump could have been elected in the U.S., and what this means for the future of American democracy. Levitsky and Ziblatt aren’t partisan propagandists, but professors of government at Harvard University who have studied democratic breakdowns in Europe and Latin America, independently publishing books and articles related to world governments, including the U.S.

I’m partway through the book, and hope to share a review in a coming longitudes post. But for now, here’s a teaser, taken from the Introduction to How Democracies Die:

Is our democracy in danger? It is a question we never thought we’d be asking. We have been colleagues for fifteen years, thinking, writing, and teaching students about failures of democracy in other places and times—Europe’s dark 1930s, Latin America’s repressive 1970s. We have spent years researching new forms of authoritarianism emerging around the globe. For us, how and why democracies die has been an occupational obsession.

But now we find ourselves turning to our own country. Over the past two years, we have watched politicians say and do things that are unprecedented in the United States—but that we recognize as having been the precursors of democratic crisis in other places. We feel dread, as do so many other Americans, even as we try to reassure ourselves that things can’t really be that bad here. After all, even though we know democracies are always fragile, the one in which we live has somehow managed to defy gravity. Our Constitution, our national creed of freedom and equality, our historically robust middle class, our high levels of wealth and education, and our large, diversified private sector—all of these should inoculate us from the kind of democratic breakdown that has occurred elsewhere.

Yet, we worry. American politicians now treat their rivals as enemies, intimidate the free press, and threaten to reject the results of elections. They try to weaken the institutional buffers of our democracy, including the courts, intelligence services, and ethics offices. American states, which were once praised by the great jurist Louis Brandeis as “laboratories of democracy,” are in danger of becoming laboratories of authoritarianism as those in power rewrite electoral rules, redraw constituencies, and even rescind voting rights to ensure that they do not lose. And in 2016, for the first time in U.S. history, a man with no experience in public office, little observable commitment to constitutional rights, and clear authoritarian tendencies was elected president.

What does all this mean? Are we living through the decline and fall of one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies?

Maybe this book can offer some valuable insight into a troubling time in the U.S. I’ll try to share what I learn.

Stay tuned…

The Small Faces, “Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake”

 

50 yearscover

Longitudes certainly enjoys 50th anniversary specials. But can you blame me? I was a nipper in the 1960s, so I have fond memories of that time. And in 1968, I lived in Detroit, Michigan, when Motown music ruled the world, and the Detroit Tigers took the World Series. I can claim that I actually knew hitting legend Al Kaline, because his kid got shot up by the same allergist as me.

1968 was a violent year in America, but there are some good things that occurred.

However… this latest installment in ‘60s nostalgia boards the QE2 to sail “across the pond.” It profiles a record by a Brit band that pulled the difficult trick of marrying style with substance, which are usually mutually exclusive, and very few rocksters have been able to combine both. Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Hendrix, Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Clash come to mind. All made great music but were also visually dazzling.

Another is the Small Faces, a limey band that literally “carried the colours,” at least in England, for the mid-’60s British Invasion jump-started by the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Four working-class geezers, three of whom hailed from London’s rough East End, the Small Faces were the prototypical Mod band.

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The Small Faces. L to R: Kenney Jones, Ian McLagan, Steve Marriott, Ronnie Lane

“Mod,” short for modern, was an English youth movement that began in 1959, similar to American subcultures like beat or hippie, but smaller, and less threatening to the status quo. Mods wore flashy clothes, drove Vespa scooters, listened to soul music, and took speed drugs. Mod gave an identity to English working-class kids. Pete Townshend documented Mod culture with the 1973 Who album Quadrophenia.

The Small Faces were Mod to the core, but could also play instruments. The band members were lead singer/guitarist Steve Marriott, bassist Ronnie (“Plonk”) Lane, drummer Kenney Jones, and organist Ian McLagan (who replaced Jimmy Winston early on). All four stood under 5 feet 5 inches tall (Eric Clapton, upon meeting them for the first time, said they all looked like little “haw-bits”). Their short stature, mischievousness, and stylish Carnaby Street threads made them the most eye-catching band in England for a time, especially beloved by screaming young girls (“birds”).

For music fans, between 1965 and 1968 the songwriting team of Marriott-Lane churned out a basketful of sophisticated pop hits in the UK, one quasi-hit in the U.S. (“Itchycoo Park,” which reached #16 in ‘67), and one LP masterwork, released in May ‘68. Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake is considered a classic by “those in the know,” but often overlooked when classic rock albums are bandied. I could give several reasons, but I’d rather just rave on.

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Move over, Lennon-McCartney

The first evidence that this record is a cut above most is the packaging, as visually arresting as the band’s Mod bob haircuts, tangerine and lime-green blazers, and winklepicker shoes. Ogdens’ was the first record released in a round sleeve, designed to resemble an old tobacco tin, and the name parodies an 1899 brand of tobacco. The sleeve unfolds to four circles with moody black-and-white pics of the band members (photographer Gered Mankowitz).

Musically, Ogdens’ is equally mind-blasting. After the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, Ogdens’ was the first “concept album,” preceding both S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things and The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society by several months. The second side is a Ronnie Lane-inspired musical fairy tale about “Happiness Stan,” who goes on a quest, assisted by a friendly fly, to find the other half of the “dangly” moon. Linking various musical snips is daft narration by English comic Stanley Unwin, who combined the Small’s cockney slang with his own nonsensical “Unwinese” speak (Unwin supposedly influenced John Lennon’s absurdist lyrics and poetry).

As “knees-up” as side two of Ogdens’ is, the heavy hitters are on side one. The title song opener is an instrumental that explodes with Lane’s thunderous bass, McLagan’s altered Hammond organ, and sweeping woodwinds that include cello.

“Afterglow” showcases ace-Face Marriott’s wailing voice. In a non-racial world, Marriott’s soulfulness would be held in similar regard as Ray Charles and Otis Redding. I know what some of you are thinking: he’s bloody white, mate! But I say: bollocks, mate! Great pipes is great pipes. None other than Keith Richards and Ozzie Osbourne have cited Marriott as one of their favourite singers, and those two blokes know something about singing (amongst other things, wink-wink).small faces 2

“Long Agos and Worlds Apart” is one of only two numbers Ian McLagan wrote with the band (the other is “Up the Wooden Hills to Bedfordshire”). Like the Who’s John Entwistle, McLagan wasn’t prolific, but his two songs are highlights of the band catalogue. He has a world-weary voice that contrasts Marriott’s full-frontal assault. This song has a loping instrumental line that I can’t determine is organ or guitar. But it’s an intoxicating arrangement, with a dollop of appropriate psychedelia.

“Rene” is an ode to a waterfront prostitute, “groping with the stokers from the coast of Kuala Lampur.” Marriott, as cockney tour guide, leads us into working-class East London. If you think you’ve suddenly ducked inside an English music hall, it’s because, before discovering rock ‘n’ roll, Marriott was a precocious child actor/singer who starred as the Artful Dodger in the London stage musical Oliver! (he was also in several films, one of which starred a pre-Clouseau Peter Sellers). “Rene” is a rousing singalong tune, the second half a chugging instrumental where our hyper tour guide goes berserk on distorted guitar and blues harp.

“Song of a Baker” is a Ronnie Lane special. Though an inner-city lad, Lane had an affinity for rural life, and later moved to an isolated farm in Wales. “Song of a Baker” is a heavy rocker, but its heart is in the country. Some of the album’s best lyrics are “I’m depending on my labour / The texture and the flavour” and “So I’ll jug some water, bake some flour / Store some salt and wait the hour.”small faces 6

Side one closes with one of the band’s best A-sides, the theatrical “Lazy Sunday.” Marriott wrote it after his neighbors had him evicted for noisemaking. He was always trying to distance himself from his acting roots (which fortunately managed to slip through in the music), and didn’t want this song on the album, but Immediate Records had final say. It’s quintessential English, slice-of-life escapism (think “Penny Lane,” the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” the Zombies’ “Beechwood Park,” and the Smalls’ own “Itchycoo Park”). The bouncy melody is broken by cockney-esque poetry like “Cor blimey, ‘ello Mrs. Jones, ow’s your bird’s lumbago?”

union jack

Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake reached #1 on the UK Albums Chart and stayed there for six weeks (America had too much on its plate in ‘68, and missed the boat). Due to the record’s complexity, including orchestration, the group never performed it live. This fact contributed to their demise. They knew they could never top Ogdens’. Also, Marriott wanted to get into guitar-heavy, R&B-styled rock and distance himself from the teen-scream scene (though one of the special things about the Small Faces was their playful irreverence). So, he quit the Smalls seven months after the album’s release. He joined with guitar hotshot Peter Frampton (ex-Herd) to form Humble Pie. The other three were briefly adrift, but eventually hired Ron Wood and blond, sexy Rod Stewart, both much taller and recently exiled from the Jeff Beck Group, to become the Faces.small faces 3

Whilst not as artistically satisfying as the Small Faces, both Humble Pie and the Faces achieved the popular success in North America that had escaped the Smalls.

Drummer Kenney Jones is the only Small left. Steve Marriott died in a tragic house fire in 1991; Ronnie Lane succumbed to multiple sclerosis in 1997; and Ian McLagan died of a stroke in 2014. If you fancy rock bios, you’ll be gobsmacked by McLagan’s book All the Rage, which is one of the best fly-on-the-wall rock bios I’ve yet read.

As for Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake, it’s been rereleased several times, on CD and vinyl, with music and packaging variations. The original UK vinyl version with the round gatefold cover is the one to get. But you may have to put your home on the market, or place one of your children into indentured servitude to afford it.

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NOTE: Perhaps you noticed I didn’t mention Hall of Fame (HOF) inductions or Rolling Stone (RS) magazine lists here. It’s become fashionable to do this—as if a coterie of music-critic aristocrats with crabs in their beards decide which music is worthy of being anointed for artistic posterity. Cor blimey, I’ve even cited their shite once or twice! But never again, mate. Inductions, lists, polls, rankings, and record sales are poor indicators for determining what is “good” music and what isn’t, by gor, and a lot of these HOF and RS critics are daft, anyway (and get dafter every year). Therefore, longitudes says “rubbish” to all of it.

By the way, I’m right chuffed to say that longitudes has deemed Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake the 19th greatest rock record ever, Steve Marriott the 9th greatest rock vocalist, Marriott-Lane the 4th greatest rock songwriting duo, and the band is in the longitudes hall of fame as a separate act from the Faces, which was a totally different band, musically.

Now, are we all sitting comfy-bowl? Good, then I’ll meet you at the Crown and Anchor, mate. I’ll be wearing pink winklepickers.

small faces 5

A Boy and a Raccoon

Rascal book

“It was in May 1918 that a new friend and companion came into my life: a character, a personality, and a ring-tailed wonder.”

Among other neuroses, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It may have started in 1968 when I was 10 and became obsessed with having a wild animal as a pet. A therapist might deduce that I craved attention. Having a wild animal as a pet, instead of a dog or cat, draws attention and makes a young person special.

My favorite wild animal was the raccoon (Procyon lotor). I became a child expert on raccoons, and I’ve always remembered the Latin name that I just tried to impress you with.

It started in fifth grade when I read a children’s book called Little Rascal, about a boy and his pet raccoon. A few months later, I graduated to the full novel, Rascal. The novel was a 1963 bestseller, Newbery Honor book, and the first Dutton Animal Book Award winner. It was popular enough that it became a 1969 Disney movie starring Bill Mumy and Steve Forrest (critic Leonard Maltin gives the film two-and-a-half out of four stars, which I might agree with… movies are seldom as good as the books they’re based on).

I read Rascal several times and saw the movie in the theatre the first week of its release. Eventually, my obsession with raccoons became so strong that in 1970 I captured my own baby raccoon in a box trap and made him a pet, with my dad building a 10-foot-tall cage at the side of our house. Rascal II and I became the talk of the neighborhood. My chatterbox friend used to perch on my scrawny shoulders, his black mask like a pair of racing goggles, while we tooled around the streets on my red Schwinn Sting-Ray. For a short time in 1970, before Rascal felt the call and disappeared to locate a mate, I was a minor celebrity.

But enough about my OCD. May 2018 is 100 years since author Sterling North became acquainted with an animal that changed his life, so I’d like to talk about him, his pet raccoon, and his special book.

Sterling North House

Sterling North House (photo public domain)

Sterling North was raised in the small town of Edgerton in southern Wisconsin, on the banks of Rock River near shallow Lake Koshkonong. In 1918, Lake Koshkonong was a wild and scenic lake rimmed by dark forest. But a dam was built in 1932, creating an enlarged reservoir that is now studded with public beaches and boat landings, and an interstate now cuts along the western shore, so much of the lake’s wildness is gone (in the 1970s, the lake came perilously close to hosting a nuclear power plant). In 1918, North was age 11 and spent many hours both on the lake and in the woods surrounding it. He lived alone with his often-absent father, his mother having died when he was only 7, his two older sisters having moved away, and his older brother, Herschel, was far away in France, fighting to end the war to end all wars.

One evening in May, he and his friend Oscar venture into Wentworth’s Woods, where Sterling’s devoted St. Bernard, Wowser, digs up a den of raccoons. The mother and babies hightail it into the brush, but Oscar scoops one of the babes into his cap. He knows his tyrannical father won’t let him keep it, so he gives it to Sterling. Over the next year, Sterling and Rascal have numerous adventures together.

On the surface, Rascal appears to be a just children’s story about a boy frolicking with a wild animal. But it’s a book equally appealing to grownups. I read it again 9 years ago and discovered layers I didn’t know existed. North’s relationship with the lovable, intelligent Rascal is a friendship as tangible as that between people. In the book, he instills human characteristics in his furry hero, but without stretching credulity or sounding trite. He also captures a bygone time of innocent rural Americana, when hickory and walnut hunting, whippoorwill sighting, pie-eating contests, and trotter races are small treasures, and not corny anachronisms.

Sterling North Society

Sterling North and friends (photo Sterling North Society)

In Rascal, North makes plain that his childhood is unorthodox. His father allows him to keep numerous wild and domestic pets, wander deep into the woods, sleep alone outdoors, skip school, etc. The entire living room is cloaked in sawdust from a canoe that Sterling is building by himself. While Sterling’s martinet eldest sister, Theo, scolds their father for creating an unhealthy household environment, his other sister, Jessica—a surrogate mother for Sterling—is more tender and understanding. She realizes that Sterling’s world of flora and fauna is a way of coping with their mother’s death.

And Sterling’s father indulges their self-sufficiency, knowing that being “different” and not trotting after the pack are a healthy thing.

Sterling’s pet raccoon introduces humor and sunlight into the boy’s life. Rascal also brings about a jarring awakening. After seeing a picture of a trapped raccoon on the cover of his fur catalogue, the sensitive boy pictures Rascal’s soft, inquisitive hand clamped in a jaw trap, and he decides to give up trapping. He declares a “peace” with nature on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918. North concludes this chapter with the memorable sentence: “It is perhaps the only peace treaty that was ever kept.”

John R. Sill

Lake Koshkonong (photo John R. Sill)

***

North grew up to be a successful reporter and editor and wrote a children’s book that became a 1949 feature film, So Dear to My Heart, featuring Burl Ives. But Rascal is the book he’s most known for. In Japan, the book became a cartoon series in 1977, and the raccoon character is still very popular there, supposedly bigger than Mickey Mouse.

When he retired, North and his wife moved to Morristown, New Jersey, choosing the location specifically because there were lots of woods and wild animals, including raccoons.

During this time, my aunt and cousin lived in nearby Millington, New Jersey. When my family visited in the early ‘70s, my aunt found out about my interest, and telephoned the North home to see if I could stop by to meet my favorite author (I was too shy to call myself). But Mrs. North said her husband was suffering from a long illness and was unable to have visitors. She said he’d be pleased to hear that I’d called, though.

In January 1975, while a sophomore at boarding school, I read in the back pages of Newsweek that Sterling North had passed away at age 68. It was like another piece of my childhood had passed away.

Rascal_3

(Author photo)

Martin Luther King and “The Other America”

(Photo Santi Visalli / Getty)

The March for Our Lives students are presently receiving death threats and profanity-laced tirades, from so-called adults, for their campaign against American gun violence.  However – between pop quizzes and learning how to drive – they’re undeterred.

Someone else experienced a similar backlash for his activism.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached nonviolence to end segregation, poverty, and war.  He was ridiculed, threatened, jailed, beaten, and ultimately assassinated… 50 years ago today.

In a speech at Stanford University on April 14, 1967 (known as “The Other America” speech), he said something that could be equally applicable to today’s debate over gun control laws:

Although it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot change the heart, it can restrain the heartless.  Even though it may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, it can restrain him from (killing) me… And so while the law may not change the hearts of men, it can and does change the habits of men.

King followed this by observing that, once habits change, attitudes and hearts will follow suit.  Based on the behavior of many of our current (elected) leaders, history has yet to render a verdict on this.

On this dark anniversary, it’s good to remember we had a leader of integrity, who was also unafraid to dream.

(To hear King, click the link above, and scroll to 30:00 for the quote)

(Photo Agence France Presse)

Marching for Our Lives

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She was standing alone. A pretty girl, she couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 years old. I don’t know how she arrived at City Hall, in downtown Cincinnati, on this shivery March day, with wet snow beginning to fall. Maybe her parents dropped her off? Maybe she rode with some older friends?

She was holding a large orange sign with hand-scribbled words and numbers. The numbers signified annual handgun deaths in various countries around the world. The statistic for America was staggering. It dwarfed the others. While I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the numbers, it is true that the U.S. gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than other high-income nations.

At the bottom of her sign, as a coda, she’d written “God Bless America.” Probably a touch of sarcasm. But she’s young, and she looked like she was from a good family. Personally, I’d have chosen a more scorching coda.

***

It was the March for Our Lives rally in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.A. on March 24, 2018, and “Eliza” was just one of thousands who’d gathered in front of City Hall to protest. There were many other rallies around the country, in addition to the one in the nation’s capital that drew a quarter million people – many of them young – in the wake of the recent mass murders in Parkland, Florida.

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Eliza, with some sobering figures

The rallies are an effort… another effort, after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Aurora, Portland, and other tragedies too numerous to count – to force our intransigent elected officials, many of whom campaign using gun lobby dollars, into addressing America’s shamefully lax gun laws.

At one time, firearm deaths were handgun-related only, guns purchased both legally and illegally. They were primarily restricted to the inner city, the evolutionary endpoint of a welfare society infected by poverty, drugs, racism, and corruption, attributed to punks, criminals, and cops (some of whom, as we’ve seen recently with crystal clarity, enjoy squeezing triggers). And attributed, secondarily, to the gun industry. Most of us got our dose of gun violence via local evening news: “info-tainment,” delivered while we sipped our cocktail of choice. Then, later in the evening, we jumped to fictionalized violence, courtesy of “the All-New (fill in the blank)” television drama.

Slowly and imperceptibly, however, gun violence crept into our suburbs. And now it’s exploded in our educational institutions. Our schools were once places of learning, and also havens of safety. Now, our kids and grandkids are getting blown away by legally purchased AK-47s.

There’s something profoundly sad when children are forced – literally, at gunpoint – into organizing a protest to repair the damage wrought by their parents.

***

I arrived at 801 Plum Street fairly early. The streets around City Hall were cordoned by police, and several cops were stationed at various points. A large television camera was positioned in front of the building near the edge of the street. Several long tables were pushed against the building, with several volunteers manning them. About 50 people milled about the front steps. One of them was adjusting a microphone stand.

Is this all there is? I thought. I’d attended a gun control rally in downtown Columbus back in the ‘90s and was disappointed at the small turnout. I’d hoped for a larger turnout today. Maybe the 32-degree temp and snow forecast discouraged people. I overheard one woman remark “Does the NRA control the weather, too?”

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Some ugly guy with a green sign. If you want change, you’ve got to vote.

Gradually, though, the crowd swelled. It eventually spilled into the street, then the opposite sidewalk, then extended down the street. It was a diverse cross section: young and old, male and female, white and black. Most of them carried signs, many homemade. The signs expressed all different sentiments. Many of them blasted the National Rifle Association (NRA), at one time merely a club, but now a potent right-wing political force. Some singled out individuals, like Trump, or Ohio Senator Rob Portman (R), or Ohio congressman Steve Chabot (R), who have consistently pandered to the NRA.

In fact, some Republican politicians refuse to even use the phrase “gun control” (similar to their avoiding “climate change”). I’ve visited their websites off and on for years, so I know. Their dropdown boxes for issue selection have no options for “Gun Control” or “Firearm Violence.” Instead, it’s “Crime/Violence” or “Second Amendment Rights.” They know who buys their meal tickets.

Eliza’s sign was my favorite: a cold, clinical dose of reality. Another favorite was the one that bragged about the “F” grade the sign holder had received from the NRA.

I didn’t bring a sign, but one of the volunteers asked if I’d like to encourage voter registration, and I agreed. During the speeches and subsequent march, I held my sign high, so the NRA can at least see that its opponents and critics are voters, too.

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All ages showed up.

The speeches began about 11 a.m. The first speaker was Rasleen Krupp, a junior from nearby Wyoming High School. This girl was amazing. Her bullhorn voice seethed anger and power, as she implored the crowd to stand up to opponents of gun control and fight to reform America’s gun laws. She delivered an oratory that would make Cicero proud.

Ethel Guttenberg, from nearby Amberley Village, had a granddaughter killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Her speech was courageous and strong, calmly thanking everyone for turning out, and, like Krupp, encouraging everyone to keep fighting, to not give up despite the disappointments ahead. She also noted that some politicians refused to even meet with her.

I wonder if she was referring to Portman, or Chabot, or both.

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) spoke, to mild applause and a few boos. He decried gun violence (someone yelled out “from cops!”) and encouraged people to register and vote in November.

A teacher from Mount Healthy school system spoke while hugging his son. He lambasted Trump and others for suggesting teachers be armed, saying that he’s “not trained to use a firearm,” and shouldn’t be required to defend his students just so individuals can legally purchase weapons of death.

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Whole families turned out to peacefully march and protest.

A young boy spoke. I didn’t get his age, but he looked about 9 or 10. He’d earlier addressed City Hall. He explained, haltingly, that his school had held a drill, like a fire drill. The kids were told to huddle together in a corner of the room. He said that he wanted to be in the center of the huddle, so that he might be more protected from gunfire, but that he felt sorry for his friends in the outer circle. I’m not a psychologist. But I would think a drill like this could have lifetime consequences for a child.

***

The march went for about a mile, winding through downtown Cincinnati. Lots of chanting, a few sidewalk spectators and building residents cheering us on. It felt good to be moving with passionate people of similar mind. The march conjured memories of old marathon races I’d run, except this race had much more significance.

After the march, all the signs were dumped on the steps of the local office of Senator Portman. Not surprisingly, he didn’t show his face.

***

Some people are saying that the Parkland massacre is a tipping point. That American citizens are finally getting fed up. I thought this same thing after Sandy Hook, when first-graders were mowed down in cold blood. Yet nothing happened in Washington. Once we verbalized our thoughts, and said our prayers, we shuffled back to reality TV.

Another riveting speaker on Saturday, a woman representing Mom’s Demand Action, noted that this is a “uniquely American problem.” Other nations, including allies and some we’ve defeated in wars, now look at us and shake their heads in disgust. 0324181039-00America is fast losing the global standing and respect it once had. And it’s not just about Donald Trump. It’s about a culture of guns and violence that has permeated our fabric and is ripping us apart from the inside.

If we’re going to remedy this cancer we’ve encouraged for so many years, it’s going to take much more than thoughts, prayers, marches, and speeches. Right now, gun manufacturers and the NRA have a stranglehold on our elected officials. The only way to loosen that grip is to fire the political puppets we currently have and remain single-minded on regularly and consistently electing gun-control candidates in local, state, and national elections, who will raise their middle finger to the NRA, and pass common-sense gun legislation.

At this latest juncture, it’s youth who are leading the charge (and who can blame them, when their lives are on the line?). While their activism is encouraging, young people’s priorities shift, just as my generation’s did after Vietnam and Watergate: we fall in love, start careers, get married, invest in Wall Street… we lose focus, and forget.

A public health crisis on this scale requires the attention of everyone, who will remember never to forget.

Never.

 

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The Massacre at My Lai, South Vietnam

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Friday, March 16, was the 50th anniversary of the My Lai massacre. It was the worst atrocity committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam (there were others).

A total of 504 unarmed Vietnamese, including 173 children, 56 infants, 82 women (17 of them pregnant), and 60 elderly men were systematically murdered over a period of four hours. Many women and young girls were gang raped.  The soldiers took a lunch break after the killings.

Two villages were involved: My Lai and My Khe, located a mile away on the South China Sea.

This war crime was quickly covered up by U.S. military leadership (retired four-star general and former Secretary of State Colin Powell  denied allegations of similar Vietnam brutalities).

The massacre was only revealed to the public over a year later through the efforts of independent investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. Only one soldier was ultimately convicted: Lieutenant William Calley. He was sentenced to prison at Fort Leavenworth, but a day later President Richard Nixon ordered him released and transferred to house arrest at Fort Benning, pending appeal. He served only three and a half years of house arrest, then was released.

The atrocities at My Lai and My Khe were one tragedy.  Here’s an article in The Atlantic about the behavior of many Americans afterwards, and the lesson the U.S. should have learned, but hasn’t:

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/my-lai-50/555671/

(Header photo San Francisco Bay View)

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A Knowledge of Ashes: A Tribute to Tom Rapp

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“If you can’t be universal, you can at least be ambiguous”
– Tom Rapp

In 1994, I wrote a letter to Tom Rapp after reading an interview with him in Dirty Linen magazine. I don’t usually write fan letters, but I made an exception with Rapp. It was a typically obsequious fan gush: “I love your music,” “Listened to Balaklava non-stop one entire summer,” etc. I didn’t hold out hope for a reply.

A few weeks later, I got one. Rapp not only thanked me for me thanking him, but he sent a cassette of two unreleased, alternate versions of my two favorite songs of his: “Another Time,” and “Translucent Carriages.” I still have the letter and cassette.

I hope that my letter made him smile. Rapp was a prodigious talent, wickedly funny, by all evidence kindhearted, and he deserved better than what this world offered him. He died of cancer February 11 at the age of 70.

***

Tom Rapp started life in 1947 in Bottineau, North Dakota, a speck of a town on the cold northern prairie, way up near the Canadian line. His father was a teacher who was blacklisted for union activities, and who then became a loan officer. After being fleeced for $15,000 one night, he disappeared into the woods for a month without telling his family. The disappearances would continue off and on, and when he was home, he was frequently drunk. Rapp’s song “Rocket Man,” written on the day of the first moon landing, but about his father, talks about a man who flew between the planets, while his lonely wife and son went outside only when it was cloudy, and the stars couldn’t be seen.

(Bernie Taupin claimed he and Elton John wrote their own “Rocket Man” after hearing Rapp’s composition. Both are great songs, but totally unlike. Two major differences: one song made lots of money, and the other made nothing. Also, the John-Taupin song is about space. Rapp’s song occurs in the human heart.)

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The first Pearls Before Swine lineup. L to R: Lane Lederer, Tom Rapp, Roger Crissinger, Wayne Harley (Photo Sandra Stollman)

When he was ten, Rapp did a cowboy-Elvis Presley impersonation for a talent contest held in Rochester, Minnesota. He took second place. First prize was won by a baton twirler in a red sequined dress. Fifth-place honors went to an older Minnesota boy named Bobby Zimmerman, who later changed his last name and became somewhat famous.

(Wouldn’t it be great to locate the girl in the red sequined dress? Or track down one of the judges? Wouldn’t it be great if we could prove justice is real?)

Dale Rapp whisked his family out of the flatlands for Minnesota, then Pennsylvania, then Eau Gallie, Florida, where his son graduated high school. In 1963, after hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary’s version of “Blowing in the Wind,” Tom became intrigued with the song’s author, Bob Dylan. He had no idea they’d earlier performed on the same stage.

He began writing songs himself. On a lark, he and three friends made some rough demos, then sent them to New York-based ESP-Disk Records, an experimental underground label that had helped pioneer free jazz.  They’d also recorded the infamous Fugs, rock’s first leftist revolutionary band, which featured Beat poet and political agitator Ed Sanders. ESP-Disk invited Rapp and the boys to come up and make a record. In those days, things like that happened.

So, Rapp had to find a name for his band. Cocky, erudite, and only 19, Rapp chose “Pearls Before Swine,” taken from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It may be the most honest band name in history, and it actually has meaning – albeit ambiguous:

“Give not that which is holy unto the dogs; neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”

The name was also prophetic.

The first Pearls Before Swine album was titled One Nation Underground and recorded in only four days in the cheapest NYC studio available. Visitors to the studio included Sanders, Peter Stampfel (Holy Modal Rounders), and a standup comic and clown named Hugh Romney (later “Wavy Gravy”), who tried to ply Rapp with LSD tabs, to no success. Like Melville’s Ishmael, Rapp chose to wander through the weird happenings and times as an omniscient narrator only.

One Nation Underground was released in 1967 at practically the same moment as the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. Both albums broke ground in popular music. But whereas the Beatles effort was polished to perfection and had a world audience waiting, the Pearls debut was jagged, challenging, defiant, and burst like a green shoot through pavement cracks.

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(Family Photo)

It included one of the first anti-Vietnam War songs, “Uncle John,” directed toward Lyndon Johnson, where Rapp ended up on the studio floor screaming into the mic. “Another Time” is a haunting song, the first Rapp ever wrote, about a horrific car crash where he survived with only minor cuts. While in the cop car on the way to the hospital, he overheard, on the police radio, reports of people drowning and being burned to death. He surmised that “the universe doesn’t care at all.” But…

“Did you find, that if you don’t care… this whole wrong world will fall?”

“(Oh Dear) Miss Morse” is the humorous flip side to Rapp’s “constructive melancholy.” In this song, he adopts a Victorian persona and attempts to seduce a very proper and very sexy lady, using Morse code, and sounding out the letters F-U-C-K. “Dit-dit… dah… dit” etcetera. Over the years, Rapp loved to recount the story of how deejay Murray the K played this song and was bombarded by angry calls from Boy Scout leaders, the only listeners who understood the code.

One Nation Underground sold about 200,000 copies, surprisingly good for a debut album of psychedelic baroque-folk on a shoestring underground label. Some of its success may have had to do with the eye-catching sleeve art: Rapp chose the apocalyptic “Hell Panel” from Hieronymous Bosch’s 15th century painting “Garden of Earthly Delights” (the hard rock band Deep Purple later used this for its third album, and longitudes also borrowed it for its series on Nazism).pearls

Encouraged by this modest success, Rapp made a follow-up album with ESP-Disk. I’d review Balaklava here, but I’m straining my space limit, and I plan to cover it later this year on its 50th anniversary. So, I’ll merely say it’s arguably the best record by the Pearls/Rapp, an existential concept album about war (Vietnam, again) with moments of astonishing beauty. For Balaklava’s sleeve art, Rapp chose “The Triumph of Death” by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.

ESP-Disk seemed like the perfect vehicle for Tom Rapp’s music. It was a label that allowed the artist total creativity, no restrictions, whose studio floor was littered with exotic instruments like celesta, marimba, vibraphone, clavinette, Nepalese sarangi, and “swinehorn,” and whose owner, Bernard Stollman, was an energetic advocate of the universal language Esperanto. Problem was, Rapp didn’t make a dime (things like that happened in the ‘60s, too). He would later humorously claim that Stollman was abducted by aliens, who washed Stollman’s memory of where all the record profits went.

Rapp soon disbanded the original Pearls and jumped to the mainstream label Reprise. By this time, all sorts of rumors had arisen about the band, since there were never any photographs or interviews. Some fans thought all the members were geriatrics. Others believed the drummer was a dwarf. While on Reprise, Rapp’s songs became less strange, but tighter. He wrote beautiful songs, such as  “Rocket Man,” “The Jeweler,” “Island Lady,” and “Look into Her Eyes,” the instrumentation and presentation cleaner, the songs no less transcendent.

Eventually, after several lineup changes and paltry earnings, Rapp dropped the Pearls Before Swine name and used his own, jumping to Blue Thumb Records for two albums.  He opened for many of the top names in the 1970s: Pink Floyd, Gordon Lightfoot, Patti Smith, and much earlier was invited to the original Woodstock festival, but declined because he was living in The Netherlands and couldn’t afford to make the trip.

A typical show was like the one in Philadelphia in 1974, during Watergate, when he appeared with Genesis and Wishbone Ash. He was told backstage that he only had a few minutes, and that he could back out while still being paid. Rapp insisted on going on. And he made a bet with someone that he’d get a standing ovation. After walking out on stage, Rapp asked the crowd “If you believe he’s guilty, please stand up and cheer,” without even saying who “he” was. Rapp easily won the bet.Bill O'Leary

It’s not difficult to see where this is headed. It was a matter of time before Rapp was serving popcorn in a Boston movie theatre, his young family surviving on oatmeal. Surprisingly, he was happy. “I knew at the end of the week, every single week, I would get $85. I was insane with joy!”

With an indomitable will, he put himself through college, attending classes by day and working nights. He earned a law degree at University of Pennsylvania. He joined a law practice in Philadelphia, continuing his ‘60s work by fighting for social justice, this time in court on behalf of people who’d been discriminated against. His briefs often deviated from standard judicial dryness. One of them, filed for a man who was fired after contracting AIDS, reads partly: “In a civilized community, it is an intolerable wrong to abandon the sick and put them out to die.” Classic Rapp.

In the late 1990s, Rapp made a mild comeback. He was lauded by various British journalists and musicians, including The Bevis Frond and This Mortal Coil, and appeared at several small music festivals (why do the Brits always have to show us Yanks what we’ve ignored in our own backyard?). He also made a remarkable album, his first in 26 years, entitled A Journal of the Plague Year, with the wrenching “The Swimmer (for Kurt Cobain).” Rapp borrowed the evocative album title, characteristically, from a book by 18th-century novelist Daniel Defoe. Assisting him with the music were members of the American group Galaxie 500, Bevis Frond, and his son, David.

He also lost his job. Now living in Florida, Rapp and another lawyer became litigants, charging age discrimination, just like some of the people he’d once fought for.

***

Rapp appreciated history and the old things. He understood that old things have value. He sang about people who were flawed, physically or psychically: lepers, old Jews with lisps, lonely jewelers with cracked and bleeding hands, strangers with scars on their heads from wearing crowns. He chronicled and championed insignificant people who were lost in the ashes of time.

He undoubtedly saw himself as one of them.

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(Photo Bill O’Leary/Getty)

(Special thanks to the Washington Post and Gene Weingarten, who wrote the best article on Rapp I’ve yet read)

A Conclusion: Tom Rapp’s Lesson of the ‘60s:
(shared by longitudes)

Love is real.
Justice is real.
Everything is not for sale.
Honesty is possible, and necessary.
Governments have no morals, and you’ve got to kick their ass.
And, most importantly: never buy drugs from a policeman.

The Trump Wall: A Progress Report

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As a candidate for U.S. president, some of Donald Trump’s most notorious campaign platform items were his controversial ideas on foreign travel and immigration. One was his so-called “Muslim ban” (ultimately Executive Order 13769, which was blocked by the courts and superseded by Executive Order 13780, which was blocked by the courts then supplemented by Presidential Proclamation 9645, currently undergoing more litigation along with La La Land ). Another bright idea consisted of building a “great wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border to stem illegal Mexican immigration.

In 2015, I interviewed then-candidate Trump and touched on his wall policy. Now that Trump has (illogically) begun the second year of a presidential administration, I thought it might be worthwhile to visit with him for a status update on this wall. I’m curious to find out how big a priority the wall still is, and if the idea will lose air like so many other balloons the right-wing floats prior to every election (such as “locking up” Hillary Clinton for perceived “crimes”).

The United States of Amnesia deserves to be informed of how its elected officials are carrying out the duties for which they were elected. After all, “we” elected Trump, so “we” obviously deserve to know when and how this wall will be built. Has our government yet interviewed any landscape architects? Have we been privy to any blueprints? Will Mexico ever agree to finance construction? Will the wall extend all 2,000 miles of the border, or will Mother Nature assist in our exclusion effort? Will graffiti be permitted? If so, may we spray-paint obscenities at Trump, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan without being tossed into Guantanamo?

Trump and I met on the back nine of one of his many golf courses. I was shocked at his appearance. The bags under his eyes were heavier, and his trademark scowl was even more hideous. Nonetheless, he proved to be an ingratiating host, kidding me about my frequent shanks and divots, and interrupting our interview only 22 times to tweet angry reprisals at his critics (who seemed to multiply as we neared the 19th hole).

I’ve tried to reconstruct the interview as best I can. However, it was difficult to record the conversation, since Trump and his favorite Secret Service agent (Special Agent Rocco Infante) sat in the golf cart, while I had to cling to the back, sharing space with the golf bags (Trump’s bag was a typically garish monstrosity and took up most of the area). Also, I think he was still mad at me for dissing his juvenile reality show in favor of PBS during our first interview.

___________

longitudes: Thanks for meeting with me again, Mr. Trump.

Trump: My pleasure. I always enjoy mingling with the little people. Please call me “President” Trump.

longitudes: Speaking of which, how do you like your new job?

Trump: It’s not as easy as I thought! I have all these meetings and stuff. You’re also supposed to know stuff. Know what I mean? Covfefe.

longitudes: Uh… what?

Trump: Nothing. Hey, look at that hu-u-u-u-ge sand trap! C’mon, betcha ten grand that your ball lands in the dirt, Skippy.

longitudes: Please call me “greenpete.” I’m not a betting man, and those aren’t my kind of stakes. I’m not a golfer, either. But I’d like to ask you about your wall.diaper

Trump: Uh… (Trump feverishly taps something into his favorite toy). Uh… what wall is that?

longitudes: The one along the Mexican border you promised to build if elected.

Trump: Oh. That wall. Uh… you didn’t think I was serious, did you? Such a thing would be impossible. Even with a Congress loaded with short-sighted, hypocritical Republicans, believe me.

longitudes: Yes, I tried to tell you that in our last interview.

Trump: Don’t get smart, Skippy, or I’ll tell Mike Pence you’re gay.

longitudes: Your few meetings with Mexican President Peña Nieto haven’t gone well. Are you concerned that your supporters will get impatient that you honor your campaign promise?

Trump: My supporters? You mean those white nationalists and old ladies with dementia? They’d support me even if I defaced the Lincoln Memorial while wearing the American flag as a diaper. All they care about is that Hillary isn’t president, believe me.

longitudes: So you don’t think some will turn their backs on you in 2020?

Trump: That’s right. Anyway, any Democratic victory will be rigged. Fake news, baby. I’ll make sure I float that balloon, believe me. The Electoral College will come through for me again. Thank God for underpopulated red states like North Dakota.

longitudes: But even if the United States of Amnesia forgets about your promise to build the wall, aren’t you concerned about your…um… legacy?

Trump: Look, ok? Look. I’m no worse than your buddy Obama, the worst president in the history of presidents in every country in the history of the whole universe, believe me.

longitudes: I believe history will show Obama as a great president.  What evidence do you have that he’s the “worst”?

Trump: I don’t need evidence. Rush Limbaugh and FOX News say he is. I’m the executive now, and my job is to slash taxes for people like me! I keep telling people, I DON’T NEED TO KNOW STUFF!

longitudes: Well, Mr. Trump, on that illuminating note, I’ll bring our interview to a close and hop off.

Trump: Hey, aren’t you going to join me on the 19th hole for, like, refreshments? Or supper with Mike Pence? (No chicks, of course… Mike’s a traditionally married man).

longitudes: I’ll pass. I have a WordPress deadline to meet. But before I leave, let me just say that, in our last interview, you called me a “loser.” You’ve also disparaged certain immigrants. On behalf of us losers and immigrants, and the many that you’ve insulted over the years, including, as president, Puerto Ricans and the family of the woman who was run over in Charlottesville, I just have three words: shame on you. Covfefe ?

But Trump doesn’t hear me. He’s stepped out of the presidential cart and is twirling his 9-iron while strolling toward the water hazard, where agent Infante just lifted from the muck, and repositioned, the bright orange golf ball emblazoned with his profile.

Only God, Allah, and agent Infante know how many more “mulligans” this man will be allowed.

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(Disclaimer: this was a fantasy interview.  The only real interviews I’ve done are with people I like.)

Dusky Songbird: A Tribute to Maggie Roche

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Maggie Roche died last year. I only recently learned this sad news.  (Blame our relentless media avalanche, or my own hibernation inclinations). She and the music of The Roches have been continually rolling across my mind lately. If any artist deserves a profile on longitudes, Maggie Roche does.

For those who don’t know them, the Roches were an Irish-American trio of sisters, most popular in the late 1970s and ‘80s, famous for their intricate folk harmonies and quirky lyrics (and clothes). The Roches are treasured by a small cult of passionate, and distinctly older, fans. In other words, their music was far too clever and sophisticated to ever get past the left end of the FM dial.

I love all three sisters, who each contributed something special. But Maggie… the eldest and linchpin of the trio… was my favorite. Her songs were intriguing, with one foot in sunlight and the other in partial shadow. She had a touch of dusky Irish mystery, and I loved her strange alto/contralto vocals, aptly described by one writer as a young girl trying to imitate the voice of her father.

Here’s my paltry, belated tribute to this amazingly talented and very introverted artist.

♫ ♫ ♫

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Suzzy, Terre, Maggie Roche

Margaret A. Roche was born October 26, 1951 in Detroit, Michigan, and raised in the leafy, conservative burg of Park Ridge, New Jersey to artistically inclined parents John (Jack) and Jude Roche. She first sang in Roman Catholic church choirs, sometimes with her two younger sisters, Terre (pronounced “Terry”) and Suzzy (rhymes with “fuzzy”). She started writing songs in 1964, after receiving a guitar for her birthday.

As they got older, the Roches supplemented their choir singing with annual Christmas caroling, sometimes venturing across the Hudson River to Greenwich Village. At their father’s prompting, they crisscrossed New Jersey to sing from the backs of trucks in support of Democratic candidates (their first large public appearance may have been in 1978, at a rally for Jersey Senator Bill Bradley, where they were introduced by comedian Chevy Chase).

Maggie briefly attended tiny Bard College in the Hudson Valley (I think it was just after Chase and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker and Donald Fagen), but she dropped out to form a duo with Terre. In 1972, after a songwriting class at NYU with Paul Simon, they assisted on one song on Simon’s album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon (1973). This led to an album with Columbia, Seductive Reasoning (1975). Few people know about this album, and even less bought it when released. But it contains early stirrings of genius by Maggie. Her closing song, “Jill of All Trades,” fits snugly alongside the best, then-in-vogue confessionals of singers like Laura Nyro, Carly Simon, and Judee Sill.

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“All of you will buy a ticket, just to see my face again” (photo Irene Young)

Supposedly, Columbia hoped the duo would provide some sex appeal for its label. Instead, reflecting Maggie’s inclination toward modesty, Maggie and Terre deliberately dressed plain for the sleeve photo, with no makeup or jewelry.

Youngest sister Suzzy made it a trio in 1976. The threesome soon developed a following at Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, where, fifteen years earlier, Bob Dylan had made a splash.

Like the Everly Brothers, Bee Gees, and countless bluegrass bands, the Roches exploited their genes to create intuitive vocal harmonies, with Maggie anchoring the low end. They were also cheeky lyricists, penning ironic songs about adultery (“The Married Men,” written by Maggie), crowd anonymity (“The Train,” by Suzzy), and inter-generational tension (“Hammond Song,” by Maggie), among others.

All three stellar songs are featured on the Roches’ 1979 eponymous album on Warner Brothers, tastefully produced by, of all people, prog-rock god Robert Fripp (King Crimson), in “audio vérité” style.

( I still remember, as a record reviewer for my college newspaper, looking at the cover of The Roches album and thinking Why would three attractive women deliberately try to look nerdy and unsexy? And why is Fripp producing them? )

The Roches thrust the sisters into the spotlight. Critic Jay Cocks of Time magazine called their music “startling, lacerating, and amusing.” Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow performed “The Married Men” together on Saturday Night Live, and soon after, Paul Simon chose them as his musical guests on the show. Punk rock was peaking in the late 1970s, and the Roches combined the directness of punk with literate and sardonic lyrics, precise pronunciation, avant-folk harmonies, and a goofy, insouciant attitude, to create something musically unique.keep on doing

The follow-up album was punningly titled Nurds (1980), and was slightly disappointing compared to the debut… although Maggie’s “This Feminine Position” is one of their breeziest songs, with its soothing synthesizer and acoustic guitar. Also, she interprets an Irish folk ballad, “Factory Girl,” with Gaelic aplomb.

The group came roaring back with Keep on Doing (1982), again produced by Fripp. This might be their high point, with Suzzy and Terre’s “Keep on Doing What You Do/Jerks on the Loose” and Maggie’s songs “Losing True” and “The Scorpion Lament.” “Losing True” is the song that permanently hooked me on the Roches. It’s rich with irony, rhyme, and alliteration, and the cathedral harmonizing, with syllables stretched to breaking point, rivals anything the Mamas and Papas ever did.

There were many TV appearances through the ‘80s, characterized by innocuous interview questions usually unrelated to the music. My favorite is Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, from 1982, where poor, shy Maggie was dazzled by the cameras, and gripped the armchair like she wanted to bolt from the studio! In 1983, the Roches had an hour-long special on the PBS show Soundstage. In 1985, they appeared on both The Dick Cavett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Their music was then featured in the film Crossing Delancey (1988), starring Steven Spielberg’s then-wife, Amy Irving. Suzzy even had a small role in this film.

In 1990, Carson brought them back in the wake of their comeback album Speak. Here, they bopped to their beautifully sarcastic “Big Nuthin’,” written about their hyped but hollow TV spots (Carson naïvely thought the song was strictly about the Saturday Night Live appearance). By this point, Maggie was playing keyboards onstage.speak

While “Big Nuthin’” is the eye-opening track on Speak – a great album, song-wise, but hindered by then-fashionable high-tech production gloss – it’s the ghostly minimalism of Maggie’s title song that knocks me out.

After Speak, they continued to release records, including an enormously popular collection of Christmas songs, We Three Kings (1990), which is sometimes reverent, sometimes whimsical, and always Roche-ey.  But their visibility dimmed as Maggie wrote fewer songs. Suzzy released solo records, wrote two books, and raised her daughter (Lucy Roche, who currently records and tours with Suzzy; Lucy’s father is singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright III). Terre, a talented guitarist, established a guitar workshop and also began a solo career.

Maggie, characteristically, kept a lower profile. She joined her sisters for music voice-overs (as roaches!) on a segment of Spielberg’s cartoon series Tiny Toon Adventures (her bug character was the brassiest of the three… a private joke for fans, since Maggie was so soft-spoken); a children’s record, Will You Be My Friend, which won a parents’ award; and made several records with Suzzy, including a 2001 collection of diverse prayers set to music, called Zero Church (for an inspiring, non-denominational, non-traditional song for Christmas, you can’t beat “Anyway” from that album). The Roches also covered songs for various artist tribute albums, notably a lush rendition of the Band’s “Acadian Driftwood.”

The last album with all three Roches was Moonswept in 2007. For me, the standout song is “Family of Bones.” Suzzy handed her sister the words, and Maggie waved her wand to conjure, in less than a day, the haunting, hymn-like music.

♫ ♫ ♫

Mountain Stage archives

L to R: Maggie, Suzzy, Terre (photo Mountain Stage Archives)

Maggie had breast cancer for ten years, but evidently didn’t tell her sisters until just before she died. Suzzy wrote on the Roches’ Facebook page that her sister was “a private person, too sensitive and shy for this world, but brimming with life, love, and talent.” She also called her a “brilliant songwriter” and “authentic.” Maggie left behind her partner, Michael McCarthy, and a son, country songwriter-producer-musician Felix McTeigue. In 1989, she wrote a song called “Broken Places” about a mother being reunited with her son, after giving him up for adoption. Most artists would attempt just a first-person narration of a risky song like this. Maggie, however, interpreted it (like “Hammond Song”) from two different viewpoints.

While I don’t usually provide links to songs, I can’t help but do it here. In addition to a self-effacing sense of fashion, Maggie had a wicked sense of humor. The song below is from the seriously underrated album Can We Go Home Now (1995): thirty-three couplets of Maggie’s hilarious rhyming bliss, seen from the protective shell of her allegorical black winter coat.

Fly with the angels, dusky songbird.

(Thanks to John Lingan, The New York Times Magazine, for some information)