Pearl

50 years

janis

All I know is something like a bird within her sang
All I know she sang a little while and then flew on
Tell me all that you know
I’ll show you snow and rain…

– from “Bird Song” by the Grateful Dead

She fled to California from Port Arthur, Texas in the early 1960s. From all accounts, she wanted to escape a stifling environment that had branded her a freak. She was a marginal student, suffered bad acne, sang black music, and hung out with “undesirables.” The gulf between her and her peers must have been as vast as the Gulf of Mexico.

A fourth-grade classmate was future NFL coach and FOX Sports commentator Jimmy Johnson. One of them perfectly fit the mold of conservative 1950s Texas. The other shattered it.

Friday, June 10 will be 50 years since rock singer Janis Joplin made her debut with Big Brother and the Holding Company at the legendary Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco. Recently, I was reminded of her greatness when the PBS show “American Masters” aired a very good documentary about her.

Folks, help me here please: has any woman singer since Janis possessed even a shot glass of her charisma? I don’t think so. Many have tried, and many have failed.

Only a few divas have even come close to replicating her sexually charged delivery of soulful blues-rock. Tina Turner certainly comes to mind. She and Janis actually did a duet on stage in 1969 (what a magical moment that must have been). Singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, born one month after Janis died, has a little of Janis’s distinctive blues rasp.

But I’ll be gobsmacked if anyone has been able to tear down the rafters like “Pearl.” She glowed like St. Elmo’s fire for only four short years. Her likes hadn’t been seen since Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and they may never be seen again.janis2

I’ll grudgingly admit, though, she’s not for everybody. A friend of a friend once derided Joplin as “that shrieking harpy.” And most recordings of her are pretty shabby. Her most famous backup band was Big Brother, but even with two lead guitarists, they were little more than a distortion-heavy garage band.

Many people, especially women, can’t understand her appeal. Although never crude, Janis was wild, uninhibited, and boldly sexual. Which probably explains her biggest fans: horny young men. Some people prefer subtlety in their music and performers. And Janis was anything but subtle.

On stage I make love to 25,000 people. And then I go home alone.

Similar to her Haight-Ashbury friends, the Grateful Dead, Janis had to be seen and heard in a live setting. She was more about the moment than the artifact. One of her greatest performances is captured in D.A. Pennebaker’s MONTEREY POP, a groundbreaking cinéma vérité documentary about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Until Monterey, she was unknown outside of San Francisco. But her performance of “Ball and Chain” sent earthquake tremors through the audience. The camera shot of Mama Cass Elliot sitting open-mouthed during Joplin’s performance, then mouthing the word “Wow,” is now part of rock legend.

The Monterey festival was her coming-out party. There would soon be a record contract, then national and international tours, Woodstock, and television appearances (she made four noteworthy appearances on “The Dick Cavett Show,” and Cavett says he’s still in love with her). She became the most famous woman in rock ‘n’ roll, and she holds that title even today.

***

In 1970, Janis returned to Port Arthur for her 10-year high school reunion, an exotic flamingo landing in a nest of sparrows. The reunion was bittersweet. Years earlier, while still in Texas and performing in coffeehouses at the University of Texas, an unnamed fraternity voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.” One can only imagine how she felt at this brutal insult. Her friend and fellow musician, Powell St. John, said Janis took it hard.

But she never let it stop her.

***

I confess that I don’t often listen to her music these days – my shredded nervous system just can’t handle it – but Janis is special to me because her singing had something real and honest that you don’t often find anymore. Bullshit is the music industry’s stock and trade. But with Janis, there was no bullshit. When she sang, she pulled something from deep within her. Maybe despair.

Whatever that intangible was, it’s hard to imagine rock music without her; there would just be a big gaping hole. Janis held nothing back, and despite having to endure the agonies of childhood ridicule, she stayed true to her muse and plowed her own path. There aren’t many of us that can do that.

So, even though I don’t drink Southern Comfort (Janis’s favorite beverage), I plan to raise a glass to Pearl on June 10. As another friend once told me with great emotion, one who actually knew her: “She was one helluva woman.”

But, in truth, she was a little girl.

…Don’t you cry
Dry your eyes on the wind.

4-18-69_NY_by Elliot Landy

In New York City, April, 1969.  Photo copyright Elliot Landy

When You Have to Shoot, SHOOT (Don’t Talk): The Revisionist Western

fonda

A man lies in a wooden bathtub filled with soap suds. His face is dotted with beard stubble and beads of sweat. There are pockmarks punched into his left cheek and a bloody gash above his right eyebrow. A leather, string necklace dangles from his neck. He licks his dirty finger then digs inside his ear.

Suddenly, the wooden, saloon-style doors swing open and a one-armed man brandishing a six-shooter bursts into the room.

“I been lookin’ for you for eight months,” he croaks. “Whenever I SHOULDA had a gun in my RIGHT hand, I thought of you. Now I find you exactly in the position that suits me. I had lotsa time to learn how to shoot with my LEFT.”

There’s the sound of a click, then four bursts of gunfire, as suds spray from the tub. The one-armed man spins back through the door, topples over a table, and lands on a broken bed. He groans and struggles to get upright. The bathtub guy rests his gun barrel on the swinging door, and fires one final shot.

In a gruff Mexican accent, he says “When you have to shoot, SHOOT. Don’t talk.”

The entire scene lasts almost two minutes. But only twenty seconds is dialog.

If you are a fan of Clint Eastwood, you probably know this scene. It is one of many memorable moments from the Sergio Leone-directed “Spaghetti Western” entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Although Eastwood is the star, Eli Wallach (the Mexican in the bathtub, named “Tuco”) and bad guy Lee Van Cleef help make this film one of the great “revisionist” Westerns. Even if you’ve never seen it, you’re surely familiar with the title and the music, which are now embedded in popular culture.

eastwood_wallach

Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach set the standard for “buddy” movies

It is Oscar time again, and, surprisingly, two movies nominated this year for awards are Westerns (The Revenant and The Hateful Eight). This gives me an opportunity to talk about some of my favorite Westerns, with “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” at the top of the list.

One hears the term “revisionist” much these days, and it is usually in negative way. Revisionist history often implies embellishing or altering historical fact to suit a particular agenda. But Revisionist Westerns were intended to bring more realism to a film genre, and, in my opinion, they improved the genre. Nothing against John Ford, John Wayne, or Gary Cooper, who made some of the most noteworthy Westerns in Tinseltown. But I prefer cowboys who have a little tobacco juice on their whiskers – if you know what I mean.

Before the 1960s and dating back to the silent film era of the 1920s, movie Westerns and later television Westerns were extraordinarily popular, but very formulaic. With only a few exceptions, there were good guys and bad guys, and little in-between. The actors looked like they had just stepped from the fitting room at JCPenney. The dialog was clean and predictable. Even the violence was clean, with maybe a spot of grey, at most, to reveal blood. If a good guy was shot, he always managed to take a few moments to gasp some poignant last words.

Women were limited to secondary roles as wives or sweethearts. American Indians were always portrayed by white actors, and always the evil aggressor. If Mexicans were depicted at all, they were generally lazy and subservient (a notable exception being in the Marlon Brando vehicle, Viva Zapata).

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William Holden in “The Wild Bunch”

But in the 1960s and early ‘70s, America went through many changes, and these changes affected how movies were made, including Westerns. Realism began to displace romanticism, and Westerns became more cynical and critical of the motives and actions of frontier lawmen, settlers, Christian missionaries, government agents, and the U.S. Army. Westerns reflected the times in which they were made.

In addition to theme and tone, style changed as well. European directors like Leone had much to do with this. I already devoted a whole blog post to Spaghetti Westerns (Spaghetti Western Feast), so I won’t reiterate here. But these foreign-made Revisionist Westerns greatly influenced Hollywood. They emphasized realistic cinematography, action and atmosphere over dialog, authentic costuming and makeup, and, for good or bad (or ugly)… a much harder edge to the violence.

And – finally – Hollywood began employing Native Americans, instead of Caucasians who wore wigs and brown skin cream.

I’ve once again blathered on far too long. Let’s get to the good stuff. As promised, here are my top ten favorite Westerns. All of them can be considered Revisionist Westerns. (One favorite NOT in this list is HUD, starring Paul Newman, and based on the book Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry. Although revisionist in nature, the setting is the contemporary West.  I feel this brilliant flick deserves a separate category.)

Here they are:

10. THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970): An unusual Spaghetti Western that spoofs the genre, it is the first in a series of “Trinity” movies starring blond, blue-eyed Terence Hill. trinityHe plays a lazy, happy-go-lucky cowboy who teams with his brooding brother to protect a town of pacifist Mormons from a ruthless land baron. Lighthearted fare with lots of funny moments (including hilarious overdubs).

9. THE APPALOOSA (1966): Marlon Brando portrays a Mexican-American buffalo hunter trying to recapture a beloved, stolen horse. scorpionsI haven’t seen it in years, but I remember it as a minor gem with lots of atmosphere. A highlight is a great arm wrestling scene with live scorpions on the table. Unrelated to Appaloosa (2008) with Ed Harris.

8. WILL PENNY (1968): Charlton Heston called this his favorite film. He plays a loner cowboy whose mountain cabin has been “borrowed” by a young widow and her son. Beautiful scenery, with excellent supporting cast, especially bad guys Donald Pleasance and Bruce Dern. A little old-fashioned, but revisionist due to an unusual ending.

heston

7. THE WILD BUNCH (1969): This might be director Sam Peckinpah’s greatest film. wildbunchposeIt stars William Holden, Robert Ryan, Ernest Borgnine, and other great actors too numerous to list. The Old West is changing, and a team of aging outlaws go south of the border after one last heist. Raw, bawdy, THE WILD BUNCH makes John Ford Westerns look like chick flicks. “Let’s go!”

6. ONE-EYED JACKS (1961): one eyed jacksAnother Brando flick, this was his only directorial attempt and is maybe the first Revisionist Western. He plays Rio, a robber who is double-crossed by his older partner, Dad Longworth (Karl Malden), and who years later tracks him down. His plans to kill Dad are complicated when he falls in love with Dad’s virginal daughter. Rio is nasty, but the audience sympathizes with his plight. Malden, who had appeared with Brando in both On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, called him “a genius in our time” after this film.

5. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968): This is an epic Spaghetti Western by Sergio Leone and stars Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Charles Bronson. Like THE WILD BUNCH, it concerns the encroachment of civilization (the railroad) on the Old West. bronsonFonda is chilling as the villain, Bronson is moody and mysterious, and Robards adds class. Claudia Cardinale plays a struggling widow, but she’s also sexy and independent. Her “rape” by Fonda is very unsettling.

4. HOMBRE (1967): Based on an early Elmore Leonard novel about a white man raised by Apaches, Paul Newman portrays the stoic and taciturn John Russell, who, reluctantly, has to protect a group of bigoted whites from a band of outlaws. One of the bigots is a corrupt Apache Indian agent (excellently played by the great Fredric March). After 40 years of vanilla Westerns, here’s one that honestly depicts racism against Indians.

hombre

3. JEREMIAH JOHNSON (1972): Beautifully shot in the mountains of Utah, with some of the most breathtaking cinematography of any Western. Robert Redford plays an alienated Mexican War veteran who disappears into the Rocky Mountains to become a trapper. crow indianHe meets an eccentric grizzly hunter, is forced into leading a group of pioneers through hostile Crow country, and soon has to defend himself from isolated attacks by Crow warriors. Atmospheric, with sparse dialog, it is (literally) great escapism.

2. LITTLE BIG MAN (1970): little big manThis movie is perfect on every level. It is tragic, funny, dramatic, has great acting (Chief Dan George was nominated for an Oscar), and it depicts Plains Indian cultural and spiritual life with sensitivity, humor, and truth. Richard Mulligan makes a more enjoyable Gen. George A. Custer than Custer himself. See this movie at least once before you die!

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966): Six reasons to watch this film: clintSergio Leone, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, Lee Van Cleef, soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone, and the stark Andalusia landscape. What this movie lacks in substance it makes up in style. What else can I say?  Only that I’ve seen this movie well over a dozen times and I keep going back for more.

Whew! I apologize for not heeding Tuco’s advice, and talking too long. I guess my only excuse is that I love movies, particularly Westerns, and I also love lists. And I’d love to see your own lists, so please tell me your own favorites (revisionist or otherwise).

Until then, I wish you happy trails and beautiful sunsets!

andalusia

1966: A Very Good Musical Year

50 years

Louie-Louie

Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.

Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.

The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.

turtles

The Turtles in 1966. L-R: Al Nichol, Chuck Portz, Howard Kaylan, Jim Tucker, Mark Volman, Don Murray.

The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.

It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.

– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles

Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).

barbarians

The Barbarians, with hook-handed drummer Moulty, had a minor hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” This was a crucial question in 1966.

On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).

But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.

Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.

leaves

The Leaves were the first of many groups to record the song “Hey Joe.” Leader Jim Pons is in the middle.

One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.

In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.

And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!

Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’

– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star

Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.

But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!

the-hollies-bus-stop-odeon

The Hollies were from Manchester, England. They broke the U.S. Top 10 in ’66 with “Bus Stop.” Graham Nash, top right, later teamed with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.

Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.

In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”

We were happy together, and it was a very good year.

harrison

Turning to Gray: Cam Ne, South Vietnam, 1965

50 years

safer in vietnam

The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood
And if you don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

– Arthur Lee and Love, from their song “A House is Not a Motel”

At 6 PM EST on August 5, 1965, the report aired on the CBS Evening News. It was suppertime in America. Housewives were preparing or serving dinner. Husbands were relaxing after work. Children were tumbling inside after a day of play in the hot summer sun.

vietnam_war_mapThose Americans who’d tuned their televisions to watch CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite – “the most trusted man in America,” according to many opinion polls – would see something they’d never seen before.

WATERS TURNED TO BLOOD

In early 1965, CBS had set up a news bureau in Saigon, South Vietnam. A 33-year-old Canadian-American journalist named Morley Safer headed the bureau. He was one of the first reporters to be permanently assigned to cover the Vietnam War, which, by the end of 1965, involved 200,000 U.S. soldiers.

On August 2, Safer was in the city of Da Nang in northern South Vietnam. He heard about a Marine Corps mission that was being sent to a complex of hamlets located south of Da Nang, in a place called Cam Ne. This collection of peasant huts was inhabited by families who, for generations, had survived by subsistence farming in the many rice paddies in the region.

Marine private near Da nang

Marine private, merely a boy, near Da Nang in 1965. He may have been present at Cam Ne

Safer heard from one of the marine units that the mission planned for the following day was “search-and-destroy.” It was being referred to as “Operation Blastout 1.” Safer was asked if he wanted to come along… “Please come along,” said the marines.

The platoon left Da Nang early the next morning. It traveled in APCs (armored personnel carriers), and a few amphibious vehicles due to high water. Safer and cameraman Ha Thuc Can (“This wonderful man,” according to Safer) accompanied the troops. Ha Thuc Can was the only person who could speak Vietnamese.

During the journey, Safer talked to a captain. The captain told him that all the houses in Cam Ne were to be destroyed. The marines had supposedly been subjected to sporadic sniper fire from Viet Cong entrenched in Cam Ne, and the captain said the marines were now going to “really tear it up.”

Safer thought the captain was exaggerating. Never before had he heard of a “search-and-destroy” mission, against civilians, executed by a ground strike. Before August 3 – at least since Sherman’s torching of Southern homes in the American Civil War – such missions were directed at confirmed enemy targets and involved either artillery fire or air attacks.

When the marines arrived at the first “village,” they immediately began setting fire to the huts, which were made of thatch. Some used flame throwers, and others used cigarette lighters (later, some marines boasted they were the “Zippo brigade”). Other marines fired their weapons, although the only Americans shot at until then were struck “in the ass” from friendly fire.

zippo 2

Marine using lighter on thatched roof at Cam Ne

One marine aimed his flame thrower down a hole in the dirt floor of one hut. Ha Thuc Can pleaded for him to stop. Ha Thuc Can bent over the hole, speaking quiet Vietnamese into the darkness. He eventually coaxed out a family of six, including an infant child. The family was in tears and, says Safer, “frightened stiff.”

Safer reported that, by the end of the day, one baby was killed, three women were wounded, one marine was wounded, and 150 houses were destroyed. He sent his report by telex to his bosses back home.

THE NEWS TODAY

When CBS News President Fred Friendly and anchorman Cronkite reviewed Safer’s report – which included filmed footage of Cam Ne’s destruction – they became very nervous. They knew this story would ignite controversy. Friendly contacted Safer twice to confirm its veracity. And, twice, Safer confirmed his story.

When Safer’s news report was digested by American families, perceptions of the Vietnam War changed:

I think [viewers] saw American troops acting in a way people had never seen American troops act before, and couldn’t imagine… This conjured up not America, but some brutal power — Germany, even, in World War II. To see young G.I.s, big guys in flak jackets, lighting up thatched roofs, and women holding babies running away, wailing — this was a new sight to everyone, including the military, I suspect.” (Morley Safer)

After Cam Ne, the Pentagon wanted Safer fired. The Defense Department began monitoring TV news broadcasts. President Johnson told CBS President Frank Stanton that CBS had “shat on the American flag.” He was convinced that Safer was a communist. When told that he was Canadian, Johnson replied “Well, I knew he wasn’t an American.”

cam ne villager

Morley Safer and elderly man at Cam Ne

The marines felt that Safer’s story was distorted and didn’t convey that Cam Ne had been fortified by the Viet Cong with trenches, underground tunnels, punji stakes and booby traps (though the VC had withdrawn by the time the marines arrived). They felt he downplayed sniper fire and (their contention) that the villagers were hostile to American troops. Initially, they claimed that only a few houses had been destroyed by artillery. “It was just blatant bullshit,” says Safer.

TURNING TO GRAY

But the legacy of Cam Ne has less to do with Viet Cong hostilities than with how the Vietnam War was being fought by the United States. And, as Safer observes, perceived by Americans at home. Things became murkier, more nebulous. American boys were, suddenly, no longer shining white knights fighting to protect freedom (however that concept may be defined). And, only a few years later, the ugly reality of Vietnam would come crashing home after the massacre of unarmed civilians at My Lai, South Vietnam.

Today’s operation shows the frustration of Vietnam in miniature. There is little doubt that American firepower can win a military victory here. But to a Vietnamese peasant whose home means a lifetime of backbreaking labor, it will take more than presidential promises to convince him we are on his side.”

Safer was correct on all counts except one: there was no American military victory.

(Note: Morley Safer has been a “60 Minutes” correspondent since 1970 and has received numerous awards. His story on Cam Ne was voted by fellow journalists as one of the top 100 journalism works of the last century.

________________________________________________

Sources:

http://www.pbs.org/weta/reportingamericaatwar/reporters/safer/camne.html

http://www.historynet.com/what-really-happened-at-cam-ne.htm

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hNYZZi25Ttg

Da Nang 1965

Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part Two)

GREAT ESCAPE, THE

(Tuesday, March 24 is the late Steve McQueen’s 85th birthday. To honor this charismatic actor, here is the second of my two-part commemoration of the man and his films)

There’s a scene in the movie THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) where American POW Virgil Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his repeated banishments to the isolation box, squats on the dirt in his cramped cell, smiles, and begins to bounce a baseball against the opposite wall. There’s no dialog. But the character’s actions imply “You bastards may be able to kill me. But you can’t eat me.”

This scene is one of many examples of why Steve McQueen earned the title “The King of Cool.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE served notice that a new matinee idol had arrived in Hollywood. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, “The large international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

After this movie, McQueen was offered one juicy role after another. He was paired with some of the most ravishing starlets in Hollywood: Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset. He commanded top dollar for his films. In 1968, his peak year, he starred in two blockbuster films that perfectly exploited his antihero credentials: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and BULLITT.

mcqueen_dunaway

Getting passionate with Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”

In THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQueen portrays a wealthy playboy and sportsman who dabbles in high-stakes crime on the side. He’s an ultra-intelligent, smooth operator who enjoys playing chess, riding his dune buggy, reading the Wall Street Journal, and – just for kicks – robbing banks. After masterminding one multi-million-dollar bank heist, an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) is hired to trip him up. She comes close to nabbing him in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, but of course, she eventually succumbs to his charm. The split-screen scene where McQueen and Dunaway compete in a sexually charged game of chess, then kiss rapturously while the camera whirls around them, is one of the great moments in cinema history, and it assisted Michel Legrand in winning an Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

mcqueen_bullitt

Classic photo of McQueen and shoulder holster, from his quintessential film, “Bullitt”

McQueen’s next movie, BULLITT, which was produced by McQueen’s own Solar Productions company, has an even more iconic sequence. The storyline is nothing exceptional: a police lieutenant appropriately named Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is hired to protect a government witness, who is eventually killed, and Bullitt has to contend with both the Mafia and a vengeful politician (Robert Vaughn). But the film is special for its on-location camerawork, the piece-de-resistance being a high-speed car chase across the hills of San Francisco. This 10-minute chase is considered one of the most exciting ever filmed, with veteran racer McQueen doing the close-up driving scenes himself, including a classic spinout in a turbo-charged, 1968 Ford Mustang GT (the high-speed scenes were done by several well-known stunt drivers, one of whom had doubled for McQueen during the motorcycle jump over barbed wire in THE GREAT ESCAPE). During filming, the two cars reached speeds of an astonishing 110 mph. The BULLITT car chase scene became the model for dozens of other similar chases peppered throughout commercials, comedies, and action films. But other than maybe THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) starring Gene Hackman, none have come close to McQueen and BULLITT.

After BULLITT, McQueen had enough power and a big enough bank account to race cars and bikes whenever he felt like it. He not only made sure his films had at least one car scene (at least, those set in the automobile age), he also made documentaries about racing, most notably ON ANY SUNDAY (1971), a motorcycle documentary partially produced by and featuring McQueen, and which critic Roger Ebert said “does for motorcycle racing what THE ENDLESS SUMMER did for surfing.”

But McQueen’s film output slowed down considerably after 1969. On the night of August 9, two close friends, actress Sharon Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring, became victims of the Manson Family murder spree. McQueen had been invited to Tate’s house that same night, but had turned it down because he had a date. He was also supposedly on Manson’s hit list after his production company rejected a Manson screenplay. McQueen’s first wife, Neile, claims that Steve was so spooked he started carrying a concealed handgun everywhere.

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Dressed for speed in LE MANS

In 1971, McQueen realized a dream and produced a movie about the renowned 24-hour road race in Le Mans, France. Racing fans love LE MANS for its authenticity – and McQueen never looked “cooler” – but the film plot was fairly opaque, and it was essentially a vanity project for McQueen (he’d turned down the lead role in the earlier racing film, GRAND PRIX (1966), the role eventually going to fellow race enthusiast and friend James Garner).

During the 1970s, McQueen only made five feature films. Two of them, the lighthearted rodeo homage JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and the crime thriller THE GETAWAY (1972), were done with infamous director Sam Peckinpah, who had an affinity for antiheroes and how they cope in a brutal world. In THE GETAWAY, McQueen portrays an ex-con who robs a bank and goes on the lam with his girlfriend (played by Ali McGraw). High on style but low in substance, THE GETAWAY was a much-needed hit for both McQueen and Peckinpah. But it also broke up McQueen’s marriage to Neile, as he and McGraw became lovers during the film, and eventually married (then divorced in 1978).

In 1974 McQueen was reunited with Paul Newman, one of the few actors who could compete with him at the box office. They headlined the Irwin Allen disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO, with McQueen playing a fire chief, and Newman portraying an architect. Both actors wanted lead billing… but which one would get it? The producers solved the dilemma by putting McQueen’s name first, on the left, but Newman’s name slightly higher, on the right! Additionally, both actors received the same pay and had the same number of lines. Poor William Holden, also in the film, had evidently become too old to compete with the other two!

McQueen’s last film of the ‘70s was another vanity project: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, based on a Henrik Ibsen play, and in which McQueen played a principled doctor who has a feud with his materialistic neighbors. The McQueen everyone knew and loved was practically hidden behind a beard and spectacles, and the film had an extremely limited theatrical release.

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Taking a break on the set of TOM HORN, his second-to-last film

McQueen returned to familiar territory for his last two films, TOM HORN (1980) and THE HUNTER (1980). The former is a period piece based on true-life cowboy bounty hunter Horn, who was controversially hanged for murder in 1903. In THE HUNTER, McQueen played a contemporary bounty hunter, and was reunited with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star Eli Wallach. Although both movies were up McQueen’s alley (recalling bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), both were unfortunately critical and commercial disappointments.

It was during the filming of TOM HORN that McQueen started to have trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive type of lung cancer (though McQueen was a heavy smoker, Neile cited the cause as asbestos exposure, possibly received from Steve soaking his racing facemask in the chemical, which was an oft-used fire retardant… it was long before the dangers of asbestos were known). McQueen fought valiantly against his cancer. He even resorted to controversial treatments that involved coffee enemas and injections of live cells from cows and sheep. But on November 7, 1980, after surgery in Juarez, Mexico to remove a massive tumor, he died of cardiac arrest. He was only 50 years old.

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Layin’ back with James Coburn in pickup truck. Note the Castrol motor oil and Lucky Lager beer bottles

Since McQueen’s death 35 years ago, he’s been the subject of many biographies. He’s been name-dropped in songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, UFO, and many others. The English band Prefab Sprout named an entire album after him. According to Wikipedia, possessions by the late actor sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had a collection of 130 motorcycles that sold in the millions within four years of his death. Lines of expensive clothing and watches have been inspired by him. Most tellingly, his estate is in the top 10 of highest earning deceased celebrities. Long after his death, the King of Cool remains a hot property.

And how many actors have been inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Hall of Great Western Performers?

For a brief moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rugged, blue-eyed ex-reform school punk named Steve McQueen burned like red lava flowing from an active volcano. Even in ensemble films, McQueen was so magnetic a presence you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. If you were born too late to catch him the first time around, his films are still easily available. Below is a short list of what I consider his best flicks (I’ve already discussed three of them).  So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and enjoy a Great Escape with the King of Cool.

1. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

2. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Based on a character in Harold Robbins’ novel “The Carpetbaggers,” this is a compelling Western about revenge. McQueen plays a half-Indian teenager (you heard right) whose parents are brutally murdered by three outlaws. One by one he tracks them down. McQueen gets to display his athleticism in some great action scenes, including a tense knife fight with his former Actors Studio buddy, Martin Landau. The final scene with Karl Malden is killer.nevada smith

3. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). McQueen was nominated for four Golden Globe awards during his career, but this was his only Academy Award nomination. sand pebblesHe plays a rebellious, Brooklyn-bred machinist’s mate stationed on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. He’s not only convincing in his role, but the film has a great supporting cast, including Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Crenna.

4. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

5. BULLITT (1968)

6. THE REIVERS (1969). One of the best all-round movies McQueen made, THE REIVERS is based on a lesser known novel by William Faulkner. It’s a totally winning slice of rural Americana, with McQueen stepping out of his comfort zone and playing Boon Hoggenbeck, a conniving roustabout who cons a young boy into “borrowing” his grandfather’s 1905 Winton Flyer automobile for a trip down the backroads of Mississippi. mcqueen_reiversThe film comes a little close to Disney territory, but there’s enough sobriety to keep it honest, and McQueen never looked happier. And this time he gets to goof in the mud with an antique set of wheels!

7. PAPILLON (1973). McQueen shares the spotlight with another Hollywood legend, Dustin Hoffman, in this tale (based on a true story) about two Frenchmen who are exiled for life to Devil’s Island prison off of French Guiana in the 1930s. No need to worry about Hoffman, though: McQueen is the whole movie. This film is full-fledged action-adventure, and it’s both long and intense. It deals with the indomitability of the human spirit (think of it as THE GREAT ESCAPE on acid). Like so many McQueen films, this one features several classic scenes: a skillfully photographed slow-motion sequence of McQueen stumbling into a jungle river while trying to escape; and the final shot, when he catapults himself off a massive cliff into the ocean. Characteristically, McQueen insisted on doing this dangerous stunt himself. The King of Cool got his way.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part One)

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One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.

In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.Bullitt jacket

But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).

McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.

McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.

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The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:

“Man, you just gotta see this movie!”mcqueen_motorcycle

“Why?”

“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”

(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.

When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven

I just wanna drive my beautiful machine

Up north on some Sonoma country road

With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”

– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”

McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.

In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).

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Chilling out on the set of “The Great Escape” (1963) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn

At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.

The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.

Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:

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Ready to fight, in his first film

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.

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Stalking slime with Aneta Corsaut in “The Blob”

The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).

josh randall

Perfecting the cool quotient in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.

One of the Magnificent Seven

Magnificent, in “The Magnificent Seven”

Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.

McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.

(Continued…)

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Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Appeal of Lawrence Welk

welk show_color

My obsession started innocently enough. It was a quiet Saturday night at home. Lynn and I had nothing planned. No social engagement, no movie, no weekend junket out of town. It was “stay-at-home” night, a frosty January evening with a burning log in the fireplace, a wine cooler for her, and a couple Yuenglings for me (ok, maybe three Yuenglings).

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The maestro himself: Lawrence Welk

At 7:10 PM EST we turned on one of our favorite TV stations: PBS. There, on the screen, were three men tap dancing in perfect synchronicity. They wore matching suits – er, costumes: shiny black shoes, tight purple slacks with bells at the bottom, lavender satin shirts with puffy lapels the size of small pillows, and shirtsleeve cuffs almost as large. The best dancer – I later discovered his name was Arthur – was black. The most eye-catching dancer was a tall white guy with stiffly erect posture, perfectly sculpted hair, and a huge, frozen grin straight out of a toothpaste commercial.

I’m not sure if it was me or Lynn who laughed first. I’m sure I laughed the loudest (remember, I was nursing several beers). We ended up watching the entire show, smiling and wisecracking the entire time. Occasionally Lynn would Google one of the cast members to learn about his or her scandalous private life.

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Anyone over the age of 45 or 50 knows about “The Lawrence Welk Show.” This American television program ran from 1951 to 1982. Its host was a big band conductor who had a distinctive accent. The accent was sort of German-sounding, but it had gotten hijacked somewhere by Russia and North Dakota (!). Welk was famous for his catchphrase “Wunnerful, wunnerful!” and his song introduction of “Ah one, and ah two, and ah…” The music on the show ranged from polka tunes to novelty songs to big band standards. Colorfully costumed skits with low-budget props were liberally sprinkled into the program.

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Sometime during the show’s long run, the music acquired the descriptor “champagne music.” Welk even selected one of his singers as the “Champagne Lady,” one Norma Zimmer, who had a pure, high-range soprano voice. Other notable regulars, which Welk called his “Musical Family,” included tap dancer Arthur (Duncan), who was the first African-American regular on a variety TV show; accordionist Myron Floren; legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain; the four Lennon Sisters, who were as sweet and homey as apple pie; frenetic honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle; and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess – the guy with the frozen grin.

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

Welk deliberately aimed his show toward a specific (and loyal) audience: white, Midwestern conservative, Christian, and definitely older. So it’s not surprising some of the principal show sponsors included Geritol (a dietary supplement marketed to elderly people), Sominex (a sleep aid), and Polident (a denture cleanser).

But Welk himself could be a harsh taskmaster. He fired his original “Champagne Lady” because he thought she showed too much leg. Pete Fountain quit after he was chastised by Welk for trying to jazz up a Christmas number. Fountain was later quoted as saying “Champagne doesn’t mix with bourbon.”fountain

I guess at this point I should elaborate on the “appeal” of Welk for me. Why do I like the show, which is now in syndication on PBS? Well, there’s the nostalgia aspect. This show was part of my childhood DNA. If my folks weren’t playing bridge or at a dinner party on Saturday night, Welk was usually on – at least for a few minutes. My dad loved good big band jazz (e.g. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie). And even though he referred to Welk’s style of music as “schmaltz” – and my mom still calls it “fruity” – it was probably the closest they could get to their halcyon youth in the 1930s and ’40s… at least on television.

The other reason I like Welk is that, no matter how staid or cheesy the entertainment might be, it has a high “feel good” factor. For an hour, “The Lawrence Welk Show” is a great way to forget the stresses in life. I recently discovered that, of all people, the writer and infamous hermit J.D. Salinger (“Catcher in the Rye”) used to dance along with the Welk program. Maybe he found some joy here to leaven some of the darkness in his life.

You see, Welk’s music and skits are always upbeat. They may be corny, but they’re never sardonic or snide, like so much post-“Saturday Night Live” entertainment today. The performers are always smiling and really seem to be having fun. And the champagne bubbles are always floating. Right along with my beer suds.

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A Liberal Nod to Richard M. Nixon

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Here’s to the government of Richard Nixon
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always boggin’ down
And criminals are posing as advisors to the crown
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sound
And the speeches of the president are the ravings of a clown
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of

Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of

Phil Ochs, from his song “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”

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In my 5th grade class, I volunteered for a mock presidential debate. It was 1968, and the U.S. presidential election was nearing. The candidates were Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey.

I didn’t know anything about politics, of course. I supported Nixon’s candidacy only because Joe Devereaux and some girl had already picked Humphrey. It was me and Kurt Carson in Nixon’s corner. I don’t remember much about Kurt, except that he was nearsighted and sported a crew cut. I do remember our parents were happy that we were stumping for Nixon.

Long story short, Kurt and I lost the debate. But only because most of the kids had parents who were Democrats.

It was the first and last time I supported Nixon.

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I don’t like to disparage the dead. Most of us already know Nixon’s legacy. He abused his power multiple times in attempting to cover up clandestine and illegal activities by members of his administration. Staring impeachment in the face, he resigned in disgrace: the only American president to do so. Had he not resigned, his forced removal from office would have been deserved.

Nixon’s resignation was 40 years ago this weekend. nixon resignsIt seems our media loves to drag out the details of Watergate every time its anniversary rolls around. Certainly, it was one of the severest crucibles in American history. But it was also a high point, and turning point, of American journalism. It ushered in an age of so-called “gotcha journalism.” And every time the word “Watergate” is mentioned, the precocious microphone-fondling progeny of Woodward and Bernstein begin to salivate.

Had Watergate never happened, Nixon’s presidency would probably have received mixed reviews. He was in office when the Vietnam War ended…but only after he severely escalated it. He expanded Johnson’s progressive Great Society domestic reforms, but his war policy stimulated inflation and caused large budget deficits. Nixon had a golden opportunity to unite a country plagued with a generational and ideological gap. But his paranoia prohibited him from reaching out to his opponents. Instead, he did just the opposite: he compiled an “Enemies List” to target his critics.

But…there are actually four areas in which Nixon deserves high marks:

Conservation: Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and signed into law the Endangered Species Act of 1973. He was the first president to make environmental protection a priority.

Foreign Affairs: Nixon normalized relations with China. His tentative friendship with the Communist nation forced the Soviet Union to the bargaining table, resulting in the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Human Rights: Nixon endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972 to prevent gender discrimination, and ushered in large-scale, racial integration of public schools in the South.

Health Care: Long before Obamacare, Nixon proposed health insurance reform, including mandated health insurance by employers and federal funds to create Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs).

Nixon also deserves praise for resurrecting himself after he left office. He was a tireless American statesman, meeting with numerous foreign leaders, including those in the Third World. Along with Jimmy Carter and John Quincy Adams, he was one of our most active “ex-presidents.”

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Just a guess, but if Nixon were around today, I’m not sure he’d gain traction with the Republican Party. Not because of his “dirty tricks,” but because he’s closer to the center than the fringe. He’d probably end up like Jon Huntsman during the 2012 Republican primaries: the first to end his candidacy, after being accused of moderation, and for being bold enough to utter the word “compromise.”

Nixon may have been morally vacant, but he wasn’t dumb. I can’t see him surviving in the current political climate, where nearly half the voting public views climate change as a vast liberal hoax, and universal health care as an idea hatched in the bowels of Hades.

Gerald Ford’s controversial pardon of Nixon included the famous phrase “Our long national nightmare is over.”

But looking around today, isn’t there a different sort of national nightmare?

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It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Leaving): Touring Bob Dylan’s Hometown

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I cross the Fond Du Lac Reservation on Highway 2 and approach the little town of Floodwood. The road’s empty save for one car about a football field behind me.

I wonder if the driver sees my out-of-state plates. It’s a long way from southern Ohio to northern Minnesota. The driver’s probably rolling his eyes right now. Another tourist wanting a piece of the local celebrity.

I’m in Minnesota to do the popular Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, located north of Minneapolis on the western rim of Lake Superior. Only a short distance northwest is Hibbing, a small mining town tucked away in the piney woods. Hibbing is also the hometown of one Robert Zimmerman, who later became Bob Dylan. It’s ironic such a musical giant emerged from this tiny, isolated place. And also a bit surreal, like the man’s songs. Dylan was a reluctant pied piper for a generation. Much of his appeal stems from the fact that the man and his music can be difficult to grasp. That, and because he was writing song-poems in his twenties with the wisdom of one who’d lived a hundred years.

When did Robert Zimmerman become “Bob Dylan”? At one time he was just a pudgy Jewish kid whose dad worked in an appliance store. There must’ve been some kind of epiphany here in Hibbing. Maybe I can conduct my own mining expedition and unearth it. But I feel more than a little self-conscious about invading this town, half-asleep with ghostly memories. Hibbing was, at one time, a major exporter of iron ore. But the mines dried up long ago.

Interviewer at 1965 press conference: Do you consider yourself a musician or a poet?

Dylan: I think of myself more as a song and dance man.

I make a right onto route 73. “Hibbing: 38 miles” reads the road sign. Now I have the road to myself. I only see two cars the rest of the journey to Hibbing.

The first thing I notice when I enter Hibbing is the usual nauseating commercialism: a Home Depot, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, an Apple computer store, etc. Then I see a sign pointing to “Downtown.” Yeah, this is what I want. The town as it was in the 1950s, when Bob Zimmerman was chewing bubble gum underneath a streetlamp.

The buildings grow closer together, and I start seeing people on the sidewalks. I’m looking for a restaurant I read about in my old Rand McNally road atlas. It’s a tourist trap with Dylan memorabilia plastered on the walls. But it supposedly has good food. Maybe I can locate someone who knew Dylan as a kid. Not sure what I would ask him, though.

I drive slowly down First Avenue, but no signs about the “Z Man.” Then I make a right on Howard Street. Lots of old, dirty buildings with large, painted letters stenciled on the brick and which have faded over time. A few restaurants, but nothing related to Dylan. Half of me anticipates a huge billboard announcing Hibbing as “Hometown of Bob Dylan.” I’m surprised I haven’t seen this yet, but also a little pleased at the town’s restraint.

At the end of Howard Street, on the corner, I finally see something. A large sign, “Zimmy’s,” with a huge photo of early ‘60s era Dylan. I quickly swing into the side street and find a parking spot.

But it turns out that, although lunchtime on a weekday, Zimmy’s is closed.

Bob Dylan's Boyhood Home

Bob Dylan’s Boyhood Home

I need to talk to a local. Someone who might know where the Dylan sites are. I duck into a Goodwill store. Too crowded. I don’t want the customers to hear me ask the clerk “Excuse me, where can I find…?”

I find a sporting goods store with one employee. She’s a teenage girl. An easy target. When I ask her, she says there’s a street named after him, but that’s all she knows. I pretend to be interested in the Hibbing Bluejackets t-shirts that are on sale. Then I thank her and saunter out the door.

Feeling hungry, I decide to find a restaurant for a burger and beer. Walking down Howard Street, though, I glance down a side street and see an odd sight: a white camper trailer sandwiched between buildings, with a patio table and blue-and-white striped umbrella in front. A sign on the trailer advertises “GYROS.” This gyro trolley seems so out of place, I just have to give them some business. I approach an elderly man and a young girl who are chatting underneath the umbrella. When the girl sees me coming, she jumps up excitedly and asks if she can help me. I order a gyro. Then I start a conversation with the man.

Hibbing Gyros Trolley

Hibbing Gyro Trolley

“Nice little restaurant you have here. I didn’t know there was a Greek restaurant in Hibbing!”

“Yep, yep. We got ‘em all. Yessir, anything you want.”

He has a thick Minnesota accent, reminiscent of one of the extras in the movie Fargo.

“I’m up here from Ohio to run the marathon in Duluth” I tell him. “But I had to stop by Hibbing to see Bob Dylan’s hometown.”

“Oh, that’s a big race, yeah, real popular. You gonna win it?” he asks with a chuckle.

“Well, I doubt it, but I’ll try!” I laugh. Then I get back to the subject at hand.

“Are there any Bob Dylan sites in town?”

“Oh, I think there might be something in the Memorial Building. I was never a big fan. Not my type of music. I was more, uh, sort of…”

“Country?” I venture a guess.

“Yep, yep. Country. Dylan just wasn’t my cup of tea. I was in the Air Force, then on the police force. Can’t say I’ve heard much of his music.”

The girl hands me my gyro, which is gigantic. She’s been smiling the whole time. Despite making very little progress regarding Zimmy, I like the people in Hibbing.

“Does he ever return to Hibbing to visit?” I ask.

“No, I don’t think he ever has, at least that I know of. He sort of turned his back on us.”

“He’s pretty private, from what I hear,” I offer. “Maybe he’s tired of being a spectacle.”

“Yep, yep. That’s probably it.”

“Well, guess I’ll check out the auditorium. Nice talking to you!”

“Yep, nice talkin’ to you too! If you win that race, bring back some of that prize money to Hibbing!”

I tell him if I do, I’ll buy a dozen gyros, which gets him laughing.

I soon find myself on another side street, where a cop is getting out of a car. He looks like he’s in his late ‘30s or so. I walk up to him.

“Excuse me, sir, do you know where I can find Hibbing Memorial Building?”

He gives me a quizzical look. “Straight down this street, then left at the third intersection. What exactly you want there?”

Typical suspicious cop. “I was told there might be something there about Bob Dylan.”

“Oh. Well, the historical society’s in the basement. They might have something.”

“Are there any other sites in town associated with Dylan?”

“Well, there’s 7th Avenue – or Bob Dylan Drive, the street he lived on. There’s also Zimmy’s, a restaurant. But they closed down for some reason. I don’t think the owner was paying taxes. Other than that, I don’t know of anything. I was never a fan.”

“Ok, thanks.” I can’t understand the indifference of these people. Even if you don’t like his music, HE’S BOB DYLAN FER CHRISSAKES!!

(People) walk up, they think they know me because I’ve written some song that seems to bother them.  So they walk up as if we’re long lost brothers or sisters or something.  Well, that’s got nothing to do with me.  And I think I can prove that in any court.

On the way to the Memorial Building, I see the town library. I make a beeline for it. If they don’t have anything on Dylan, it’s a lost cause.

The library is small, just one floor. There are scattered posters in the glass lobby, including one advertising Gary Puckett and the Union Gap, scheduled to appear at Memorial Building in July. A smaller poster advertises a Bob Dylan Exhibit in the library basement. Hmm.

I wind my way through the glass in the lobby and find a staircase. Down I go. In the basement, there’s a long hallway with a wooden door at the end. I follow the hallway, past a room with three or four people seated in front of computers. They glance up at me as if I shouldn’t be here. They must be either hunting for jobs, or wasting time on Facebook.

I reach the door. In the center at eye level is a shabby photo of Dylan with the words “Bob Dylan Exhibit” taped underneath. I turn the door handle. Locked.

I climb back to the main floor and shyly approach the woman behind the main desk. She’s 30-ish, gangly, long black hair, thick black glasses. Very librarian-ish.

“Yes, I’d like to see the Bob Dylan exhibit, but the door is locked.”

“Oh. Ok, just a second.”

She picks up a phone. “Chrissy, could you please unlock the exhibit room?”

She looks at me and says “Chrissy will let you in.”

I go back downstairs, past the Facebook people, down the long hallway, and stand in front of the door. Soon, the door opens, and I see an attractive blonde girl.

“You must be Chrissy!” I say.

“Yes!” she responds with a smile.

Chrissy lets me in, then disappears into another room. I wander around the exhibit room. On the walls are about 50 or so photos of Dylan during various phases of his life, from the time he was in kindergarten on up to his being presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama. There’s also a life-size dummy, a giant Dylan-and-guitar scarecrow. A large rectangular conference table occupies the middle of the room, but nothing’s on it except a small binder with identifiers that describe the photos.

Zimmy and Me

Zimmy and Me

I spend about 45 minutes here, concentrating mainly on the pictures of Dylan while he was in Hibbing. It turns out he led two rock bands as a teenager, the Cashmeres and the Golden Chords. He was also a big Little Richard fan, judging by the remarks in his high school yearbook. Also a member of the Latin and Social Sciences clubs.

There’s also a photo here of a beautiful, Nordic-looking woman with creamy blonde hair. She looks a little like the French actress Brigitte Bardot. I soon learn this is Echo Hellstrom, whom Dylan dated. They spent a lot of time watching movies together at the Lybba Theatre, which was named after Dylan’s grandmother. In fact, his mother’s side of the family lived in Hibbing as far back as his great-grandmother.

I wonder what this icy beauty saw in young Robert Zimmerman, who wasn’t exactly the handsomest teenager. She must have seen a few kernels of genius beyond those chubby cheeks.

I spend about 45 minutes reading the “exhibits,” then sign my name in the visitors’ register. “Don’t follow leaders/Watch the parking meters.” I peek in the back room to ask Chrissy a few questions, but she’s nowhere to be seen. No other visitors have joined me.

I leave the library clutching a pamphlet, the “Hibbing Historical Walking Tour.” I learn that Boston Celtics center Kevin McHale, Yankees great Roger Maris, Manson Family prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi, the guy who started Greyhound Bus Lines, and various distinguished politicians and hockey players are also from Hibbing. Most importantly, the pamphlet has a mapped walking tour of Bob Dylan sites: the aforementioned Zimmy’s and Lybba Theatre; his boyhood home; the synagogue where he worshipped with his parents; the Androy Hotel where he had his Bar Mitzvah party; even the bowling alley where his bowling team, The Gutter Boys, won a local competition.

The walking tour makes my Hibbing visit worthwhile. The townsfolk may be short on information, but the pamphlet guides me through Dylan’s past. “Positively 4th Street” wafts through my head as I gaze at the odd-looking blue house where Dylan lived as a kid. I stand on the street corner and stare at a second-floor window. Here, 60 years ago, the budding poet/singer was tuning a cheap radio to a distant Southern station, picking up the alien sounds of Blind Willie McTell and Dock Boggs.

***

The volunteer at the historical society is a rugged-looking ex-miner wearing a red and white plaid shirt.  He has little to say about Hibbing’s most famous citizen, but he gives me an informative lecture on the importance of the mineral taconite to the area. Although I greatly respect people like him, who worked so hard for so long at a dangerous trade, I’m not all that eager to honor his request that I visit the large open pit at the edge of town.

Similarly, the elderly tour guide at historic Hibbing High School is extremely knowledgeable. He’s anxious to explain the architectural history of the building, called the “Richest Gem in Minnesota’s Educational Crown” when it was built in 1924.

The volunteer peppers me with information about the school’s architectural opulence, as we watch a video about the building in the principal’s office. This is all very impressive. But isn’t the main goal to educate young people?

The only time he mentions Dylan is when we enter the ornate school auditorium.

“This is where Bob Dylan was booed offstage” he wryly notes.

The tour guide looks to be about Dylan’s age. And he definitely knows a lot about this school, almost as if he has firsthand familiarity.  Hmm.  It’s certainly possible. I take the plunge.

“Did you attend school here?” I begin my query.

But he shoots me down midstream.

“No. I’m from Minneapolis.”

Hibbing High School

Hibbing High School

Mississippi Freedom Summer: The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner Murders, Part 2

50 years

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(This is the second part of my two-part profile of the Freedom Summer of 1964 and the brutal murders of three civil rights workers in Mississippi)

The lynching of black Americans had a long history, going as far back as Reconstruction. In the early 20th century, particularly in the Mississippi Delta, lynchings rose dramatically, in direct proportion to African Americans finding a foothold as sharecroppers and small landowners. It’s a fact that most lynchings occurred late in the year, when cotton accounts needed to be settled.

By June 1964, the state of Mississippi had the highest rate of lynchings in the country.

On August 4, 1964, after 44 days of searching by the FBI, civil rights organizations, and the U.S. military, the bodies of missing civil rights volunteers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were located. They’d been buried in an earthen dam on a farm near Philadelphia, Mississippi. Both Schwerner and Goodman had been shot in the chest at close range. Chaney had been severely beaten with a metal chain, then shot in the abdomen and head.

Later testimony showed that they had been followed in the night by the KKK and local officials, then stopped and terrorized before being killed. One of the killers had asked Schwerner if he was “that nigger lover.” Schwerner, drawing on skills he’d learned as a leader in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), tried to defuse the situation by responding “Sir, I know just how you feel.” But he was shot nonetheless.

Ten complicit in the murders

Ten complicit in the murders

The murderers moved the bodies to Old Jolly Farm, owned by one of the killers, ex-Marine Olen L. Burrage. They then set the victims’ station wagon ablaze near a river along Highway 21.

***

The Chaney-Goodman-Schwerner case was the most sensational incident of what’s known as the Mississippi Freedom Summer. The three CORE volunteers were part of hundreds of college students, mainly white and from the North, who fifty years ago traveled to rural homes in Mississippi to register blacks to vote. Voter registration was focused on because Mississippi was largely rural, so busing and lunch counter desegregation weren’t big issues. Also, due to intimidation and chicanery by white officials, Mississippi had the lowest percentage of black voter registry than any state in the country; only 6.7 percent of eligible black voters in Mississippi were registered.

Along with registration, the Freedom Summer volunteers established Freedom Schools to educate black children and adults (white Mississippians had a vested interest in keeping black Mississippians ignorant). They also established a Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to challenge the all-white, segregationist delegation scheduled to appear at the 1964 Democratic Convention.

They did all of this within a dark vortex of violence. Beatings, burnings, and bombings were a reality in 1960s Mississippi.

While the disappearance and murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner made national headlines, Mickey Schwerner’s widow Rita was quoted as saying that, had not two of the victims been white, the killings would never have created such commotion. In fact, during the search, Navy sailors who dragged local rivers uncovered at least eight bodies of young black men who had also been lynched. But their disappearances had not been deemed that important (see “Mississippi Cold Case,” a documentary about two of these murders).

The deaths of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were not in vain. Only a year later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act, which enforced the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and ended racial discrimination at the voting booth, including eliminating literacy tests and poll taxes. Today, Mississippi has the highest percentage of African American elected officials of any state in the union.

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

President Johnson, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks at signing of Voting Rights Act

(Note: only a year ago, a conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court, in Shelby County v. Holder, weakened the Voting Rights Act by effectively nullifying Section 5 of the Act.  This section had required certain states with a history of race bias in voting to submit any election changes to the federal government for approval before they went into effect)

***

Freedom isn’t free. It has to be fought for, and not necessarily on the battlefield. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner were foot soldiers in a non-violent crusade to secure basic human rights for blacks in the most vicious corner of the Deep South. They tragically lost their lives, but their efforts, and those of the other young volunteers in the Mississippi Freedom Summer, put a massive stake in the heart of the idea of white supremacy.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder, it’s obvious the fight isn’t over.

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