Pearls Before Swine: “Balaklava”

50 years

front cover2

Last February, I wrote an obituary/tribute to a gentleman named Tom Rapp (see A Knowledge of Ashes). Rapp was a singer-songwriter and recording artist from 1965 to 1976 who retired from music to become a civil rights lawyer. He was a musician of uncommon intelligence, with an unyielding commitment to social justice, leavened by the unexpected humorous wink. His music was too cryptic and melancholic to ever earn a listing on the Billboard Hot 100.  So if you’re unfamiliar with him, it’s understandable.

To put it another way, James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg, Tom Rapp was not. But artistic ambiguity and professional obscurity have never prevented longitudes from recognizing someone. In fact, they often indicate a vision too luminous for most of us to process.

Fifty years ago, Rapp released his second, most ambiguous, and arguably best album, credited to his band Pearls Before Swine, on the underground label ESP-Disk.  It’s called Balaklava.

rapp photo

Tom Rapp

Scholars of European history might recognize Balaklava (also spelled with a ‘c’, “Balaclava”) as the name of the place where a famous British cavalry charge occurred in 1854 during the Crimean War. The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson immortalized it in his poem about valor, The Charge of the Light Brigade. The truth was that this charge was an unnecessary military action, a suicidal maneuver that dissolved 40 percent of an entire brigade. Valor in suicide. Irony, like this, was a Tom Rapp specialty.

The year 1968 had a similarly senseless military action going on, this one in Southeast Asia. More irony: Rapp dedicated his record to WWII soldier Eddie Slovik, the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion since the American Civil War.

“Some people thought (my) songs were hopeless…I was being realistic about the pain that’s out there. If you say life is wonderful, people know it isn’t true, but if you talk about the pain, someone will listen.” (Crawdaddy, December 2008)

Tears are often jewel-like…

The first thing that makes Balaklava different from other records is its unusual sleeve art. Album reproductions of paintings later became popular, but Balaklava is one of the first examples, and the painting chosen partially relates to the music inside. It’s a reproduction of Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s 16th-century, apocalyptic oil panel “The Triumph of Death,” with typewriter characters of the band name and album title stamped across the top…as if this record is a dispatch being wired from the abyss below.

Pvt. Eddie D. Slovik, Shot for Desertion 1944

Private Eddie D. Slovik, shot for desertion in 1944

The back cover features surreal illustrations by French avant-garde writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau. Also, a quote from American philosopher and poet George Santayana: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” And yet more irony: a photograph of a freckle-faced girl wearing a shy smile, with a daisy protruding from her plaid dress, and a button reading “Pearls Before Swine.”

(The photo was snapped at a peace rally by photographer Mel Zimmer. The girl’s button actually said “Flower Power.” Zimmer identifies his photo as “Molly Stewart.”)

So, the listener has an idea where this record is headed even before the needle strikes the wax. The packaging is deliberate and unapologetic. As Dante wrote in “The Inferno:” All hope abandon, ye who enter here.

Another striking thing about Balaklava: the music is introduced by a ghost. The first “song” is titled “Trumpeter Landfrey,” and is the actual voice and bugle call of a survivor of the Light Brigade charge, a man named Martin Leonard Landfried. With brimming pride, Landfried announces, “I am now going to sound the bugle that was sounded at Waterloo, and sound the charge that was sounded at Balaklava on that very same bugle, the 25th of October, 1854.” Landfried’s scratchy voice comes from a cylinder recording from 1890 that was reissued on a vinyl record that Rapp owned.

Friends of Shoreham Fort

Martin Leonard Landfried (Photo: Friends of Shoreham Fort)

Landfried’s bugle notes smoothly segue into the strummed guitar notes of “Translucent Carriages.” Wikipedia calls this one of Rapp’s “most enduring songs,” a shivering tune whose title again harkens to yesteryear, and whose languid music includes ghostly background whisperings. One of them is the Herodotus quote “In peace, sons bury their fathers / In war, fathers bury their sons.” Another is the Rapp quote “Jesus raised the dead / But who will raise the living?”

The recurring chorus goes “Every time I see you, passing by, I have to wonder…why?” The identity of the “you” can be interpreted differently. Are they ancient carriages, perhaps Roman? Hearses? Maybe a woman? Is Rapp referring to Jesus? Or the pointlessness of war?

“Images of April” burrows deeper into the murky surreal. It features vocal echoes, flute, bird songs, and even frog croaks to paint a world of desolation, where springtime exists in fleeting images that only memory can summon. If you’re open to something strange, hypnotic, and completely different:

As unconventional as is “Images of April,” the next song, “There Was a Man,” is totally conventional—the guitar/vocal music, that is. The words, maybe less so. They relate a story about a stranger who one day arrives in a village. The stranger has a scar on his head, “where there used to be a crown.” He amazes the people by doing wonderful, magical things. Then the stranger leaves, sadly, suddenly. He has heard “the news from the war.”

“I Saw the World” is maybe the most passionate song on Balaklava. Rapp pleads, with palpable emotion in his voice, that he’s seen the world “spinning like a toy,” and “hate seems so small compared to it all.” A melodious cello and piano passage helps boost this song to another plane.

Rapp was an admirer of songwriter Leonard Cohen, and the “Swine” honor him with a rendition of Cohen’s “Suzanne.” They supposedly recorded this song in one take, while sitting on the studio floor, in the dark, with candles burning. (Yes, very Sixties.) The hushed ambience they created must have succeeded, since this is one of the most respectfully rendered versions of this acclaimed song.

nightingale

Florence Nightingale

Other titles include “Guardian Angels” and “Lepers and Roses,” both of which further the odd, time-frozen quality of Balaklava. At the end of the record, there’s another vintage 1890 recording, this one of Florence Nightingale, who oversaw the nurses during the Crimean War. She prays that her Balaklava “comrades” will all return “safe to shore.” The record trails off with Trumpeter Landfried’s opening again. It’s a reminder that everything is a circle, that everything “comes back again,” both love and hate.

***

While not a perfect record, and certainly not for every ear, Balaklava’s best moments overflow with a perceptiveness, mystery, and beauty not usually occurring in rock music. Today, we hear the word “alternative”—which means “different” or “unconventional”—applied to a certain style of music (for the sake of convenience, branding, and marketing).  But Pearls Before Swine’s Balaklava defines the word alternative.  There’s not another record like it.

Even more, the record is a unique and fervent indictment of the idea that warfare is some kind of glorious endeavor. It is music with meaning. But unlike most anti-war artists of the Sixties—idealistic and well-meaning, but who relied on anthems or derivative platitudes about peace and love—Tom Rapp used irony, surrealism, and religious and historical allusions to present his worldview. He drew from a war in 1854 to indict a war of 1968, which still resonates in 2018.

We’re all familiar with that line in Tennyson’s famous poem…that universal expression of blind patriotic duty, which goes “Theirs not to reason why / Theirs but to do and die.” Tom Rapp and Pearls Before Swine question that sentiment with Balaklava. And, I think they’re also saying…shouldn’t everybody?

molly stewart by mel zimmer

Photo by Mel Zimmer

 

 

The Truth about Veterans Day

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(Note: November 11 is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I)

Many years ago, I read a semi-autobiographical novel called Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. Part of this book deals with Vonnegut’s very real experience as a U.S. soldier stationed in Dresden, Germany during that city’s bombardment by Allied forces in 1945. In the book, Vonnegut gives his opinion on America’s holiday every November 11: Veterans Day.

“Armistice Day has become Veterans Day. Armistice Day was sacred, Veterans’ Day is not. So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things.”

The “truth” I mention in the title is that Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, established at the end of World War I as an international day of peace. The First World War, of course, was referred to as “the war to end all wars.”

Our wars, sadly, didn’t end. Following a second world war, Armistice Day was pointedly renamed Remembrance Day in the British Commonwealth. There, the renaming was designed to commemorate British soldiers of all wars who died in the line of duty (the equivalent of America’s Memorial Day).  In Britain, Remembrance Day is not a public holiday, and Armistice Day is now increasingly recognized there, concurrently with Remembrance Day.

In the United States, on June 1, 1954 following the Korean War, the Congress also replaced the word “Armistice.”  November 11 is now known as Veterans Day, a public holiday honoring U.S. veterans. It is not to be confused with Memorial Day, intended to honor dead American soldiers.

France and Belgium, invaded by German ground forces in both world wars, still recognize Armistice Day.

***

Some of you are undoubtedly thinking “He’s going somewhere with this.” Well, you’re right. There’s another part to the “truth” in my essay title.

While I won’t go as far as Kurt Vonnegut in declaring a public holiday as “sacred,” even one devoted to recognizing peace, I do see his point.NY Times

One has to ask (well, “one” doesn’t have to, but I do)… Why was a day intended to commemorate peace shifted to a day to commemorate soldiers (in the U.S.)?

Rory Fanning, a U.S. veteran, and the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America, has an idea why. He says Veterans Day is “less about celebrating veterans than easing the guilty conscience of warmongers.” (The italics are mine.)

“Armistice Day was sacred because it was intended to evoke memories of fear, pain, suffering, military incompetence, greed and destruction on the grandest scale for those who had participated in war, directly and indirectly.  Armistice Day was a hallowed anniversary because it was supposed to protect future life from future wars.

“Veterans Day, instead, celebrates ‘heroes’ and encourages others to dream of playing the hero themselves, covering themselves in valor.  But becoming a ‘hero’ means going off to kill and be killed in a future war—or one of our government’s current, unending wars.”

As with Vonnegut, I don’t totally agree with Fanning.  I’m not convinced that everyone who supports a Veterans Day is a “warmonger.”

And I don’t intend to slight U.S. military veterans. Many, including some in my immediate family (and a good number of my ancestors), served to protect the freedoms we too frequently take for granted.

But I do agree that America is too often too quick to fling around the term “hero.”  And I’m suspicious of the shadowy forces that buried Armistice Day and, instead, hoisted Veterans Day up the flagpole.  Perhaps Fanning is correct in his belief that Veterans Day is yet one more salve that the U.S. employs to make it easier to enter—or, in the case of Vietnam and Iraq, to start—the next war.

We need fewer heroes and more peacekeepers.  “Armistice Day” and “Veterans Day” aren’t just words. They also carry meaning.

Tonight, there will be no war movies for me on Turner Classic Movies. Instead, I plan to celebrate Armistice Day: an international day of peace.

Fototeca Storica Nazionale_Getty Images

(Photo: Fototeca Storica Nazionale / Getty Images)

Source links:

https://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/11/us-observe-armistice-day-more-comfortable-war-than-peace

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armistice_Day

Header photo: Royal Engineers No. 1 Printing Co. / Getty Images

 

Martin Luther King and “The Other America”

50 years

(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)

The Massacre at My Lai, South Vietnam

50 yearsMy-Lai-Massacre

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 Review of Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War”

I’ll confess outright that I love Ken Burns documentaries.  I’ve wallowed in Burns’ mammoth definitive overviews of the American Civil War, jazz music, the Old West, the national parks, WWII, and I came very close to the final innings of his mammoth definitive overview of baseball (I started yawning and felt a strong urge for a hot dog and beer, so I missed the last few pitches).

Last year, I read with relish the transcript of his slow-roast of Donald Trump during his commencement address at Stanford University. It was a grand gesture by someone who has strong feelings about America, and it’s not Burns’ fault that the petulant child was elected president. Nobody heeded my  words, either.

Burns has been criticized in some quarters for too frequently spotlighting race and racism. While “The Civil War” and “Baseball” can be excluded from these charges, I feel there is also some validity to them, although Burns would argue the spotlight is necessary.

Nevertheless, he’s been called “America’s storyteller,” meaning he has many great stories to tell about America, glorifying this country and its citizens, whether they be black, white, brown, red, or yellow.

Most recently, Burns applied his wizardry (along with co-producer Lynn Novick) to a mammoth definitive overview of the Vietnam War. Considering that this war is still fraught with controversy, this latest documentary series is maybe his most courageous undertaking.

However… like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg… this time he was unable to secure the high ground.

Why? Unlike the American Civil War, many people from the Vietnam War era are still alive, and some remember things differently. And unlike WWII, America didn’t win, and we weren’t even the good guys. Some American patriots have trouble with that reality, but it’s reality. Burns is at his best when America is at its most noble. But there was little American nobility with Vietnam.

***

Before I discuss why the patented Ken Burns treatment doesn’t work this time, though, I’ll imitate certain mainstream publications (like Rolling Stone, Time, and Cleveland.com) that treat critical American history as if it’s a Steven Spielberg movie:

“Stunning visual achievement!” “Never-before-seen-footage!” “It will make you weep!” “America’s storyteller has done it again!” “A mammoth, definitive overview that will be discussed for years to come!” “Riveting entertainment!” “America is ready to heal, and Ken Burns is the healer!” “A sexy, action-packed adventure!”

(The last two may  not be valid).

On surface, I will admit, “The Vietnam War” is breathtaking. Burns and Novick unearthed hundreds of striking images and film bits to pull things along.  They present revealing audio of taped conversations from the Johnson and Nixon White Houses that are agonizing to listen to.  We know full well the many lies of Richard M. Nixon.  But these tapes drive home what a devious, worm-like man he was.

Burns and Novick are also masters at taking a person or persons and creating suspense by slowly fashioning a story for them. One of the most memorable is that of the Crocker family. Each time we see the middle-class house with the front porch and American flag, and hear the peaceful music, we know how the story of Denton “Mogie” Crocker will play out, but we’re addicted to the narrative. We’re voyeurs into how the impressionable Mogie, raised on John Wayne movies and Cold War jingoism, becomes a symbol of young patriotic males everywhere, then ends up dying a grisly death on an anonymous hill in a distant land… for nothing.

Then there’s the horrific Nick Ut photo of the naked South Vietnamese girl (her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc) running down the road after being napalmed by a South Vietnamese bomber. Burns takes it a step further and provides a wider landscape. He includes color video footage of the bombing, then people emerging from the fireball, fleeing in terror, with several minutes devoted to the girl, her arms stretched out, the flesh on her back seared.

(Nick Ut/Associated Press)

This rare footage is one of the things Burns is so good at. He stretches the camera frame. He taps our emotions, and we feel the full horror of war through the heart-tugging image of a scarred innocent.

The problem is this: we don’t  see the pilot who pressed the buttons that released the napalm bomb. He’s off-camera. Protected.

***

Burns opens his series with his favorite narrator, compelling counterculture statesman Peter Coyote, intoning that the war was “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings.”

“Decent people” is a subjective term that probably doesn’t belong in a historical documentary, especially when the “people” are surreptitiously leading a nation down the road to war. But no matter.

“Good faith…fateful misunderstandings.” This editorial, at the commencement of the 18-hour presentation, raises significant questions:

Is it good faith that the U.S. funded a French war effort to colonize Vietnam? Then, later, is it good faith that President Johnson, Defense Secretary McNamara, and the U.S. Navy created the fiction of a North Vietnamese attack at the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide a legal basis for Johnson’s escalation of open warfare in North Vietnam?

The only “fateful misunderstanding” was U.S. obsession with a fallacious domino theory of Communism. The rest of our early blunders were the direct consequence of Western arrogance. After France’s hundred-year colonization attempt came to a screeching halt at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, America thought it would be easy to slip in and resume the colonization program. But we didn’t call it colonization, we called it “nation-building” and “winning hearts and minds.” We figured the mighty United States of America could easily subdue a backwater jungle country whose ideological leader was a skinny, sickly Asian.

Ho Chi Minh, speaking in Paris in 1920

The misunderstandings came later. We misunderstood our ability to act as puppeteer to a corrupt and inept South Vietnamese government. And we misunderstood the resolve of the Viet Minh and Viet Cong.  This time, they were the patriots and we were the redcoats.

Behind the shiny narrative, here’s the hard reality that Burns and Novick were too coy to discuss:

The U.S. invaded and destroyed another country because that other country wanted a form of government different than the one the U.S. was willing to allow it to have.  To prevent that country from exercising the “consent of the governed” that the U.S. deifies as the highest political expression of civilization, the U.S. killed six million Vietnamese, most of them civilians.  That is the number from the government of Vietnam.  The U.S. spent $168,000 for every enemy combatant it killed.  The average Vietnamese earned $80 per year at the time.  To carry out this act, the U.S. dropped 14 billion pounds of bombs on Vietnam, three times more than were used by all sides in all theaters of all of World War II combined. 

The U.S. carried out industrial-scale chemical warfare on Vietnam, spraying it with 21 million gallons of the carcinogenic defoliant Agent Orange.  It destroyed half of the nation’s forests, leaving the greatest man-made environmental catastrophe in the history of the world.  When the U.S. destroyed neighboring Cambodia to cover its retreat from Vietnam, the communist Khmer Rouge came to power and carried out the greatest proportional genocide in modern history.  The U.S. dropped 270 million cluster bombs on neighboring Laos, 113 bombs for every man, woman, and child in the country.  Vietnam had never attacked the U.S., had never tried to attack it, had no desire to attack it, and had no capacity to attack it.  All of this was justified through a purposeful campaign of lies to the American people that was sustained by five presidential administrations over more than two decades.   

(from www.commondreams.org)

Instead of “begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings,” substitute the above, or similar, as an introduction, and you lay the groundwork for an entirely different documentary. Keep an eye on the reaction of sponsor David H. Koch.

In “The Vietnam War,” Burns presents the micro, but not the macro. He offers numerous anecdotes that imply the war was wrong (big surprise). But we never see just how  wrong it was. In the blur of images, interviews, and stories of valor and personal conflict, Burns doesn’t pull his camera back to offer the big picture. There’s sadness and regret, but only a modicum of rage and disgust. We don’t once hear the phrase “war crime.” He plays it safe, struggling to maintain balance and be all things to everyone, left, right, and center. Unless it’s a dead politician, he’s afraid to offend anyone. Including, perhaps, his hefty financial backers.

Burns had ample opportunity (ten years) to make this more than a standard, albeit glittery documentary on a war, and he could’ve lifted it above a stock reiteration of “hate the war, love the warrior.” For example, he profiles Pascal Poolaw, a Kiowa Indian, who fought in WWII, Korea, and died in Vietnam. “The Vietnam War” totally misses the irony of a Native American waging war on indigenous people for a racist, invading nation that, a hundred years earlier, killed and conquered Poolaw’s ancestors in the name of manifest destiny. Instead, we get a brief and awkward puff piece on a minority who earned a lot of medals and died for his country.

There’s an uncomfortable attempt at equivalency, too. “We called them ‘dinks,’ ‘gooks,’ ‘mamasans,’” Coyote ticks off. Then, as if to, again, provide balance, he continues. “They called us ‘invaders,’ and ‘imperialists.’” The first terms are racist and dehumanizing. The last terms are accurate. There’s no equivalency here.

L to R: Secretary of State Dean Rusk, President Lyndon Johnson, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara

And there’s no equivalency between anti-war activists and the so-called “silent majority.” At the end of the documentary, Burns profiles an anti-war activist who breaks into tears and apologizes to vets who were (supposedly) spat on and called baby-killers “and worse.” Yet there is not one bit of video or audio in “The Vietnam War” to substantiate this claim. There hasn’t been any evidence anywhere else, at least, that I’m aware of.

However, there is relentless footage of pro-war Americans screaming at protesters, attacking them, beating them, and berating them as being Commies and traitors… behavior that had its apotheosis in the murders at Kent State by National Guardsmen summoned by Gov. James A. Rhodes of (my home state of) Ohio, who referred to the protesters as “Brownshirts” and “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

Where in “The Vietnam War” is the apology from these  people?

***

Maybe the biggest question raised by “The Vietnam War” is this: How do Americans want to remember their history? Do we want it to consist of stories of heroism and hubris, triumph and tragedy? Or merely be a series of episodes, a narrative of people, places, dates and events?

Or do we want our history to also inform our present and help determine the course of our future?

Since Vietnam, we’ve continued to send military “advisers” to third world countries, secretly funnel money and arms, initiate coups, topple regimes we dislike, pursue dead-end policies of nation-building, attempt to “win hearts and minds,” wage war under false pretenses, tax Americans to fund war, alienate civilian populations, and label dissenters as being unpatriotic. The only thing we haven’t done is institute a draft.

But there’s no mention of any of the above in “The Vietnam War.” I guess Burns feels it’s OK to offer a static history, as long as it’s dramatic. He’s America’s storyteller, with many great stories to tell.

***

Here are some links related to this article:

The Nation (a liberal publication)

The American Conservative (a conservative publication)

Nick Turse (author of “Kill Anything That Moves: The Real Vietnam”)

Christopher Koch (the first American reporter to visit Vietnam)