Category Archives: Culture

The Palomino Rides Again

I don’t go in for nostalgia much. The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, for example, seems a sad place to end up, because it means you and what you created are antiques, dead.

So last night, when I went to the resurrection of The Palomino nightclub (for one night only) in the San Fernando Valley, I was wary.

The Palomino, until its closing in 1995, was part of the roiling, ethnically based music scenes that spawned in Los Angeles in the decades before the Internet and changes in the music industry and club world made such conglomerations rare.

Music is created in a time and a place by people from both and eventually they all pass, and only the records remain, which I figure is good enough.

The excuse for last night was to hold a benefit for a new pop-art museum – Valley Relics. Really, though, it was a chance to remember.

But instead of wallowing in the past, a dozen or more singers showcased the beauty of the music created at The Palomino. True, there were a few too many speeches about how great things were back when. But what I’ll take with me is a raw and simple sweetness, intensity, and longing in the music that I don’t associate with oldies, nostalgia shows.

Three monster backup bands, including one led by guitarist James Intveld, who got his start at The Palomino, were worth paying to see by themselves; his band included the tremendous Marty Rifkin on pedal steel.

Last night, I was finally able to see Rosie Flores, who rocks as hard as anyone. Jim Lauderdale was impeccable and has a voice that, if anything, has improved with age. I first heard him on an anthology album called A Town South of Bakersfield that I found sometime in the early 1990s and was my introduction to LA country.

Most unexpectedly, Gunnar Nelson, of the heartthrob band Nelson, and son of TV-teen-idol-turned-country-act Rick Nelson, showed up to play a Dylan song and two by his late father. He told the story behind his dad’s hit, “Garden Party,” which Rick Nelson wrote after playing a Madison Square Garden oldies show, only now he was playing hippie country music and the crowd hated it. He wrote the song and its chorus (“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”) in response. Never knew that story. The song took on a power and poignancy I’d never associated with it until his son played it.

(I’ll admit to not knowing until today that Intveld’s brother, Rick, played in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and both were killed when the band’s plane crashed in Texas in 1985.)

A slide show on a wall reminded us that the great days of The Palomino were the 1970s and into the 1980s. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Those were great years for music scenes in L.A., and thus for the clubs where they found their legs.

In the late 1970s, legions of white punks in Hollywood created their own scene, complete with clubs but also halls rented for DIY shows. That was followed in the mid-1980s by black kids from Compton creating beats in their garages on SP 1200 drum machines, birthing gangsta rap. Not long after that, the narcocorrido scene emerged in the newly forged Mexican-immigrant enclaves of South Gate, Bell, Huntington Park, Lynwood southeast of L.A., growing from the music of Chalino Sanchez, who was murdered in 1992.

All of these had in common a lot of young folks who were initially ignored by the recording industry and mainstream radio, and who thus learned to make their own records and promote them on their own, selling them in swap meets and outside shows.

Meanwhile, out on Lankersheim in the then-largely white San Fernando Valley, The Palomino attracted huge stars of country music – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, Kris Kristofferson. But the club was also a magnet for young musicians who came to LA from all over to play country music. Some of the best country music in America was created there.

The Palomino offered what all music scenes must have: A venue for young artists and bands to aspire to, a place to hone, to be heard and discovered. Dwight Yoakam was an opening act there. The club was also a hangout for young actors and stuntmen in the film industry.

So last night was a good night. In the end maybe I was affected by some bit of nostalgia. The night made me yearn for the days when I was going to the Hong Kong Café and watching the Germs, the Plugz and the Go-Gos on the same small stage. (I think I once went to The Palomino – can’t remember any more – but I do know that back then a trip to the 818 was, for me, almost like a trip to another country, so it didn’t happen much.)

Today, from what I can see, the era of the L.A. music scene is largely dead. My take is that the Internet has made music so easy to create that the industry has fragmented into a million little pieces and no sufficiently large critical mass of fans, clubs, and media attention can form around a small group of artists doing daring new stuff. Everything’s so diffuse. Listen to KCRW and you rarely hear the same band – they just cascade by.

I’m sure someone will correct me on this. Maybe I’m not paying as much attention as I used to.

But going out to dive clubs where daring music is played doesn’t seem quite the thing it once was. Without the clubs as centers of community where fans can see musicians and musicians can improve – like, in their day, the Hong Kong Café, El Parral, and The Palomino – it’s hard to imagine that kind of musical effervescence repeated.

Which is not to say new stuff won’t come along – it just may not happen in a community the way it once did.

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Filed under California, Culture, Los Angeles, Southern California

A Poem For 9/11: Shanksville

This being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our country of Sept. 11, 2001, I’m publishing a poem written about the day by my father, who is professor emeritus of comparative literature from Claremont McKenna College.

Shanksville

By Ricardo Quinones

Whatever it was,
Needing a companion at 40,000 feet,
The accumulating spotty clouds
Suggesting the beetle bush wildness
That overhung his eyes;
The patches of ground below
That resembled the  splotches
Of his nearing-ninety skin,
Or the flight path itself
Southeast of Pittsburgh,
Some twenty minutes from  D.C.
Placing us directly over Shanksville,
The last great chapter of American democracy.
All conspired to bring  to mind
The presence that they required.
And so I said to the  presiding form
The poetic father of us all
“Kitty Hawk, Kitty Hawk,”
And he, pleased by the recollection,
Replied, “Shanksville, a name quite different,
Like many along these rural roads,
But what’s in a name?
What matters  are the revelations they contain.”
Out of the depths of the American past,
He established the tableau of vision
That would govern our conversation.
*
The Wright brothers had it all,
The turn-of-the-century
Tinkerer’s genius of invention
Coupled with the thirst for competition.
The French were dogging their tails.
But they were masters of locomotion
And at Kitty Hawk
Were the first to lift a powered device
Weighing more than air
Twenty feet off the ground for twenty seconds
A distance of 120 feet.
To the derision and abuse
Their claims elicited
Galileo’s defense was ready for use,
Eppure si muove,” nevertheless it flew.
The French with justice in their hearts
Were brought to admit and apologize
For discrediting this first adventure into space
That in more than a half -century’s time
Would send a human to stroll on the moon. Continue reading

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Filed under Books, Culture, Writing

Pennsylvania Priests & Bebop Jazzmen

I read two things yesterday.

I opened the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on six Catholic dioceses and the evidence of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests dating apparently to the 1950s.

I got through the introduction and the first two priests in the diocese of Allentown.

It wasn’t just the preying pedophilia. It was the craven blaming of victims, the various layers of psychological torment they endured by predators for years trying to deflect blame, and by church officials who rushed to any lie to hide scandal.

I had to stop. It was revolting, almost deadening to read.

Luckily, I’m also reading a book about the beginnings of modern jazz in the 1940s in New York City: The Birth of Bebopby music historian Scott DeVeaux.

I found refuge there.

DeVeaux chronicles all that went into creating modern jazz out of the bustling swing-jazz era. I was in the part of the book that focuses on the jazz scene that formed around the late-night/early morning jam sessions at the many clubs around New York in the 1940s.

I’ve been reading it because I’m a long-time fan of jazz – I wrote my senior history thesis on this very period and topic. But also because I’m interested in how “scenes” are created. Places where people come together with similar interests and through intense competition and collaboration over time they create something new and unexpected and change the culture.

Continue reading

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The Orchestra of Baja California & Celso Piña

One of the fascinating things about Tijuana is its way of absorbing almost anything and anyone from anywhere.

It has a long history of doing so, most recently with several thousand Haitians immigrants, who’ve crossed nine borders, coming up from Brazil, to arrive looking for U.S. asylum, which they did not get and so they stayed in Tijuana and have been melting into the city.

I’ve written a lot about the new Tijuana that has emerged in the last 10-15 years, focusing for a while on opera, which I wrote about in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration.

More recently, I’ve written about the city’s gradual turn away from making money from migration and vice tourism and toward a higher level of entrepreneurial effort to cater to the local consumer market.

As part of all of the above, the Orchestra of Baja California — which itself has its roots in a Russian orchestra that was imported to the city in 1992 with help from Eduardo Garcia Barrios, the group’s conductor for many years — this week put out an album backing accordionist Celso Piña.

Piña, born in Mexico, has made a career of playing Mexican norteño and tropical cumbias from Colombia.

The orchestra, now under the direction of Armando Pesquiera, held three concerts with Piña. Give a listen …

 

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Filed under Border, Culture, Mexico

Tony Kinman – An American Original

I read on FB that Tony Kinman is very ill.

I don’t know many details. But it’s a sad thing.

(NOTE: I’ve just seen on Chip Kinman’s FB page the news that Tony Kinman died this morning, apparently at his home in the San Diego area. A very sad day.)

Amid a culture where people on either side of politics are pushed to toe some kind of social-media enforced line, where everyone avidly looks to be offended, and where we all seem to be thin skinned, a spirit like Tony Kinman matters.

He began as a bass player from San Diego who, along with his brother Chip, formed one of the great musical duos in alternative rocknroll in this country. They started in punk rock, forming The Dils, which was the best punk band at least on the West Coast. Frenetic, blasting, fast. I coveted the 45 of I Hate the Rich and still have Class War and then Sound of the Rain.

Their voices blended perfectly – Tony with his baritone and a mop of dark hair, Chip, blond, with his high tenor. The punk Everly Brothers.

Beyond that, though, they hadn’t much but their gumption, rocknroll spirit, work ethic, and cheap sneakers, which was enough to keep them going for years.

Tony Kinman never made it big — never a music-industry star. The Kinman boys weren’t noble, starving artists — forget that — but my guess is they just wanted to create something of their own more than they wanted the cash. Each band they formed seemed to directly alienate the fans of the previous band. (Great interview here with Chip Kinman.)

They formed Rank and File, a country band with a punk flavor and moved to Austin. Tony’s baritone was spectacular on Conductor Wore Black and Sundown.

Later, they did electronica – Blackbird – and then moved on to Cowboy Nation, a folk duo playing old cowboy songs on acoustic guitar and bass.

I can’t say I know Tony Kinman. I met him and his brother once in 1980 when I hired them to play a party at Barrington Hall, a co-op at UC Berkeley where I was living and which was known for that kind of party. I drove to San Francisco in a co-op truck and loaded up The Dils and their equipment and then drove them back later that night. All that I have from that night is this photo from my friend Joanne.
But the Kinman boys have been part of the constellation of influences important in my life.

In my hometown of Claremont, California, many guys I grew up with played guitar; so did I, though not well. In high school in the 1970s, to me, rocknroll mattered. By then, though, it had grown bloated, pompous. Bands sang about the tribulations of being famous and over-sexed. Some bands recorded rock operas about elves, gnomes and mountain kings. In order to play any of it, we were told that we needed columns of expensive amps and we had to play a million notes a minute. Shows were in baseball stadiums, not in sweaty dark clubs.

Then punk rock came along and burned away all that crap and rock was again, for a moment, distilled to its urgent essentials. Three chords, two minutes, and you were done. Don’t ask permission to play – just get up there. Record your own 45 and put it out and sell it yourself. Put out your own fanzine. Organize your own shows. Don’t wait for anointing from some record company.

Soon punk rock became a style in which clothing companies charged a lot of money to make you look like you lived in a Skid Row wino hotel.

Really, though, punk rock wasn’t about leather jackets. It was an approach to life. Just do it: that was a real, pure American idea. Then Nike admen bought those words and turned them into a slogan.

Before that, though, that attitude was so healthy for a young American to hear. It was an important way to live and, to me, it grew from punk rock.

I adopted it as, in adulthood, I veered toward journalism and writing. I took jobs where I thought I could do exciting work and not wear a tie. So I covered crack, gangs and crime in Stockton, California. Then wanting to be a foreign correspondent but not wanting to ask permission from some newspaper, I moved to Mexico, where, as things turned out, I became a freelance writer.

I spent 10 years wandering the country alone, finding stories and selling them to media in the states, feeling this was my calling — this was punk rock.

I wrote a lot about immigrants, trudging north, trusting only in their wits, gumption, work ethic and cheap sneakers, and I knew they were punk rock as well. The best idea of America, coming up, raw and ragged, from Mexico.

I was offered jobs at news services and turned them down. It was a lot of money but I’d have to heed the orders of some editor in New York and not follow my own gut and eye, and this seemed a recipe for an unhappy life. I’m no noble, starving artist. Forget that. I just wanted a life of my own design. To do the stories I knew were important.

Along the way, I watched Tony and Chip Kinman, who best embodied what punk rock was to me, as they excavated American music in their own way.

Even when what they created didn’t always hit home the way The Dils or Rank and File did. Black Bird never quite worked for me, but I loved that they did it because it was them not being easily boxed.

Then they put out Cowboy Nation and I played the hell out of that. Streets of Laredo, Shenandoah, and the best song on the album, My Rifle, My Pony and Me. We Do As We Please is a great summation of the American spirit.

I remember I was thrilled when they somehow contacted me to get a copy of my first book.

I’ve noticed that Chip Kinman has continued on with his take on American blues – in a band called Ford Madox Ford, which is raunchy and raw and that’s the way great American music should be.

So I’m hoping the best for Tony Kinman, his brother, his family and his close friends.

The world can still use people who shape lives of their own design – maybe now more than ever.

(Photos: I’ll admit I just took these photos off the internet. If they’re yours, let me know and I’ll take them down.)

 

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Librarians and the Beauty of Surprise

On National Read Across America Day, I’d like to give thanks for local public librarians.

I find one of the great things to do is walk into a library and see what they’ve displayed as book suggestions. Mostly, what I love is the surprise. These books are almost always something interesting, quirky, something you hadn’t thought to read, or even ever heard about.

For writers, I think this is an essential endeavor. Reading widely, I’ve found, is so important. Putting yourself in the way of all kinds of ideas, people, modes of expression.

The library is where I find that. Mickey Spillane novels, nonfiction about municipal governance, biographies of some Japanese artist. I once read part of a book about the history of the word “Okay” because it was on display at my local library and the history of the word hadn’t occurred to me.

I don’t always finish these books – sometimes I take a brief excursion through them, is all.

But is it so worth it to stop in and see what’s on display!

My latest chance I took was on John Banville’s Time Pieces, which is an excellent piece of writing about Dublin, partly about his childhood, and some other stuff. I will finish that.

But I’m grateful that this community asset is available to me. So keep it up librarians, and many thanks for what you do!

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Javier Valdez – A Month Ago

The rule of law is something to be treasured. It is precious beyond value. It has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. Yet little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity, no public safety, no civic life.

After living in Mexico, it seems to me the rule of law is achieved through culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged (taxpayer funded) investment in infrastructure and government.

The rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through small things working well. These include courts, prisons, police, civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training, but also parks, street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more — above all at the local level.

Most of this is what Mexico lacks or has neglected.

Superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who have lost any discretion they once displayed and now behave with medieval cruelty. But what allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above. The result is the difference between 3000 murders in Juarez a few years back while El Paso tallied only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to lack of budget, corruption, lack of accountability, and a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.

All that is what got Javier Valdez killed a month ago today.

Valdez, you may have read by now, was an esteemed, brave journalist who chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and his newspaper Riodoce.

He was gunned down by masked men who accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away. The computer and cell phone he was carrying have not been found, according to his newspaper.

I met Javier in 2014. I saw him again in February. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book Los Levantados (The Taken) because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and his newspaper, Riodoce, did consistently.

The Taken (University of Oklahoma Press), by the way, offers an amazing view of worlds few of us will enter. You should read it. The first story is about a Mayan Indian from Chiapas who fathered six pairs of twin girls and, to support them, was recruited to do some kind of work in Sinaloa, only to find that the work he was hired to do was not in agriculture, but in something connected to drug trafficking, though he never figured out what that was because a battle between cartels consumed the region where he was sent. Just stunning stories.

In the month since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the government to do more to protect journalists, end the impunity with which the underworld rules many parts of the country. I echo those calls.

But what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history. So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted.

There is no way to make good on calls of better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations.

As we examine all the reasons why brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and the ability to find justice for them when it cannot.

Like all politics, justice, at its root, is local.

Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.

#ourvoiceisourstrength #nuestravozesnuestrafuerza

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Filed under Culture, Drugs, Mexico, Uncategorized

Happiness & Heroin

One important thing my mother told me when I was growing up was that first I should find the work I loved to do in life. That if I did, or didn’t, it would affect all the other aspects of life: sleep, romance, family.

I’m lucky. I love what I do. I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and when I’m on my deathbed I’m quite sure I’ll be making deals with God, saying, I’m happy to go but just let finish this one story first. Nothing I’ve done in the last 30 years has been drudgery, tedium. It has been exciting, mentally stimulating — and it paid the bills.

That didn’t happen by chance. I worked at it very hard for many years. I was helped by several great editors who pushed me to learn the craft and forge a writing style – sometimes not so politely.

I was helped above all by my parents who did not give us what we wanted growing up. They gave us what we needed. They gave us education and experience, above all. They gave us far less stuff than other friends I grew up with were getting from their parents. Later in life, I was very happy that was true.

I bring this up because I believe it is relevant to the opiate-addiction epidemic we face as a nation and a culture.

Recovery from addiction, I believe, means finding fulfillment in some project, endeavor or work. Finding something you love to do, something that means more than dope, that stimulates your mind more.

One way we, as a culture, have failed our kids is that too often we believe the stuff they get (and have demanded) without working for it, and that we give them, is somehow going to help them be happy. We as a culture have avoided pain, run from it. And we want our kids to be spared any pain at all – even hard work. But no one find’s his calling in life without hard work, sometimes demeaning work.

I hated all the years I spent washing dishes in cafeterias and restaurants while I was in high school, but I’m plenty happy I did it for it taught me to do things I didn’t want to do, taught me how important education is, and that fulfillment comes from finding the work you love and spending your life trying to get good at it.

So many kids I see have been given far too much without working for it. Too many haven’t learned that through hard work, pushing yourself to seek that calling, you actually learn and achieve and feel good about what you’ve done.

On the other hand, heroin, seems to me, is simply the final “stuff” for a culture that believes that more stuff leads to happiness. (Writing about heroin these days is really another way of writing about America, who we are and what we’ve become, I’ve grown to believe.)

My mom was right. It’s through hard work in something you love that you achieve fulfillment.

I began to think about all this again when I read snippets from the philosopher John Dewey about how we find happiness.

Here are a couple:

“To find out what one is fitted to do and to secure an opportunity to do it is the key to happiness. Nothing is more tragic than failure to discover one’s true business in life, or to find that one has drifted or been forced by circumstance into an uncongenial calling.”

And …

“The opposite of a career is neither leisure nor culture, but aimlessness, capriciousness, the absence of cumulative achievement in experience, on the personal side, and idle display, parasitic dependence upon the others, on the social side.”

Interesting stuff, and relevant more than ever to today’s America.

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Filed under Culture, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Grunge, Heroin & Conformity

The passing of grunge rocker Chris Cornell this week means that of the five major bands to emerge from the early 1990s’ grunge scene, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots and Nirvana all have lost lead singers to early deaths.

Only Pearl Jam has not. 

Mostly, these were singers whose lives were mangled by heroin/opiates, whether they died from it or not.

As I read the news, it occurred to me how deeply the grunge scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s swallowed the greatest drug scam ever sold, which is that heroin use is somehow a sign that the user is a rebel, an outsider, an artist finding his own tormented path on the margin of a claustrophobically conformist society.

The reality is that the drug, more than any other, is about commerce – about cold, hard business — and about enslavement to consumption. All of which, needless to say, is about as low-brow conformist as it comes.

Heroin should have been forgotten not long after it was invented for it has few medicinal benefits that other opiates don’t provide with far less addictive risk. It survived because it was a great drug for traffickers. It was easy to conceal, easy to cut, and it created customers that had to buy the product several times a day. A businessman’s dream.

The drug got its underground cachet beginning with Charlie Parker, the legendary saxophonist in the 1940s, who died in 1955 at the age of 34, having wasted much of his prodigious creativity in the pursuit of smack, while bringing an entire generation of younger musicians to dope. (Trumpeter Clifford Brown was staking out another path for jazz musicians – one of great devotion to art and improvisation combined with a sober lifestyle – when he was killed in a car accident at age 25.)

Beat writer William Burroughs helped solidify the drug’s reputation as an outsider’s substance.

Heroin got a bigger cultural boost from the Velvet Underground’s first album in 1967 and Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” followed as the years passed by notably addicted rockers like Johnny Thunders, Sid Vicious and, of course, Keith Richards. So that by the late 1980s, heroin was fully established as the go-to drug for anyone – often a pasty-faced white kid with a rocknroll heart — wanting a personal image as a non-conformist.

To the extent of few others before it, the grunge scene bought this fiction with gusto. Heroin, moreover, seemed the perfect drug for grunge’s nihilistic, dirge-like sound. So an entire scene was created that seemed to emerge from the swamp of the Velvet Underground’s first album. Many others died from it. Grunge did, too.

My music was punk rock and the grunge thing happened later. My focus in life was by then on writing and storytelling and not so much on the latest wrinkle in rocknroll. Grunge was too slow, too hopeless and depressing. Also, I lived in Seattle during this time, and didn’t like the city and left as soon as I could and moved to Mexico. So all in all, grunge didn’t do much for me. (Stone Temple Pilots were a bit different, and appealed to me more, in that the music was less grungy and they weren’t from Seattle, though their singer’s story is the same.)

There was, nevertheless, a do-it-yourself ethos to the scene that I found attractive. Bands were especially afraid of “selling out,” thus many of them first signed with the local Sub Pop label.

It’s a sad epitaph to the scene that the folks who created it fought mightily to avoid the taint of commercialism in their music and conformity in the way they lived — and ran, as they did, to the embrace of a drug that embodied everything they were fleeing.

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Filed under Culture, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

The proper use of `awesome’

    Lately I’ve been looking for some inspiration that only human achievement can provide, given the news of the last few days.
     So I was thrilled when my old friend from Claremont High School, Scott Edwards, sent me youtube clips of his son, Andrew, playing piano.

    The problem with the way we use the word “awesome” is that when you use it to describe the color of your new car or a new iPhone it doesn’t leave you with much to describe something that is truly awe inspiring. Such as when you see your old high school friend’s son playing piano like this.
    I first met Andrew Edwards when he was an infant. Now look at him. He’s entering college at USC next fall Scott tells me. (Bears mentioning that Andrew’s mother, Alison Edwards, is a piano professor and concert pianist of astounding talent.)
    So many kids seem to expect something for nothing, or can’t see the deep benefit that comes with prolonged pursuit of talent or knowledge.
    In our culture, we spend so much time thinking about how to be “happy.” We’re bombarded with easy paths to what marketers want to tell us is “happiness” – which is usually something more akin to amusement or distraction or titillation.
    Seems to me that the kind of dedication displayed in these youtube clips brings a fulfillment and satisfaction that is real happiness. Amazing to see what kind of achievement true hard work, focus, and devotion brings….

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House Republicans & Heroin

Governing is the opposite of dope.

It’s real world. It’s working the program. Accepting blame and accountability, breaking with fantasy. It’s hanging out with people who don’t think like you. It’s reminding yourself that life is full of constraints and you can’t just do whatever occurs to you. It’s realizing that you are not perfect and there are others whose opinions matter in this world.

That said, the recent health-care fiasco displayed House Republicans behaving like heroin addicts.

It’s easy to go on Fox News for years, blame someone else for everything when you don’t have to be accountable for finding solutions. It’s easy to rant about the endless failures of those people who do. Ranting is a narcotic; so is outrage; so is complaining and destroying. It gives us a big blast of dopamine to the brain. As does spending a lot of time insisting on all the nifty ways you’d do things better when you are king of the world. Feels so luxurious. Feels a lot like heroin, I suspect.

Being an opposition party means never having to put an idea to a constituent smell test. You get used to it – your tolerance for fantasy rises like an addict’s tolerance for a narcotic. Like addicts, you hang out with folks who think like you, talk like you, and never force you to face anything resembling reality, or the necessity of compromise.

Living without compromise is a nice idea in theory, but it’s possible only when you’re high on, and surrounded by, ideology — or dope.

A heroin addict brooks no compromise. He wants a world his way only. No messy complications, no one telling him no. Ask any parent of an addict.

What I think we saw was people addicted to a warm, euphoric ideological fantasy world in which they’ve lived for the last several years. Addicted to the idea that they could do it alone, didn’t need anybody, didn’t need to compromise. This Freedom Caucus seemed dead-set on depriving anyone but the wealthiest of what most would deem civilized health care: maternity care, ER visits, not to mention addiction-treatment coverage.

It was bizarre to watch them line up to take away benefits needed by so many who had just elected them and their president, and give them to our aristocracy.

Harold Pollack noted in this article in Politico that Democrats working to forge Obamacare held hearings over months and accepted more than 150 Republican amendments to the bill they passed. House Republicans this time took 18 days and “the payout to the top 400 families [in America] alone was estimated to exceed total ACA subsidies in 20 states and the District of Columbia.”

How do you come to the conclusion that thinking like the upper classes of pre-revolution France is okay?

Well, perhaps because House Republicans lived in a bubble for seven years, voting to repeatedly repeal Obamacare knowing it would be vetoed. Then the fantasy ended and they finally had the power to do it. They had nothing to replace it with. (John Boehner is, I’m sure, happy to be away from all that.) What they came up with would have savaged the very people who put them in office.

The word `compromise’ gets a bad rap these days, but it’s actually another way of saying something else. It’s saying, we’re behaving like adults. We’re not going to act like petulant children who want a world run according to their whims alone, which is, in turn, another way of describing how a heroin addict thinks.

Something like this, I suspect, is what Ryan was referring to when he spoke of House Republican “growing pains.” Getting off the dope of viewing compromise as a dirty word.

A big part of addiction recovery is relating to others again, accepting that your views are not the only ones that matter, that you have to modify your behavior, answer to others who may not think like you.

It’s like governing.

It’s messy and ragged; it’s hard and far from perfect. It’s adult, in other words, and it’s the opposite of dope.

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The Last Velvet Painter in Tijuana

For many years, Alfredo Rodriguez Ortiz – Argo – was among the throngs of velvet painters making a living in Tijuana painting Elvis, Marilyn, John Lennon and John Wayne.

Those were velvet’s glory days of the 1970s. Now interest in the art has fallen off considerably. He keeps at it. Painting Bob Marley and Tupak more than any others.

He’s now among the last velvet painters, and the only one, from what I can determine, who still knows how to paint Elvis Presley on velvet.

I hope you like the video.

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January 14, 2017 · 3:34 pm

The Tuba God

Not long ago, I was driving through Tennessee and happened upon a town called Cookeville, which is home to Tennessee Tech University. I had been advised that TTU, an engineering school out in the middle of nowhere, is also one of the world’s great centers for tuba playing.

This is largely due to the presence, since 1967, of Winston Morris, whom my source referred to as The TubaIMG_1277 God.

As a reporter, I pride myself on braking for anyone I hear who is colloquially known as the “God” of something, or the “King” of something else.

I have done stories on The Cambodian Donut King and The Tomato King and a Chinese-Mexican beauty Queen selected because she accumulated the largest number of Pepsi bottle caps (true story – Hell, they’re all true stories.)

Among the cool things about being a reporter is that it gives you a license to barge into the lives of some of the most creative people in America. So that’s what I did.

I called Morris and he kindly allowed me to stop by on my way from Nashville to Knoxville. We talked a lot about tubas, the most relegated of instruments, and how it has emerged from the shadows where other instruments – mostly trumpets – had placed it. A civil rights movement for tubas, where the instrument was now breaking with all limitations, and playing any piece on the instrument was now possible.

Many years ago, Morris started the school’s Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble. He said he did this to attract attention to his program and to begin writing repertoire for the instrument, which had precious little. He envisioned the ensemble as tuba version of the string quartet or brass quintet. The Ensemble is now four decades old and has recorded pieces by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, Gunther Schuller, Michael Jackson, and a bunch more.

He had more to say about tuba playing, about living in the Jim Crow South as a boy, about caring for his wife for 16 years after her massive stroke. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant in Cookeville.

Morris, btw, also holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest collection of tuba-related figurines – more than 2200. Rabbits playing the tuba, bears playing the tuba, Santa Clauses playing the tuba, soldiers playing the tuba, monkeys and elephants and cats playing the tuba. He’s donating it all to the school, which will set up an exhibit of tuba-related art.

Just another reason to stop while driving east from middle Tennessee.

 

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What the Orlando Killer Was Thinking

Among the healthiest things you learn as a journalist is that the world is a hazy, cloudy place, rarely clear, not often black and white, where two opposites may be true at the same time, and that as things change all the time you need to move with them as they roil.

In my experience, these mass shootings teach us this over and over.

The latest wrinkle in the nauseating Orlando massacre, reported in the LA Times, is that the killer spent the previous year drinking at the gay bar he shot up, so much so that he was recognized by people he was shooting at that night. He also spent time on a gay chat app.

All this adds more nuance – predictable in all these cases as they unfold and more is known.Mateen 1

I think the idea that this guy may have been a closeted gay man seems to make sense; that he hated that he was gay, was violent because he hated that he was; that the shooting was in anger for what he was, venting on the people who provoked his attraction.

After all, what truly straight man goes regularly to drink alone at a gay bar? He’d been doing it for more than a year. What straight man also spends time on a gay chat app?

In that light, this Islamic thing may be as much of a cloak as anything else, a way of finding some kind of larger romantic rationale for what he was in the process of doing.

Mateen 2

Unclear to me that he was much of a clear thinker, but that’s self-evident.

(Note: Several days after I posted this, information surfaced that Mateen may have had as many as two gay affairs and that one with a Puerto Rican man may have resulted in him being HIV+.)

I mention all this because it falls in line with other cases I’ve covered as a reporter.

I’m very happy to ascribe fanatical religious/political/terrorist motives. But as a reporter, I’ve also covered seven mass murders (Stockton, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown among them) and in each case I was one of the journalists assigned to find out as much as possible about the suspect.

In each case, I came to have a very nuanced, though at the same time quite cloudy, view of the way the person thought or appears to have thought before he died. Because in the end, that’s the truth of the matter. It lies usually quite a way from how things appeared on first blush.

In Stockton (1989, the first of these mass shootings), we thought the shooter must have harbored great hatred for Asians, as the elementary school he fired on was largely SE Asian. In time, I grew to believe that he may have had some cloudy hateful ideas about Asians, but that was the most you could probably say. In fact, he was probably incapable of holding a clear thought of any kind – this from all I learned about his life up to then, and then his motel room where he spent his last night (with little green plastic soldiers deployed all over the room and a shirt on which he had written, “Death to the Great Satin” Mateen 3sic).

If anyone can tell me the clear thoughts that the shooters in Tucson, Aurora and Newtown had, I’d be very interested to hear. To me, they were all lost boys, murky in thinking, crazy, festering and unbalanced. Hence, finding a political meaning behind their actions was very difficult. We at first thought the Tucson shooter was a Tea Party member because he shot a Democratic congresswoman. Now, I can say with conviction that he was another boy out of his mind, lost, unfriended, scary to many, apolitical, and left by his parent to dangle on his own in the nether-reaches of virtual games.

This Orlando killer may have had some vague ideas of doing something for Allah and the Islamic state or (I now hear maybe) Hezbollah – I’m very willing to buy that. That’s who fanaticism wraps in its warm cloak – the lost, the embittered, the unbalanced. But the first information you get in these cases needs always to be balanced and blended with info, usually clearer, that comes later. So the stuff about his hanging out in Pulse for a year offers insight that we ought not ignore.Mateen 4

I can say that he does not seem like the Boston bombers, or the San Bernardino couple – all of whom were very focused, confirmed and dedicated Islamic terrorists, though perhaps technically solitary actors.

Those folks had a lot in common with Stavrogin, of Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Omar Mateen did not – at least that’s how it seems to me at this point.

Seems to me that his call to the cops about ISIS as he was shooting up the club was a way of very loudly saying, “…and just so’s you know, I’m NOT gay!”

What better way to say that than to invoke the world’s most notorious homophobes?

Then again, I’m always ready to let new facts change my mind.

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In Nashville searching for a pedal steel

Now that they’re dead, George Jones and Johnny Cash have been allowed back into Nashville.

Each man now has a museum in his honor, I discovered as I walked up and down Music Row in MusicIMG_4008 City.

I’m in Nashville at the invitation of Prof. Ted Fischer and Vanderbilt University’s Center for Latin American Studies to give some talks about heroin and pills.

Nashville’s a great town. First time I visited, in 2001, also at the invitation of CLAS, I spent time at a West Nashville apartment complex watching Sudanese Lost Boys and Bosnian immigrants play soccer. The town has the largest Kurdish population in America, and had 80,000 Mexicans as well. That night, I went to a Mexican circus – Los Hermanos Vasquez.

And it’s got country music.

I’ve been a country fan since I was about 16 and my guitar teacher started playing me some Merle Haggard and Emmylou.

Johnny Cash and George Jones have been my favorites for so many years. These two guys had voices like oak trees. They shared a lot in common, I thought, with jazzman Sonny Rollins, whose saxophone had the same kind of sound. But neither Cash nor Jones was much appreciated by Nashville’s new pop-rock country, big-hat-boys sound toward of his life. Cash didn’t even have a record deal. Sorry state of affairs for two of the greatest singers we Americans ever produced.IMG_4012

Problem is, from the radio, I gather that there isn’t much about current Nashville country music that would have room for either man if he were starting out today.

In fact, as I walked up and down Music Row in Nashville, I searched in vain for what I consider to be the soul of country music: a pedal steel guitar.

Pedal steel is what makes country music sound so sweet; the instrument sounds a lot like the voice of Emmylou Harris. I’m told that Ms. Harris, my personal country music goddess, doesn’t listen to new country music any more. Maybe it’s because they’ve done away with the pedal steel guitar, I thought as I walked down Music Row. Pedal steel also makes country music sound raw sometimes, too, and I like that.

Walking down the Row, there was a lot of what I took to be rocknroll. I heard some Michael Jackson. I heard some Eagles and was going to call the Chamber of Commerce to complain. I had dinner in George Jones’ Museum and Restaurant and ate three scallops that cost me $11 per scallop, but I didn’t find any pedal steel guitars in there.

I peered inside Margaritaville, but all they had was a rock band. Same with the place next door. No pedal steels.

I did happen in to Ernest Tubb’s Record Store, where I found CDs for $2.99 each in the bargain “tubb.” I bought five, including a compilation of truck driving songs, with some frantic pedal steel picking, called Lay Me Down a Truck Driving Man. Jewel of the CD was Mac Wiseman’s song, “Eighteen Wheels Humming Home Sweet Home.”

Raindrops on the windshield

Teardrops on my steering wheel

This old truck’s the only thing I own.

My old heart is pining

While her old engine’s whining

And eighteen wheels humming Home Sweet Home

From poetry like that you can see why I thought the CD would be the night’s highlight.IMG_4014

Then I stumbled into the Full Moon Saloon. On the stage was a bar band and in the band was Mike Bourque. He was sitting with a Telecaster in his lap and a pedal steel before him, burning holes through songs with both instruments. So there I stayed until they stopped playing. Don’t know who Mike Bourque is, but he sure can play.

I guess this is where the real heart of Nashville music resides, not so much on those radio stations.

So I’ll leave you with Mike Bourque, on Telecaster and (briefly here) pedal steel blazing through the last three minutes of Merle Haggard’s “Honky-Tonk Nighttime Man.”

 

 

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