A Digital Guy In An Analog World

May 11, 2017

41-donald-trump-elena-kosvincheva.jpgThe Conmander in Chief seemed surprised the other day when Democrats not only failed to applaud his sacking of FBI director James Comey, but instead led a tsunami of howling blowback. The Trumpies were gobsmacked because the boss lives digitally — and that attitude has to trickle down if you want to appease him.

Donald Trump’s worldview is binary, like the basic one-or-zero building block of computing. You’re friend or foe, right or wrong, smart or stupid, rich or poor, safe or scared, strong or weak, winner or loser, Dem or Pub, toady or traitor, predator or prey, kin or stranger, Fox or fake, male or icky, white or threatening. His personality and character are not wired to coexist with nuance or subtlety, which are analog qualities with infinite gradations. Trump’s light switch is on-off. Most others use a rheostat.

Yet that messy imprecision dominates the environment he is forced to inhabit any time he steps outside his protective bubble. This is why foreign policy, for example, is beyond his grasp. He’s simply unable to perceive the shades of grey, the give-and-take required of statesmanship among sovereign nations. But somebody, if not Trump himself, better face it: despite our breathtaking advances in technology, we do not live in a digital world, but an analog one.

Trump evidently thought lefties held a digital view too: Hillary Good, Comey Bad. So getting rid of Comey — for whatever selfish reason — ought to make them cheer. It didn’t occur to him that you could both disapprove of what Comey did (even if unwittingly) to Hillary Clinton and take offense at his sudden dismissal just as he was revving up the FBI’s Russia hacking investigation.

Digital thinking is a temptation in our polarized society. The Comey firing became public just minutes before Stephen Colbert stepped onstage to deliver his monologue Tuesday afternoon. When his audience learned from the comedian that Comey was out, they reflexively applauded. That seemed to take Colbert aback. He and his staff, of course, had had time to think about it. The audience was responding digitally: serves him right for ruining Hillary! (Ludicrously, that was the White House’s official reason for the director’s firing!) But they quickly realized that Trump was really trying to stymie the Russia investigation, and when Jeff Sessions’s involvement was invoked a few minutes later, familiar boos rang out.

From most reports Comey is a stand-up guy who wants to do the right thing and is mortified by what turned out to be his role in the 2016 election. Trump is a narcissistic buffoon who couldn’t care less about how he won (the Electoral College is basically affirmative action for white people) and has never acknowledged any form of error. But as Comey put it in a farewell email to the Bureau, POTUS has the power to fire the FBI director “for any reason, or for no reason at all.” It’s telling that when the action was “imminent,” according to the New York Times, Trump called Lindsey Graham. He called Chuck Schumer. But he didn’t call Jim Comey, who found out he’d been fired when somebody noticed a tv news feed behind his back as he was giving a speech. That’s not a strongman. That’s a pathetic, classless coward.

Each time I thought Trump was done when he dissed John McCain’s war record, insulted a Gold Star family, cheered on goons at that rally, and bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. Each time I was wrong. Maybe he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and not disturb the diehards in his 36% approval base. But this time he may at last find himself outnumbered. Dumping Comey was lousy in timing, justification and execution, a trifecta of malice and ineptitude.

How any serious Christian could support Donald Trump — how Mike Pence looks himself in the mirror every morning — has always been beyond me; I just do not understand. Now I add the word “Republican.” No, this isn’t Watergate — Richard Nixon only fired a special prosecutor; this is potentially even worse — but if members of his own party won’t stand up to Trump the way they did to Nixon, it’s not just the FBI’s reputation that’s in jeopardy, but their own as well. Not to mention their jobs. Because the votes of their constituents can be digital too.


I Been Paul Simoned And Art Garfunkeled

May 7, 2017

simonI like to listen to music while I cook, but as with my diet I want variety. So I have this long playlist of music I love, and I just ask Alexa to shuffle it as I pull out the cutting board. I never know what’s coming next. The other night, what popped up was “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” the opening track of Simon and Garfunkel’s album PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME. Wow, that sounds pretty good, I thought. Wonder how the rest of the album holds up? So later that night I revisited the whole thing, in order, after half a century.

Yes, PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME turned fifty last October. When it was new I was just starting my senior year in high school. Lots of water has flowed under the bridge since then and nearly everything has changed, most definitely including the music business. Its mid-Sixties conventions are almost unrecognizable today.

In 1966, in the artistic sense, we were all still trying to figure out what a “record album” was. The term originated to describe hardbound packages of single-track 78rpm disks, bound in sleeves with big holes in the middle so you could read the labels, which you flipped through just like a photo album. Those clunky beauties are long gone but the name has stuck. A single-artist collection is still an “album,” whether you buy it on a shiny digital disk or stream it down those Internets.

For pop acts, the arrival of the long-playing 33 1/3rpm single-disk “album” was largely a non-event. Throughout the Fifties, Lps — assuming you had the gear to play them — were mostly for Broadway cast recordings, which regularly topped the Billboard charts, or longer classical pieces. Pop songs, including the emerging rock & roll sound, were distributed on smaller 45rpm “singles.” That’s what filled up juke boxes, that’s what the Top 40 DJ spun on the air, that’s what teenagers stormed the record stores to buy.

The altruistic saints of the record companies, always looking for ways to devote their own modest profits toward the greater good, made some calculations as the Lp took hold. A single retailed for the better part of a buck for two songs, the chart hit and an unknown “B-side.” (Sometimes they both became hits, as with Ritchie Valens’s “Donna/La Bamba.” Too bad, thought the benevolent angels: that leaves some potential philanthropic donations on the table. Should have been two releases.) Slap a bunch of singles on an Lp, though, and you could charge the kids three, four times as much and repurpose the studio time you’ve already written off — for charity! Add yet another buck for stereo! (“360 Sound” at Columbia.)

So, while more customers got used to Lps, almost all the big pop album releases were by and large collections of previously issued singles, except for the white-collar folk revival (“The Great Folk Scare,” as Dave Van Ronk called it) and sui generis artists such as Bob Dylan. Even Dylan and other oddballs still observed conventional graphic design, listing every song title on the front cover to make the package look like more of a bargain. Dylan’s first four album covers featured song lists, though he’d probably never been heard on a Top 40 radio station and most customers had no clue until they spun the platter.

By the mid-Sixties, however, forward-thinking artists, even popular ones, were starting to kick in their stalls and strive to turn their albums into unique events. PARSLEY, SAGE is a relic from the midpoint of that transition. It’s a collection of newish songs (funny, they don’t look newish!), but three of them had already been released: “Homeward Bound” and “The Dangling Conversation” were legit chart hits, and “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” was the B-side of the huge “I Am A Rock” single (I bought that one, in fact, just to get a new S&G song). There’s a song-title list on the cover, the two hits in big bold face, but the rest of the record besides “Flowers” was a cipher until you played it for the first time.

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Artie and Paul, about the time they recorded PARSLEY, SAGE.

PARSLEY, SAGE was also halfway conventional creatively. Its twelve songs clock in at a total of just under half an hour; the longest track, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle,” is only 3:10. But this material was more densely packed than anything I’d ever heard. It was partly a reaction to their rushed-out previous album SOUNDS OF SILENCE. They had already split up when, after the fact, producer Tom Wilson overdubbed electric instrumentation onto the acoustic recording of “The Sound of Silence” from their non-selling folkie Lp WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM. That second-hand backbeat irked Paul Simon when he heard it, and furthermore the tempo had wavered on the original, so at one point the electric cats had to audibly slow down to let the vocals catch up. But the new mix made Simon and Art Garfunkel huge stars when it became a smash, causing them to reunite for that quickie follow-up. Now they were big shots, and now they were going to take their time. They spent a then-unheard-of three months recording PARSLEY, SAGE, establishing a lasting reputation as studio perfectionists, sort of the Steely Dan of the Sixties. I could hear a quantum leap in ambition the first time I played the record in fall 1966. I thought it was one of the best things ever. No lie. It was the same feeling I got when I first saw CITIZEN KANE and 2001.

If most albums at the time were hit-record compilations, they still worked because the artists had a signature sound that sustained itself throughout. While it was true that Simon & Garfunkel harmonized so beautifully that you often couldn’t tell which one was up high — they sang intervals like their idols the Everly Brothers, but without a hint of country twang; they may have sounded like altar boys but were really two Jewish kids from Queens — each track on PARSLEY, SAGE inhabited its own individual sonic environment. It felt less like a greatest-hits record and more like a collection of great short stories. Even the magnificent BLONDE ON BLONDE, which beat PARSLEY, SAGE to market by six months or so, didn’t exhibit such variety and exactitude. I was blown away.

How did I react five decades later? Spoiler Alert: ambivalently. The newness has worn off. Some PARSLEY, SAGE tracks are still hands-down classics, others have lost a bit of luster. But that short half hour is still crammed with so much creative thought that it cannot be denied.

“Scarborough Fair/Canticle” meets one’s expectations with a soft opening guitar figure. I’ve always admired Paul Simon’s acoustic guitar playing and you can tell it a mile away. He’ll pluck way down on the lower strings and almost slap them for emphasis to get a violent percussive attack. (It’s the first sound on the next song.) This jagged rhythmic effect is a cousin to the wonderful pick-heavy style that James Taylor brought along later. The boys begin their new album with an innocent medieval air, seasoned with some harpsichord fillips that favor Paul’s puffy shirt on the cover photo. But then something intrudes, “signaled by the electric bass,” as Ralph J. Gleason writes in his liner notes. It’s a countermelody, a darker countersong that fills the gaps on the road to Scarborough with the same sweet voicing, but starts to drip menace. Something about polishing a gun, war bellows blazing, scarlet battalions, generals ordering death, it becomes a real nightmare. You can concentrate on either thread — sort of choose to sip wine or chew some food — or just let the total sound wash over you as when a balance of wine and food produces a third taste. I don’t know which member found the harmony (I hope it was Artie) but this is our first iteration of a signature S&G effect, the high note from way off in the rural areas of the chord. You can hear it clearly on the final “THYYYYME…” Even in mono — I didn’t have the money or gear for stereo at the time — there’s an expanse to the track, as if it’s being performed in a large room or from a fair distance. Surprise upon surprise. As I said, this was the one that recently made me interested in hearing the entire album again. I think it still works, though by now we who have followed all these years are already expecting the “Canticle” descant (most amateur performers omit this part).

It sounds more like a normal recording studio on “Patterns,” a minor-key rumination that puzzled me even in high school, from whence much overreaching poetry springeth forth. Also, somebody brought some bongos to the session. Unless meaning is actually being obscured, I’m not a grammar nazi (screw that missing Oxford comma in the album title!) but I couldn’t hear the song back in the day without getting stuck on these lines: “Impaled on my wall / My eyes can dimly see / The pattern of my life / And the puzzle that is me.” In other words, somebody ripped out Paul’s eyeballs and nailed them to a wall, yet in the early evening gloom they can still perceive images. Seriously, I get that he’s trying to refer to the pattern, but why impale it on his wall? For that matter, not to second-guess the bard or anything, but what’s so awful about patterns in the first place? I’ll bet even Simon considers these lyrics to be juvenilia. The solution is to chillax, put down your microscope, and listen to, as Donald Fagen once put it, “the sound of the phonemes.” Just enjoy the groove as I learned to. But still: impaled eyes?!

Simon & Garfunkel had been the avatars of alienation, full of angst and woe, so it was a bit of a novelty to hear the jaunty “Cloudy.” Here again, the chorus is pure existential sighing: the clouds are gray, they’re lonely, they hang down on the singer, they don’t know where they’re going. But the verses brighten into pure joy — though the boys are about to go to 11 with the endorphins in a few minutes — maybe because they were co-written by (but not credited to) the Seekers’ Bruce Woodley, with whom Simon also wrote the hit “Red Rubber Ball” for the Cyrkle. They became pals after Paul fled to England to escape the resounding thud of WEDNESDAY MORNING 3 AM, then un-became pals, thus the non-credit. My guess is it had something to do with publishing money. But from Tolstoy to Tinker Bell, from Berkeley to Carmel, this is just finger-poppin, toe-tappin fun, a bold new direction for our morose heroes. Artie’s harmonies come from outer space.

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Carol Kaye played bass on both “Scarborough Fair” and “Homeward Bound.”

“Homeward Bound” is one of my favorite songs by anyone, and it sounds every bit as good today as it did when it was fresh. It’s one of the most poignant depictions of life on the road for a touring musician: he and the stand-up comic are the only kinds of performing artists who, when not recording, are traveling all the time. The sheer sameness can throw you off very quickly. I once tagged along with Lynyrd Skynyrd for not quite a week, and one day I woke up in my hotel room, flung open the drapes, and had a mild but real panic attack because I couldn’t suss out where I was until I found a newspaper in the lobby. (This is why rock stars tear up hotel rooms.) But I had no idea when I first heard this song how real it is. Simon probably wrote it in England, since he’s “sittin’ in the railway station” rather than a car or bus. The song is terrific, but the record yells out “hit!” because of Hal Blaine’s muscular beat and Carol Kaye’s bass line. (Yes, among their many other credits, the “Wrecking Crew” of LA session cats blew anonymously for S&G too. Carol also plays on “Scarborough Fair/Canticle.”) I know it’s the arrangement that counts because when the boys do it with Paul as their “one-man band,” it just ain’t the same. Judge for yourself, early in their Central Park concert.

Advertising is crass and manipulative! So avers “The Big Bright Green Pleasure Machine,” which sounds like a certain songwriter might have been watching way too much tv. Still, the banal pitches for the title panacea display wit and economy. “Does your group have more cavities than theirs?” “Do you sleep alone when others sleep in pairs?” There’s even what passes for controversy in 1966: “Are you worried ‘cause your girlfriend’s just a little late?” Not your wife, your girlfriend. You’ve been having extramarital sex, haven’t you? This piece was minor the day it was written and doesn’t age well, but the performance is full-on Everlys.

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Joe Morello brushed the tubs on “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”

And now, turning on a dime, the happiest 1:43 on record. Without a trace of irony, Simon & Garfunkel go skipping down the street on “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy),” which celebrates that euphoric feeling you get when everything’s perfect or the drugs have just kicked in. “Groovy” as a word has outlived its usefulness (basically replaced by “cool,” which comes from the beatnik era, and “awesome,” which comes from — I dunno, IMAX superhero movies?) but the song’s exalted state is still crystal clear today. Here again, the recording completely sells the exuberance, for the boys have borrowed none other than half of (labelmates) The Dave Brubeck Quartet. Eugene Wright is on upright bass and Joe Morello is swattin’ the super-hip brushes that set the tone immediately; yes, the same guys who recorded the immortal “Take Five.” Veteran S&G fans were nervously waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it did in “Richard Cory,” but no: “Life, I love you / All is groovy.” Angelic la-la syllables dart, weave, spill over each other in a growing chorus of contentment that luxuriously plays us out of side 1. I was happily amazed at first spin, and the song fulfills its simple mission so effectively that it has become timeless despite that antiquated adverb.

“The Dangling Conversation” is about pretension, but it’s pretentious itself, probably why it hasn’t held up as well as S&G’s other big hits. It felt much more profound in 1966 than it does today. In winkily sniffing at detached privilege it becomes guilty of the same offense. There’s certainly much to like, including once again the economy of a gifted songwriter. Simon only needs a few seconds to lay out the shallow vapidity of proper cocktail chitchat: “Can analysis be worthwhile? / Is the theater really dead?” And the lush orchestration, all harps and strings, is sublime — in a sense, just going to the trouble of writing charts and hiring players helps validate Simon & Garfunkel. But it’s hard to listen past the lyrics and enjoy “The Dangling Conversation” on an aural level, because this particular song is all about the lyrics. It only comes to life once, when despair breaks the singer’s chilly composure: “I only kiss your shadow / I cannot feel your hand…” There’s no doubt that it’s a more intellectual way to Stick It To The Man, which is why it fit right in with the times. But fifty years later, I don’t really mind when it’s over.

True fans had already heard “Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall” on that B-side. The straight-ahead fast picking sounded great, and since I was listening in mono, what I had here was basically that same radio mix from the single. This is one of those songs where it’s easy to mistake the mood. The melody (the same resigned note for a long while on the verses, with Artie handling the changes upstairs) and vibrant tempo could be for a ditty about waiting for a lover to arrive. Instead, leave it to our boys to muse about the inevitability of death, complete with confusion, illusion, dark shadows, tortured sleep, directionless wandering — some fairly grim stuff. If the vocal were in French, you’d never come close to pinning it down lyrically. There is an interesting thought in the chorus: “So I’ll continue to continue to pretend / My life will never end.” We all do that at a young age. But take it from us, kid: you’re gonna die.

On “A Simple Desultory Philippic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission,” we discover that Paul Simon does have a sense of humor! It’s the musical equivalent of that time he wore a ludicrous turkey suit on SNL and said they had told him, lighten up, you take yourself s-o-o-o-o seriously. Here he flings out cultural references just because they rhyme, from Ayn Rand to Gen. Maxwell Taylor. He’s been Mick Jaggered and “Silver Daggered,” which if you’re not our age you probably don’t recognize as Joan Baez’s signature song early in her career — in other words, I lived through all that folk-singer stuff too. But the centerpiece is the moment when Paul stops everything to do a fairly good impression of Bob Dylan, complete with panting in-out harmonica. He has now addressed the elephant in the room. After all, S&G and Dylan shared a label (Columbia) and a producer (Bob Johnston, formerly Tom Wilson). They had included a hokey, halfhearted cover of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on their first album (the one that tanked), but if Paul or Artie had ever in their lives said A-Anythin’ outside that session, we don’t know about it. For want of a better pigeonhole, both acts were categorized as “folk-rock,” whatever that means, and they didn’t click personally. We know in retrospect that they were worlds apart and evolved even farther away from each other, but we didn’t have any retrospect back then. We have to assume Dylan didn’t mind the ribbing too much because he recorded a self-harmonized “The Boxer” on his possibly heartfelt but definitely delusional SELF PORTRAIT, and many years later he and Paul toured together, even managing to co-perform a tune or two. I saw them at Madison Square Garden: two long sets that were both enjoyable for completely different reasons. Simon, Garfunkel and Laughter. Who’d have imagined that trio? Sue me, but the Dylan thing is still funny.

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The producers of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS aped this Mark Spoelstra cover for the phony album release by “Al Cody” (Adam Driver).

I’ve loved the sound of the 12-string guitar ever since I heard Mark Spoelstra’s FIVE & TWENTY QUESTIONS during the Great Folk Scare. (Roger McGuinn’s Rickenbacker didn’t hurt either.) When you pluck an individual string, it sounds double-tracked, like a John Lennon vocal. When you strum them all you have a little guitar orchestra. I finally got next to a Vox Folk Twelve and though it was twice as hard to tune and maintain, I never quit playing it. Paul Simon hits the 12 only rarely, but he does a terrific job on “For Emily, Wherever I May Find Her,” a dreamy solo for Artie that was probably traded off for “Philippic.” Paul’s guitar is mixed in the background and loaded with reverb, and when the lyric says “cathedral bells,” you go, that’s what it sounds like: a cathedral! Talk about puffy shirts: this is Jane Austen set to music, aimed directly at the chicks. Organdy, crinoline, juniper, burgundy, frosted fields, tripping bells, honey hair, flushed cheeks, grateful tears! Is there anything we forgot? Paul steps forward for a regal guitar break and seals the deal: he makes you want your own 12-string.

But as John and Yoko once said, the dream is over. Now a racing heartbeat pulse introduces “A Poem On The Underground Wall,” a little slice of city life that makes us voyeurs while a profane graffitist defaces a subway poster with “a single-worded poem comprised of four letters.” The tempo doesn’t change but it seems to. As the perv nervously waits for his chance, scrawls his “poem” and books it up the stairs to street level, Paul and Artie help the illusion by becoming ever louder and more intense. He gets closer to what seems like an almost sexual release, maybe not even almost, and we feel like we’re watching something we shouldn’t see. Nothing has prepared us for the chugging inevitability of the rhythm. But most disturbing of all, we find ourselves thinking about what it might feel like to wield the “crayon rosary” ourselves. Finally nothing is left but the pulse we started with, and we’re finished, if not shamed.

Well, not quite. The boys wind up with another “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”-style mashup for a closing bookend. “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night” begins with a reverent version of the venerable holiday carol as only these choirboys can warble. It’s beautiful. Then something seems to interfere with your sound system. You’re getting a rogue radio signal from somewhere. Dammit: some newscaster is ruining the song! How is this even possible? You keep listening and the announcer grows louder while your music gets softer. Now you can’t help but pay attention. Martin Luther King may face the National Guard in Cicero, Illinois. Mass murderer Richard Speck is indicted. HUAC investigates war protest. Nixon says opposition to the war works against the country. The news is nothing but bad, and it has finally overpowered “Silent Night.” Of course, all this was deliberate. The effect is quite powerful — in fact, too much so for posterity. “7 O’Clock News” is like a magic trick: the first time you experience it can be mind-blowing, but there’s a reason most magicians don’t repeat illusions for the same audience. Without the element of surprise, you’re only interested in the method, how you were fooled. Well, S&G hired radio DJ Charlie O’Donnell to read actual news items from August 3, 1966 and engineer Roy Halee worked the faders just right. It’s wrenching the first time, but the returns begin to diminish almost immediately. All these years later it’s not only the now-familiar juxtaposition that weakens the piece: the news items themselves are so stale they’re ancient history. I wish this track had been a B-side, or maybe a single for the holiday, so they could have ended PARSLEY, SAGE with something a bit more permanent. But who knew we’d still be listening to it after fifty years?

Sure, it doesn’t all work, and there are other dated moments. But PARSLEY, SAGE, ROSEMARY AND THYME has spun off so much enjoyment over the decades that it’s instructive to consider how long that span of time really is. Fifty years before PARSLEY, SAGE, the biggest hit records, including “O Sole Mio” by Enrico Caruso, “I Love A Piano” by Billy Murray, and ”Ireland Must Be Heaven, For My Mother Came From There” by Charles Harrison, were made with frickin recording horns. Well, that much time and more has now passed for us since S&G’s first groundbreaker. Yet it still has the power to reach out over an eventful half century, to delight, provoke and entertain. Even after buying all that studio time, I’d say Columbia got its money’s worth and then some.

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The stunning Richard Avedon portrait for their next album, BOOKENDS.


Storms, No Chasers

April 11, 2017

lightning - 1(1).jpgThe National Weather Center is housed in a 250,000-square-foot, five-story building on the University of Oklahoma campus in Norman. There’s a big observation deck facing south, because around here that’s where severe storms usually come from, and these people love to watch.

NWC is a partnership among OU, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and state agencies. OU’s School of Meteorology is the largest such program in the country, with about 250 undergrads and some 90 postgraduate students. But these folks aren’t exactly studying for a slot on the evening news. Their facility also houses some of America’s most capable pros. Whenever there’s a tornado or severe thunderstorm watch anywhere in the contiguous 48 states, the call originates in Norman, Oklahoma.

145e03515dc712626f7611577d4eea73.jpgThe building is pretty new — it opened in 2006 — but America’s severe-storm research infrastructure has been migrating to Norman since the early Sixties. Even before that, scientists deployed the first Doppler weather radar system here. It’s a great location because the topography is fairly flat — you know, the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain — and it sits smack-dab in the middle of Tornado Alley. The National Severe Storm Laboratory (NSSL) studies most kinds of awful weather, but the National Hurricane Center is closer to the action, in Miami. (Although fracking has of late cursed Oklahoma with more than its share of earthquakes, the seismic experts are in Denver.)

Tornado.jpgThe coolest part of NWC is the Storm Prediction Center, where the forecasters work inside a ring of honking black Dell monitors that looks like a Bond villain’s lair. They are looking for any severe conditions across the country, including winter and fire weather. When they’re confident Mother Nature’s about to get mad, they issue watches covering the affected areas. Local National Weather Service offices take it from there and spit out on-the-ground info, such as a tornado touchdown, in the form of warnings. Each NWS office serves a strictly delineated jurisdiction, which is why severe weather watch areas are always expressed by a list of specific counties.

NWC is a resource for every sort of person. They’re diverse in age, gender, nationality, you name it, but nearly all of them have one thing in common. Their favorite movie is TWISTER. Not just because weather people are the heroes, but because their own work basically inspired the whole darn thing.

The notion of collecting data from inside a tornado, which drives TWISTER’s plot, is genuine. NSSL tried its best to do so in the Seventies and Eighties. They created a nifty device and wryly named it the Totable Tornado Observatory, which of course works out to TOTO, after the canine character in another big movie that featured a twister. The screenwriters Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin, who came to NSSL for research, took that as a jumping-off point and dubbed their fictional device “Dorothy.” Several actors including leads Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, as well as producers Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy, also spent time in Norman.

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From left: “Dorothy,” the competitors’ “D.O.T. 3,” both movie props, and NOAA’s TOTO, which is for real.

The TWISTER folks wanted to acknowledge OU by putting the university’s seal on the side of “Dorothy.” But to their surprise, permission was declined. Why in the world would OU do that? Because storm chasing is dangerous (as TWISTER viewers well know) and the school cannot support or even condone such daredeviltry, not even in a fictional movie. So the TWISTER production was forced to design its own phony academic seal, and the team retaliated by dressing the very craziest storm chaser, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, in an OU ball cap for the entire picture, and stenciling “O.K. L.A.” on the side of one of the props. No hard feelings: the Weather Center’s canteen is called the Flying Cow Cafe, after one of TWISTER’s best-known shots.

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Helen Hunt says thanks.

Some people at the Center nevertheless throw caution to, well, you know, and strike out themselves, but they’re doing so at their own risk. There are some beautiful color photos of severe storms on the walls, and one student told us, “If you can’t look at these photos and determine the vertical wind shear, you have no business chasing storms.” NSSL took the TWISTER actors out on a real tornado chase, but it had nothing to do with OU, wink wink. We visited the Weather Center on a gorgeous day: blue sky, low 70s, hardly any wind. They call that “boring.”

Severe weather predictions are one more of those things we take for granted, but they’re the result of hard work, eureka moments and sheer persistence. In 2009, a piece of equipment called VORTEX 2 successfully intercepted a tornado, more than thirty years after the first halting efforts that inspired TWISTER. I read once that local tv weather people tend to forecast gloomily because of human nature: if they predict rain and it turns out nice, everybody feels happy, but viewers resent being caught in bad weather by surprise. The scientists at the Storm Prediction Center don’t have the luxury of approximation, even though our climate is almost unbelievably complex. They’re not merely suggesting that you take along your raincoat. By giving everyone fair warning, they’re actually saving people’s lives.

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Tomorrow Is Another Day

April 1, 2017

donaldtrump_aap_030814.jpgAfter a great deal of anguished thought, I have a confession, and I hope you don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that resistance won’t work. I’m sitting the rest of this presidency out.

President Trump — appalling that I even have to write that — is nevertheless ensconced in the office, and he has his pals all around him. They’re every bit as inexperienced and incompetent as he is, but it’s still the @realWhiteHouse, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

Remember that at this moment he and his minions have their thumbs on the scale everywhere. All three branches are his: executive, legislative and soon judicial, once he can get off his ass and pack a few district courts.

In case you’re gloating over the Trumpcare flameout, don’t. This repeal-and-replace business isn’t over. Tea Partiers hate Obama and anything he ever touched more than they love their constituents, even the sick ones. Especially the sick ones.

Legislators are already salivating over the tax code that they’ll soon be able to rewrite any way they want to. Guess who’ll get their taxes cut. You got it! But you can’t do diddly squat to stop it!

Foreign policy? Who needs it? The most powerful guy in the world is the only one who can’t get his “mind” around the fact that we’re interconnected. It’s not just World War III you should be freaked about. It’s the slow erosion of the US’s position as leader of the free world. There’s no more moral high ground. Soon there’ll be no more economic high ground as the world’s brightest minds, the keys to our future, gradually choose to base their careers in a place where they feel welcome. Sad!

Other countries are not quaking with fear over Donald Trump. They’re laughing at us, and enjoying a big bad bit of schadenfreude as Prissy Prom Queen America finally gets what’s coming to it. Their sainted Constitution has finally bit Yanks in the ass. They got screwed by their own rules and regulations. How can you lose by three million votes in public and still take power? Inquiring dictators want to know this clown’s secret.

Once it all sinks in, you too may come to understand that the cards are stacked, the dice are loaded, the game is rigged. Resistance is futile: the frickin Borg are more empathetic. So there’s only one logical course of action. Regroup for the next election, sure, because tomorrow is indeed another day, absolutely. But for now, don’t squander your energy. Just give up and wait it out. I feel so much better now. Think about it, man. You can too.

Look anywhere, up and down the political spectrum, for another solution. Read anything you like and see if you can find any variance from my grim prognosis. I myself am tired of deception, hidden messages to the political base, inappropriate cheerfulness on a golf course or any other kind of levity while the world is going to hell. I’m throwing up the towel and I won’t waste another second worrying about Donald Trump. No, sir. Not today.

4/2/17: Though I stand by nearly everything expressed in this post, the notion that you should capitulate to the Trump catastrophe was written in jest. I don’t want anyone else to “take it the wrong way.” I tried my best to make the piece appear plausible, but I may have gone too far, and for that I apologize. I thought I’d left enough breadcrumbs (“look anywhere, up and down,” “hidden messages to the political base,” “levity while the world is going to hell,” “throwing up the towel,” categorizing the post as Humor), but I was wrong. The ultimate “tell” is this: anybody who knows me knows I would never ever ever advocate giving up or even shutting up. There is one more blatant indication that the post was intended as a prank which I’ll leave for you to find.


Bill Minor, 1922-2017

March 29, 2017

B9318615692Z.1_20150827140021_000_G30BOBP3V.1-0.jpgThe great journalistic lions who reported the civil rights movement from behind enemy lines are inevitably passing away, even those who’ve led long lives. This year alone, we’ve already lost John Herbers, who reported for the New York Times but was revered by us in the Jackson, Mississippi UPI bureau for his previous work there. (He was still an icon when I got to that same bureau in the late Sixties.) And now, just as sadly, legendary reporter Bill Minor left us yesterday.

“Real news” journalists in the Deep South during the civil rights era were essentially war correspondents. Telling the truth amidst the Jim Crow culture was dangerous. The entire political and legal establishment was set against these guys, and as far as home-grown journalism was concerned, well, the local press was under local rule and it would call out “Yankee agitator” reporters by name. Good ole boys still ran things, including the state legislature and every significant institution.

The Paul Krugman of Sixties Mississippi was a nasty little bigot named Tom Ethridge, whose “Mississippi Notebook” column ran several times a week in the Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest paper. In one titled “NAACP Witch Doctors,” Ethridge wrote, “The NAACP and their associates, seeking to exploit the unfortunate (Emmett) Till affair, have dug deeper into their bag of tricks. In a sense, they have reverted to ancient tribal instincts.” He liked black people just a tiny bit less than he liked union organizers: UAW founder Walter Reuther was the “top labor-fuehrer.” The paper printed no opposing point of view. There was your op-ed culture.

People like that were emboldened back then: they thought they represented the state as a whole. Reporters who spoke truth to power were on the bidness end of hate mail, death threats, and the occasional bit of vandalism: broken windows and even some flammable crosses. Then as now, none of the intrepid white patriots responsible had the guts to identify themselves, by day or by night. Bill Minor was one of the few public people to display the courage they so pitifully lacked.

Bill’s original podium was the Times-Picayune, the New Orleans paper, where he worked for almost thirty years reporting on Mississippi affairs (it’s next door to Louisiana), starting with the 1947 funeral of the notorious arch-racist Sen. Theodore G. Bilbo. He covered every important development along the way: the Dixiecrats, Emmett Till, James Meredith, Medgar Evers, Goodman-Chaney-Schwerner, John Stennis, Ross Barnett, Trent Lott, and a lot of stuff you haven’t heard of, like the Mississippi contingent of influential Goldwater supporters who licked their wounds in 1964 and then helped jump-start the Republican Party across the entire Deep South, paving the way not only for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, but arguably the current guy too.

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Bill at work in his heyday, when everything was on paper.

In Jackson, the state capital, Bill had a reputation as a liberal, but only by comparison. He came from Louisiana, also a white-oriented culture — hell, in the late Forties the whole country was white-oriented — and it took some observation and soul-searching after his Navy hitch in World War II before he gradually came to appreciate that a society in which segregation was legal and proper was not a just society. But if you’re open to new ideas in a state where change is the literal enemy, you must be a pinko. In reality, all Bill was, was honest.

When the Times-Picayune shut its Jackson bureau in 1976, Bill bought a paper called the Capitol Reporter and printed a weekly broadsheet for about five years. I published a few articles in the Reporter in the late Seventies — it was also a great paper for arts and culture, kind of a down-home Village Voice — but the reason people picked it up was to read Bill Minor on politics.

Racism and xenophobia have hardly been extinguished in the South — nor, I submit, where you live — but Mississippi has not stood still. The paper which ran those Tom Ethridge columns is under new ownership, and until a couple years before he died, one of its most popular columnists was…Bill Minor. I never ceased to be amazed by the genuine love he showed for his adopted state: his famous “Eyes on Mississippi” column always had its own eyes on the potential that sometimes, it seemed, only he could see. He was a stalwart, a treasure, an exemplar, a damn fine newsman, and today he is remembered fondly and tearfully at the state Capitol and far beyond.

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A documentary on Bill’s life screens next month at the Crossroads Film Festival in Jackson.


Jack H. Harris, 1918-2017

March 27, 2017

jack_harris.jpgJack H. Harris passed away a couple weeks ago at 98 after a long and happy life. That name probably means nothing to you, but it means a lot to me. Mr. Harris was partially responsible for my Master’s degree.

Jack Harris was a movie producer with a real eye for developing talent: he produced the first features by John Carpenter and John Landis. But it was his own first feature that cements his place in Hollywood history. In 1958, Jack H. Harris produced THE BLOB.

5546b5c45040e_358452b-986x750.jpgIt was the age of exploitation in the movie business as the industry frantically swatted away against the incursion of television on its customers’ leisure time: movies needed to be — or at least seem to be — bigger, bolder, better. Plus, by the late Fifties the recently christened “teenager” had developed into its own lucrative category for marketers. As another contemporary showman put it, these kids loved cars, girls and ghouls. So movie after movie gave it to them. And towering over them all was a big ball of malevolent jelly, the frickin Blob.

The Blob’s from outer space. It falls to earth in a meteor or something. An old man pokes around the crash site with a stick into some goo that suddenly rushes up the stick and onto his arm! (The old roll-the-film-backward gag, but it looked good to us.) We never see this schnook again. Every time the Blob eats something it gets bigger and hungrier, and how are you going to stop it?

Now here’s the thing. The first people who realize we Earthlings are in trouble are…teenagers! Well, sort of. “Steven” McQueen, in his first leading role, was already 28, and his squeeze Aneta Corseaut — who went on to play Andy Griffith’s Mayberry love interest, Helen Crump — was 25, but you get the idea. The cops don’t want to hear from hepcat Lover’s Lane jalopy jockeys. No adult does. It gets worse and worse until the Blob finally makes its public debut at a crowded movie theater, and by now it’s the size of a movie theater. If the squares had only listened!

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The Blob is ready for its closeup at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA.

About fifteen years later, THE BLOB figured into a notion I was mulling for my Master’s thesis at the University of Georgia. I wanted to write something on popular culture — just entering the halls of academia at the time — but there had to be a serious subtext. I decided to look at fantasy and science fiction movies in the period from Hiroshima to JFK’s assassination (when our national innocence evaporated), through a Commiephobe’s point of view. Monsters were then wildly popular, I thesed, because Americans were frightened of Russian saboteurs and uneasy about the still unknown consequences of opening the nuclear Pandora’s box. Invading aliens represented…invading aliens. “Atomic testing” induced wild mutations, most frequently gigantism. And outer space was a fearful place: anything could drop from the sky. Even…a blob!

By now this all may seem obvious, but at the time — I remember listening to the Senate Watergate hearings over my shoulder while working — it was fairly unmowed ground. I touched on dozens of examples in the paper but went into greater detail on four movies, and one of them was THE BLOB. So I have a soft spot for that mound of mush.

Guys like Jack Harris weren’t trying to send a message. They were trying to make money. Most critics savaged THE BLOB, but it became a smash hit, and that means something. If a movie is popular, by definition a great many people have been persuaded to see it. So it is scratching some itch — maybe not even articulated but real just the same.

hqdefaultI’m not sure whether THE BLOB is still part of our shared culture. It once was. Everybody knew the goo, even if they hadn’t seen the flick. But everything has changed. One of the reasons I know Jack Harris’s name is that I created an appendix at the end of my paper with the critical info on about 150 movies, all laboriously gleaned from staring into a tv screen and jotting as fast as I could. At the time I considered that appendix a more important piece of scholarship than the paper itself. But it’s utterly worthless today. Every little cross-referenced mote, down to uncredited cameos, is available with a couple of clicks.

But they still remember THE BLOB in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the real-life location of that famous movie theater attack. Every year they hold a Blobfest. The next one’s in July. I’ll bet it’s a little sadder now that Mr. Harris is gone, but they’ll honor his memory: after all, NOTHING CAN STOP IT!

Director JACK H. HARRIS poses for photographers as he recieves the 2;517th star on

In 2014, at 95, Jack H. Harris became the oldest honoree in the history of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


Making The Sale

March 9, 2017

h_51493177.jpgIn the early Fifties — the dawn of a Golden Age of advertising, when the new medium of television was jostling recently comfortable postwar, post-Depression families about most everything — a Mad Man named Rosser Reeves came up with a profound theory about how to make tv campaigns effective. He called it the Unique Selling Proposition, and it boils down to this: there is nothing else like our product, therefore you should switch brands to get it.

So, in ad terms, the hard shell of M&Ms “melts in your mouth, not in your hand” like other gooey chocolate candy does. FedEx delivers overnight “absolutely, positively,” unlike any other carrier. KFC uses a “secret” proprietary recipe; so does Coca-Cola. If your Domino’s ‘za isn’t there in 30 minutes, it’s free. Even staid old Smith Barney made money “the old-fashioned way. We earn it.” Unlike, I guess, those other shysters who only push paper around. These days Reeves’s principle is more commonly known as “positioning,” but that’s just nomenclature. The fact is, the ultimate position in commerce is still the USP: everybody wants it and only we have it.

As others have noted, a political campaign is nothing but an instant business startup that has to go from zero to sixty right away. Donald Trump brought his own USP to the 2016 presidential campaign, and I think it did most of his heavy lifting before he ever opened his mouth. It was a simple, even diabolical position: I am a rich, successful non-politician. That bare statement, plain enough for anyone to comprehend, does a whole lot of subliminal selling.

He’s rich. To be sure, there are other politicians who are also rich. (By a remarkable coincidence, many of them managed to become wealthy even while serving in office!) The subtext is, I’m so rich that I don’t have to worry about special interests, because big shots don’t have the money to push me around: I have a screw-you fortune. (“Special interests” are “powerful entities who don’t donate to me,” just as “outside agitators” are “people who oppose me, no matter where they come from.”) To Americans, great wealth also connotes great worth: that pile of dough has to represent someone’s sweat equity, even if Trump inherited his from Pop, whose initial loan set Young Master Donald on his corporate way. Monarchic subjects worldwide know money can represent nothing more significant than ancestry or blind luck, but we are a nation of rolled-up sleeves and tales of derring-do. To us, rich suggests brave and bold were once up in there too.

But what does “rich” mean? Is it the balance-sheet remainder of one’s assets minus one’s debts? Or is it just a lifestyle choice funded by kicking a gilded can ever farther down the road? There are two widely held harrumphs about Trump’s bottom line. (1) He isn’t as rich as he says he is. (2) It’s paper wealth anyhow, funded by bankruptcy relief, “brand equity” and Scroogelike stiffing of subcontractors and other underlings, and could come tumbling to earth at any time. We can’t evaluate (1) because we are not permitted to see the president’s tax returns, and (2) because the Trumpian empire consists of hundreds of dodgy LLCs (546 to be exact, per a disclosure form filed in May 2016), most of which are trading on a brand name instead of a tactile piece of physical property. The Trump Organization’s largest source of revenue is probably licensing, thus putting the word “Trump” on a par with the Playboy bunny logo. I use the word “probably” with faux Trumplike assurance because I don’t know for sure, and neither do you. The boss wants to keep it that way.

Trump has claimed a net worth of more than $10 billion. (At least his campaign office did, on July 15, 2015.) That number fluctuates over time, but as David Cay Johnston, author of the bio THE MAKING OF DONALD TRUMP, says, “there is not now and never has been any verifiable evidence that Donald Trump is or ever has been a billionaire.” Still, the guy does live in a big-ass tower on Fifth Avenue with his name on it (the White House has basically become his pied-à-terre), so for the sake of argument let’s concede nine-figure “rich.” However, using the president’s own logic, I will state here and now that Trump’s net worth is nowhere near a billion dollars and that’s an absolute true verifiable fact. Now it’s up to him to prove me wrong, and he can’t do it without unzipping his financial fly. So I think I’m on pretty solid ground here when I make my bold, unsubstantiated assertion.

Of course, as the bard of Asbury once observed, “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied / Till he rules everything.” Even if Trump didn’t need other people’s money to bankroll his campaign — he sure didn’t spend much, since he got most of his national exposure for free — homemade bread doesn’t inoculate him from “special interests,” who would very much like to become very much richer on his watch.

He’s successful. Well, at least he’s still around, and he has many possessions. But he’s gone bust often enough to have made “Donald Risk” — that’s what bankers actually call it: yes, the president of the United States has poor credit — unwelcome at U.S. lenders since the mid-Nineties. (Explain to me again how you can lose money running casinos.) This is why people seriously suspect him of having sizable Russian financial obligations. If he needs capital, he has to raise it from somewhere else, and the oligarchs who sacked the Russian state love to park money in real estate. Note that he’s never mentioned Ukraine, either as candidate or president.

But that’s reality. Instead, this guy deals in perception. For more than a decade Donald Trump has played a CEO on television, whose job it is to fire imaginary employees from an imaginary company. This is the image his fans have seen with their own eyes. Of course he’s successful: he’s the big boss! Just ask Gary Busey! One assumes that his “executive producer” position carries a financial piece of THE APPRENTICE along with it. If so, pretense could be more lucrative than actuality. This program, and not real-life business deals, may even have represented Trump’s major source of income these past few years; a hit tv show certainly enriched his boy Steve Bannon for life. But again, I don’t know, and neither do you.

What you do know regarding “successful” is this. If he incurred a $916 million loss that allowed him, through the use of real-estate tax credits, to avoid federal income tax for nearly twenty years, that doesn’t make him smart. It makes him a businessman who lost a billion frickin dollars.

He’s not a politician. This is the crux of the matter. Trump’s pitch is, politicians got us into all these messes, but elect me and I’ll run the country like a business. (Like I do on tv, not like I did in Atlantic City!) But here’s the thing that escapes many patriots: the government isn’t a business.

One of the hoariest chestnuts regularly heard on the campaign trail is, “You balance your family’s budget, don’t you? Why can’t the government balance its budget?” Well, if you own a home or a car, you probably took out a loan to buy it. In other words, you engaged in deficit spending, you owe more than you have, and you haven’t balanced doodly squat. If you drive on a road, stop at a traffic light, call a cop or fireman, drink water that’s not filthy or flammable, or use the many other benefits we take for granted — we haven’t even touched upon soldiers — it takes money to put them there and keep them there. Government does have a purpose. We have to buy some things collectively if we want them at all. Yes, the national debt is onerous, but that’s why we should pay it down when we run a surplus rather than further cut the taxes of bigwigs.

If you equate America — or any nation — to a business, you’re getting some crucial things wrong. To Trump, our relationship to other countries is analogous to the way some CEOs view their competition. It’s a zero-sum conflict: if we win, you lose. That’s not entirely true for businesses like, say, books, which was my last trade. A bestseller lifts all boats. Everybody wants to have Harry Potter at the expense of the competition, sure, but if Potter explodes, that just brings more people into the real or virtual bookstore, and they don’t have to leave with only that. They might buy some books of yours as well.

Now, an auto purchase is a zero-sum game. If you buy a Nissan, you won’t be shopping at a competing dealer for a good little while. All other automakers have lost a sale. But even so, keeping one’s eye on pure profit can be shortsighted. That’s why Henry Ford’s doubling of the minimum wage while he was rolling out Model Ts was so brilliant. He reasoned: if I pay my people more, I’ll be making less on each car, but they can afford to buy cars themselves! We’ll keep making ever more Model Ts, and earn more money in the long run! “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same,” quoth Henry, “and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.”

We know that Trump’s worldview is of a shark tank where all nations compete for the chum. He based his whole campaign on that, beginning with Mexico. His travel ban is a piece of theater, since no terrorists from the affected countries have ever threatened the U.S. (Why not ban Saudis, who were the majority of the 9/11 hijackers? Oh yeah, I forgot.) It’s vital for Trump’s pitch to identify a nation-state as the enemy, even though there’s no official policy anywhere to “take American jobs” — capitalism is handling that for itself by buying labor as cheaply as it can, anywhere it can. Official job poaching was Rick Perry’s specialty when he was governor of Texas, but that’s interstate ball.

International relations is not a series of “deals.” It’s the result of centuries of finely hewn agreements and disputes and alliances, most of them based not on inward-looking nationalism but the recognition that we live in an intertwined global society. If we somehow can’t get along politically, at the very least we have to respect one another. For example, there’s one big issue that affects us all. The worst of enemies still share the same planet, and its ecosystem is quickly going nuts. Everybody’s on board except one country, and Trump will almost certainly make our shameful reticence and isolation on climate change even worse.

Any leader of the free world needs a Henry Ford moment. If you help others, that will make life better for you too. As departing longtime diplomat Daniel Fried put it, “We are not an ethno-state, with identity rooted in shared blood. The option of a White Man’s Republic ended at Appomattox. We have, imperfectly, and despite detours and retreat along the way, sought to realize a better world for ourselves and for others, for we understood that our prosperity and our values at home depend on the prosperity and those values being secure as far as possible in a sometimes dark world.”

In contrast, the “America First” viewpoint is very close to Trump’s own personality: look out for Number One. Whip the competition by any means necessary. Renegotiate everything. Break stuff. But Newton’s Third Law applies to politics too. If you suggest abdicating or even reducing U.S. commitment to NATO — yes, everybody should pay their fair share — then Germany has to consider going nuclear for its own protection. If you start banning the immigration of putative “bad dudes,” then the next generation of technologists will locate elsewhere. If you make all undocumented aliens vanish, then your crops will rot in the field.

Trump’s “business experience” consists of overseeing a closely held private family firm, answerable to nobody: not directors, not shareholders. As he has already discovered, the powers of the president are great but not unlimited. Now he’s in charge of a sprawling bureaucracy that won’t necessarily do his bidding. He’s already picked fights with the intelligence community, the judiciary, and his predecessor. Wait till Congress puts its dukes up or Putin finally wipes the smile off his face. The best and worst thing about this amateur is the same: there’s no subtlety. He tweets out what he’s thinking, but at least you know what he’s thinking. Unfortunately, so do his many more businesslike counterparts around the world.

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