Callin’ Y’all’s Bluff

February 25, 2013

betteroffRemember when Texas Governor Rick (“Oops!”) Perry made some mild mutterings about secession? “There’s a lot of different scenarios,” he instructed a “Tea Party” rally in 2009. “We’ve got a great union. There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that. But Texas is a very unique place, and we’re a pretty independent lot to boot. When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation…and one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”

English teachers can parse the preceding statement from here till summer break (history teachers can only roll their eyes), and they’re welcome to it, but Chuck Thompson went one step further. He took a thought experiment out to book length: what might happen if the Southern states actually did decide to leave the union and form their own country? His answer is the book’s title, BETTER OFF WITHOUT ‘EM: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. Basically what he’s saying is, y’all go right ahead!

Now, let’s get one thing straight up top. I was born, raised and educated (“bred and buttered,” as they say in Ireland) below the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s true that I’m currently considered a “Yankee” because I live in New York now (the first rednecks I ever knowingly encountered were in my transplanted, thus newly acquired, 8th-grade class in Jackson, Mississippi, where my faint Virginia accent pegged me to local ears as a “Yankee.” I had suddenly been thrust into such a strange clime that I couldn’t even summon the words to tell these budding young crackers that Richmond, Virginia was the frickin capital of the whole goddam Confederacy), but I was and remain proud of my Southern heritage, as I really hope you can possibly be of whatever yours is. (More industrious English teachers may start wasting time parsing that paragraph while I continue to talk to the class.)

Despite living close to half my life here in heathen New York City, I’m still a Southerner, and I’m fine with that. You can take the boy out of Dixie, but… Ask anybody. If you try to deny it, a psychological burr forms which can torment you for the rest of your life: Craig Claiborne may have suffered from this syndrome, and Rex Reed appears to be in its latter stages. Best to embrace it instead, like Willie Morris or Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams – he’s really from Mississippi, chumps, just like Channing Tatum and Elvis! Or me: I think the Deep South is fecund with terrific arts, eats, tunes, lore – it’s almost certainly the most colorful area of our country, and I’m one of its products, hoss. But now, having tried my best to establish my bona fides, I must end the apologia and turn to Chuck Thompson, who’s probably still unaware of the magnetic cultural force this region exerts above all others, even after visiting sporadically for some two years. See, he done stomped in and got all Godzilla on the South’s ass. But guess what, down-homies? He “might could” have a point. Two or three, in fact.

First, the ground rules. Mr. Thompson defines the seceders, the new Confederate States of America, as twelve contiguous states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Most of these were in the original Confederacy – you know, the one that defended against the War of Northern Aggression. He recognizes that his most glaring omission is Texas, also a Confederate state. (The Stars & Bars is one of the storied Six Flags Over Texas.) But it’s problematic. Anybody from the Deep South would tell you Texas is a Southern state. But Texans themselves might disagree: they’d say their state is sui generis, fiercely independent, not a joiner but a leader. For discussion purposes I’ll hand Mr. Thompson a Texas-less South, but that means it’s no fair when, on several occasions, he cites a stat and then defers: “it’s X in the South, Y if you count Texas.” You said we’re not counting Texas, OK? He will examine this new configuration through the prisms of religion, politics, race, college football, education and economics. This book is frequently funny, especially the chapter devoted to cheerfully bashing NCAA football’s perennially dominant Southeastern Conference, but there’s nothing frivolous about the reporting: every fact is exactingly sourced and footnoted so you can double-check if you’ve a mind to.

Mr. Thompson was raised by moderate Republicans (a vanishing strain which he personally admires) in Juneau, Alaska; his father was an official elector for Ronald Reagan in 1984. He’s perfectly aware that the South isn’t unique in any of its aspects: there are racists, religious fanatics and dipshit school boards everywhere. What’s special about the new CSA is the confluence of these cultural and spiritual traditions and beliefs, and the outsized influence this relatively sparsely-populated region wields over the rest of the country. For example, nearly half of the obstructionist, gerrymandered House Republican majority, which retained that majority despite losing the popular House vote in 2012, hails from a former Confederate state. But if the new CSA were ever to actually cut itself away, things would change in a…well, in a New York minute. Rick Perry aside (naw, just this once let’s include him), the very idea of Southern secession in the 21st century is of course ridiculous, and by that I mean “worthy of ridicule.” So here it comes.

“We realize men have evil hearts and can’t be trusted,” the president of a secessionist group tells the author as a way of explaining the Southern worldview of, as he puts it, “fervent Christianity.” The twelve states in question are home to fully half the U.S.’s evangelicals and nearly every nationally prominent religious leader. Not all of them are white. A trip to the seven-acre New Birth Missionary Baptist Church complex in Lithonia, Georgia reveals demagoguery, money-grubbing and gay-bashing so intense that civil rights activist Julian Bond boycotted the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King because it was held there and presided over by notorious firebrand Bishop Eddie Long. In Mobile, Alabama, a spurious rumor that Muslims are about to build six mosques in town galvanizes the evangelical community. The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky just appears to be funny until Mr. Thompson discovers that it attracted 1.2 million visitors in its first three years (adult entry fee: $24.95), and founder Ken Ham received generous tax breaks to build a $150 million “replica” of Noah’s Ark. “This, apparently, is the kind of socialism Kentuckians can believe in,” the author writes. He seems to appreciate the difficulty of living a humble spiritual life in a secular society, but what worries him is “end-timers” who not only believe Armageddon is near but honestly can’t wait for it to happen. Southern secession would further distance such fingers from the nuclear button: Mr. Thompson observes that without the South, George W. Bush couldn’t have gotten anywhere near the White House. Yes, apocalyptophiles aren’t exclusive to the region, but why not improve the odds?

President Barack Hussein Obama – did you realize he’s black? – is many Southerners’ worst nightmare, upending generations of received wisdom. Amazingly, he has defied Mr. Thompson’s Seven Deadly Sins of Southern Politics: demagogic dishonesty, religious fanaticism, willful obstruction, disregard for own self-interest, corporate supplication, disproportionate influence, and military adventurism. This incendiary combination is what keeps the South in the pocket of the Republican Party, which profits from pitting the region against the rest of the country. In a new CSA, Republicans would continue to rule supreme, but the makeup of the United States Congress — representing the rest of us — would be dramatically different. The fearless Mr. Thompson asks around to determine the redneckiest bar in deep-South Carolina, and dares to talk politics with the hulking biker types therein. (This place is so country that the house band has never heard of Marshall Tucker – and they’re from Spartanburg!) The resulting conversation makes no sense. Neither does the “pro-business” climate that has sucked auto-industry jobs from the industrial Northeast for decades, but at a fraction of the wages, and stripped of the union leverage that might possibly force any improvement. Manufacturers these days, claims Mr. Thompson, treat the South like a Third World country, so let it become one. Also puzzling is the bellicosity with which the region has always rattled military sabers, even at imaginary enemies. “Here’s a secret intel bulletin for all y’all who’ve never left Yoknapatawpha County and imagine the United States is constantly on the precipice of enemy invasion,” he writes. “The only way this country is ever going to surrender its liberty to a foreign power is if it keeps electing corrupt officials who auction it away to multinational corporations and overseas government interests in exactly the fashion that southern star chambers have been doing to their own people throughout their entire dyspeptic history.” Hyperbolic? Sure. But so is Bill O’Reilly, and y’all don’t seem to mind that.

Economics has always been a deep mystery. If Southerners hate big government, then why do they continue to take more away from the Feds than they pay in taxes, year after year after year? Get your government hands off my Medicare! was a hilarious placard at an early “Tea Party” rally, but too many Southerners simply don’t realize that they’re not entitled to their entitlements if their Republican puppet masters decide to snatch them away. Sorry, but if the South seceded, the rest of us would be getting a lot closer toward balancing our national books instead of subsidizing so many bloated, fried-butter-snarfing ER-bound deadbeats. (That sounded a tad harsh, even to myownself, but aren’t we all supposed to be acting like cold-hearted, free-market businesspeople?)

Now we come to education, the essential building block for everything else. Mr. Thompson doesn’t mean higher education here; there are many fine such institutions in the South (I was privileged enough to attend two of them, and consumed quality mind-food each time). Nope, we’re talking about basic education, the ultimate difference between sharecropping and shareholding. In the South, the notion of education for all has been under attack ever since the notorious flashpoint of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Following that judicial defeat, the region has steadfastly resisted progress (itself a loaded word among rabid Dixie conservatives) in learning. The first, doomed step was standing in the schoolhouse door. Then forced busing, with which earnest liberals actually twisted many public schools downward in the most egregious unintended consequence of the late 20th century. (Southerners at the time were secretly delighted to watch “enlightened” Boston parents endure the same busing agonies and act identically. See, people are alike all over, they sneered, and this time they actually had a frickin point.) Finally came white flight, with those who could afford it abandoning public schools in favor of home-schooling or private “Christian academies” and other euphemisms for “you have to be white to attend.” Today’s Republican Party (most vocally in the South) wants to dismantle public education, or at least leave it in such a shambles that no thinking parents would dare entrust their kids to the system, and instead use public money on vouchers to help ferret the young’uns away. You can see this sentiment wafting through the knee-jerk opposition to President Obama’s proposal for universal pre-school: the early argument was that it’s “too expensive” (as if a permanently undereducated working class isn’t), and it might strengthen teachers’ unions by adding more public-school teachers to the mix (the candid and cynical underlying truth). Some of the most notorious foot-draggers are the Usual Suspects, such as Little Rock, Arkansas, which required President Eisenhower to send in the National Guard in 1957; today, it can’t find a school superintendent who is (a) capable and (b) willing to oppose a particularly boneheaded school board. Ten of the fifteen states with the lowest incidence of high-school graduation are in the new CSA, and remember, there are only twelve CSA states altogether (public schools are largely financed by property taxes, which are as low in the region as its test scores). Mr. Thompson watches in stupefaction as the Biloxi, Mississippi board closes the town’s best school, Nichols Elementary, which is 90% black, to “save $400,000 a year,” even though the district is running a $10 million surplus, and even as the Kellogg Foundation offers a $1.5 million grant to keep Nichols open for at least three years. Huh? Biloxi’s only African-American member of the City Council, which has no power over the school system, believes the board wanted “to make sure that white schools in this district never have to be embarrassed by being outperformed by a black school again.” Speculation, yes — but given that it wouldn’t have cost Biloxi a dime to respond to the public outcry and keep the school open, can you think of another reason? A new CSA would be able to hobble its future generations all it wants. It simply wouldn’t be our problem any more.

I may be doing this book a disservice by reciting a litany of criticism — it’s actually a major-league hoot, a great deal of fun. Mr. Thompson is as fair as he can possibly be, and never misses an opportunity to tell us that individually, his Southern hosts and interviewees tend to be nice, warm, gracious people. But then he turns “serious,” and messes with the real religion down home: college football. I’m kidding, though not about the importance of the college gridiron to the new CSA; it’s what basketball is to Indiana, what hockey is to Minnesota. But Mr. Thompson has a, well, ball taking down the mighty Southeastern Conference (he’s a University of Oregon grad). He claims the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which has determined the best college football team since 1998, is stacked in favor of the SEC, and the reason is 15-year television contracts with ESPN and CBS which are worth a combined $3 billion. Yes, with a B. He believes SEC powerhouses regularly run up wins against weaker teams and otherwise game the system to make sure at least one of them is in contention every year, just as their tv partners want. I’m not the rabid fan Mr. Thompson is, but you be the judge — he seems to make sense to me. However, one thing is undeniable. If the CSA seceded, we would not only be able to establish an impartial way to test the SEC against other conferences, but the annual USA/CSA contest would also become more like a World Cup match in its ability to stir intense nationalistic emotion. The resulting fan frenzy would make the pros’ Super Bowl look like a grade-school kickball game.

This book makes you ponder. If the South seceded, we would sure miss some things about it, no doubt. Faulkner. Skynyrd. New Orleans. Bourbon. But we could still trade for bourbon, just as we currently do for every single dram of our Scots whisky. We could still read our Faulkner and crank up our Skynyrd. And as for New Orleans, if this loony idea ever did actually come to pass, the CSA International Trade Commission would be down on its knees begging for tourists. So we’d get our beignets too. This thought experiment is a goof, but with some non-ironic points to make as well. A righteously indignant Southerner might reply, yeah, but I could write the same thing flipped around! You may be right. I invite you to do so, and I promise to review it here with cheerful equanimity.


Macon Breakin’

September 7, 2009

“Ol’ Bishop’s band was playin’ / That lowdown funk…”

These iPads** the kids are using nowadays are really something! You load up tons and tons of CDs into a little metal cigarette pack, then it does something that you couldn’t do in a lifetime. You hop into the Internets (“It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes!” – thankfully former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, June 28, 2006), dial up the Apple store, and tell it you want your iPad to become a “Genius.” Once they teach it to, it can look around its little innards and reorder your music, starting from any song you want, and give you a playlist of other songs you’re likely to enjoy. It’s like your own personal FM jock. To do this without an iPad, go to the Internets site called Pandora. (To be fair, it probably gets stuck when you start with a selection from Lou Reed’s METAL MACHINE MUSIC. I used to regularly win beer money by betting the latest sucker $5 that s/he couldn’t listen to the entire double album on headphones at one sitting. So far, everybody has paid up rather than sit through as much as one whole Lp side with the knowledge that three more are coming through those same cans. Some things just ain’t worth five bucks.)

What you get, then, is an artificial intelligence that roots through everything, even music you haven’t heard in a long time, because of course the AI cannot distinguish between the familiar and the arcane: the simple algorithm is, if you liked that, then try this on next. Those CDs that were literally gathering dust? They’re potentially on the A-rotation again, because it’s all the same to this little tunebot. I was half-listening to a jumpin’ jive Genius playlist when Elvin Bishop’s “Travelin’ Shoes,” from 1974, cranked up. It jerked me to attention and sent me 35 years into the past, when, for one brief moment, I was present at the epicenter of pop music.

“Travelin’ Shoes” is a rollicking, funny, mock-irritated rant against Elvin’s woman. The singer’s too dumb to realize that he’s really the cause of it all (“I talk and talk and talk, she didn’t hear a word I said”), and his remedy comes from a more cornpone time (“Wanna git Hank Aaron’s baseball bat and tenderize her head”). But the lyrics have nothing to do with why people loved the song; they’re just syllables that could say anything. Since he first recorded the tune, Elvin’s even cleaned up that Unutterably Misogynistic batshit stuff. I know, I know, it was a joke all along — calm down — but no kidding, the lyrics mean zippando, nothing. The red meat is an extended instrumental break, featuring dual guitar leads that are quick but not too jazzy, pounding barrelhouse piano (played here with great showmanship by Phil Aaberg, who went on to quieter fame as “Philip” Aaberg, one of Windham Hill’s legion of legato solo pianists – gotta say I liked him better when he was bangin’ the 88s for Elvin), and a polyrhythm section that does much more than just keep time. It’s the prototypical mid-Seventies Southern sound. The template was the Allman Brothers Band, the foremost label was Capricorn Records, and its home was Macon, Georgia.

In 1971, in graduate school at the University of Georgia in Athens, I started writing a general arts column, “Vicious Rumors,” for the school newspaper, just as I had for my undergraduate school back in Mississippi. A fellow journalism student, Jim Pettigrew Jr., also had a column in the ol’ RED & BLACK — his was about rock music. Jim was a colorful fellow, lazy Southern drawl to go with his trademark cowboy hat, oval mirrors for a hatband. Huge Z Z Top champion. He knew everything about the blues and how it related to a developing Georgia scene headlined by the amazing Duane Allman and his band. I had already published two short news pieces in Rolling Stone (then only five years old, still a tabloid folded over once for the newsstand), and one night Jim invited me to hop over to Atlanta with him for a record-company party at the rock club Richards’. That was the first time I ever saw Lynynrd Skynyrd, but what impressed me even more than the band was the free grub provided by their label; collegians are frequently thus impressed. Jim! How can I get in on this? Get some reviews published, mate! My editor at Rolling Stone gave me Jon Landau’s number: he was the reviews editor at the time, now he’s Bruce Springsteen’s manager. Jon gave me a tryout with a new album by Wet Willie, a Southern boogie band on the Capricorn label. I wrote it, he ran it, and I was off to the races.

Fortunes and careers are usually made possible by dumb luck, and I had some of my own to help with my new avocation. There weren’t many rock writers working in the Deep South at the time, and the region was quickly turning trendy. I had nothing to do with either phenomenon, but I sure took advantage of them both.

There was once a Brill Building scene, a Mersey scene, a Motown scene, a San Francisco scene. Later, a Seattle scene, an Austin scene, and so on. By that I mean a sliver of time in which nationally known tastemakers are selling records and thus inspiring new acts to come forward, a loop that self-perpetuates for a while. It usually doesn’t last much longer than a tween idol, because pop taste is just as fickle as that idol’s fans, and times do change. Think about those symphonic-pop bands like Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Yes (pre-AM-hit-phase), how pompous and pretentious they sound today. But once they were the bee’s knees. Sic transit gloria trendi.

Well, there was also a Georgia scene, and it was forming just about the time I started scribbling. “Georgia” is an abbreviation, because part of the sound came from Memphis and part from Rick Hall’s FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, but the most important locations were Atlanta and Macon. (The artsy, bohemian Athens of the B-52s and R.E.M. was still in the future; for the moment it was shitkickers all the way down.)

You must understand that the music business circa Seventies is almost unrecognizable from the vantage point of the present day. The unit of distribution was the album, mostly sold on Lp vinyl. (The new ancillary technology was the cassette tape, which was busy supplanting 4-track and 8-track tape cartridges.) Singles were issued to promote albums, not as profit centers in themselves. An army of promotion men, sometimes packed with secret illegal goodies including dough, tried to persuade AM radio “program directors” to “add” that week’s prioritized singles, and FM stations (at which individual jocks had a little more discretionary power over what to play) to listen to the rest of the album for spinnable stuff. Your tour sold your album, not vice versa, like it is today. (In fact, your most important relationship was with your label: “Please welcome Mercury recording artist…”) There was no MTV or MP3. We rock writers were still ugly because there were no TV shows for us to appear on: our key medium was print. Promo money flowed like water, each stunt more outrageous than the last. (It’s no coincidence that Alice Cooper and Kiss both arose in this environment.) For more details on a great and goofy time, read Larry Harris’s hilarious, dishy memoir AND PARTY EVERY DAY. One fine afternoon in late 1974, I sat in Mr. Harris’s Casablanca Records office on North Sherbourne Drive in Los Angeles and watched him pull out a garbage-quality baggie stuffed as big as a basketball with…let’s just call it an American smoking mixture. It was, and remains, the largest amount of that substance I’ve ever seen in one place.

After overdosing on sensitive singer-songwriters like Dan Fogelberg and Jim Croce, the zeitgeist decided it wanted something rawer. You got anything else like those Allmans? Man, we thought they were black! And of course, there were bands being formed by kids all over the South who idolized the old bluesmen just as much as the Allmans (or the Rolling Stones, for that matter) but reflected their influences in different ways. Wet Willie, whose second album was my Jon Landau audition, were a bar band from Mobile whose lead singer played mouth harp and sax. The Marshall Tucker Band, from South Carolina, tipped toward Appalachian country with electric instruments, including a flute. Atlanta’s Hydra were a Southern heavy-metal band. The Atlanta Rhythm Section were recording-session magicians who could play anything. Memphis had the Amazing Rhythm Aces. And from Jacksonville, Florida, came the bad boys of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Stones of the genre. But this creative energy also guaranteed outliers, like Thermos Greenwood and the Colored People (they painted their faces blue, orange, green, get it?), and the twin Frank Zappas of the South, Darryl Rhoades and His Hahavishnu Orchestra, and the Hampton Grease Band. See, this sort of thing didn’t start with the B-52s, folks (although they were already there lurking).

Meanwhile, all the Dixie noise was attracting interlopers like Al Kooper (who produced the debut albums of both Skynyrd and the Tubes!) and Elvin, who had made his name in Chicago with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, but now dressed in overalls and sounded like he done come straight down from the RFD (he’s actually from Tulsa, so same difference). An annual pilgrimage to Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records Barbecue and Summer Games on central Georgia’s Lake Sinclair was de riguer: Phil’s masterstroke was that he was selling his home region, so he stayed there and made the L.A. execs come to him. To give you a sense of the cultural cross-section, one year I met Lester Bangs, Jimmy Carter and Andy Warhol, the latter just strolling through the picnic grounds and taking it all in. The night before, at a pre-picnic party at Paragon, Phil’s booking agency, the door greeter was Martin Mull (also on Capricorn), who said, “Come on in! Everybody’s here! Brian Jones is in the pool out back!” It was crazy, homes.

I wrote about all these people, not always flatteringly. Then, because I was situated near Atlanta, I could catch a non-Southern touring act for a quick feature. There were plenty of music papers to go around and, like I said before, not a whole lot of competition. The money was minimal, but I was awash in free records (the more you write, the more labels want to make sure you hear their stuff early), and I got to try and unravel the mystery of musicmaking with lots of great people and a few assholes, but the great ones included Rory Gallagher, Arlo Guthrie, Ray Manzarek, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Bramlett, Toy & Tommy Caldwell, Tom Dowd, Bob Weir, Jimmy Pankow, Leo Kottke, the guys in Skynyrd, ARS, Wet Willie and Kiss (turns out I’d known the bass player in an earlier life), and even ol’ Elvin, who I interviewed one day at a diner counter in Macon: “I always wanted to have a spread down in Jawja,” said the National Merit Scholar (no lie!), patting his stomach.

Then two things happened. The zeitgeist decided it had overdosed on Dixie rock, and the God of Abraham smote us with the scourge of disco. Wet Willie went to England to try and become a pure pop act. Death took Toy Caldwell, Marshall Tucker’s talented lead guitarist. A horrendous plane crash killed three Skynyrd members, including its lead singer. ARS resumed studio anonymity. Most of the outliers faded away or went back to the clubs. Only the very top acts remain: reconstituted Skynyrd and Allmans, and very few others. Capricorn was essentially over, and went out of business in 1979. Then there was disco, the next Big Thing, which burned as brightly as anything had, but nearly took down the entire record business with it when the fad extinguished itself just as quickly (it was actually already on the way out when the surprise blockbuster SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER’s shock therapy caused a brief second wave). I couldn’t stand the stuff, except for rare exceptions like Parliament. The end for me came when I desultorily opened a mailer of new records and pulled out THE ETHEL MERMAN DISCO ALBUM. Yep, “Hooray For Hollywood” to a robotic disco beat. I’ve seldom been so depressed. I never wrote another record review, just sat back and watched the Sex Pistols light a new fuse. The Clash, Dire Straits, Talking Heads – they were all coming to save us, but of course we didn’t know it at the time. I define rock & roll as the music your parents hate, which is why hip-hop is squarely in the rock & roll tradition. But it’s beyond me, so I’ve basically lost any authority I might once have had. Besides, too many kids are listening to “classic rock,” the music their parents love. Rock writing (if it even still exists) is a young person’s game. It was fun while it lasted, but I have nothing more to say. 

**EDIT, 1/27/10: Hey, Steve Jobs, I was just kidding! I didn’t mean you had to call your new gizmo an iPad just because I did it in jest way up there in the first graf last September…


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