Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

Author: Jeff Spevak Page 1 of 154

Eddie Van Halen, Justin Townes Earle, and the rough edges

Eddie Van Halen.

It’s unwise to judge someone on the basis of a 30-minute phone call. Over the course of my long career, I conservatively estimate that I’ve done about 4,000 phone interviews with musicians. I can count on the fingers of one hand how many of those conversations left me feeling like I’d been talking to a real jerk. And that total would include two interviews each with Ted Nugent and Gene Simmons.

One of the better ones was Eddie Van Halen.

This was maybe 15 or 20 years ago. He was relaxed, funny, eager to talk, a regular guy. Like someone you’d hang with. And he gave me one of my all-time favorite stories from an interview.

As Van Halen told it, he and a few other folks, including his then-wife Valerie Bertinelli, had rented an Atlantic Ocean beach cottage owned by the theater and film-score composer Marvin Hamlisch. Over the course of a month or two, they were partying pretty heavily. And as they were getting ready to move on, Van Halen said he was worried about the condition of the grand piano in the living room. They’d been using it as a table for their drinks over the course of many evenings. Now the instrument’s lid was marred by dozens of cocktail-glass rings.

Consumed by guilt, Van Halen hired a woodworker to come out to the house, to sand and re-finish the piano lid. Hamlisch never knew.

That’s what I remembered of Eddie Van Halen when I heard on Monday that he had died of cancer at age 65. Not the amazing electric guitar solos, or the hit songs. I thought about a millionaire musician fretting over having wrecked the finish on Marvin Hamlisch’s piano. In the grand universe of careless acts, maybe not such a big deal. But, for the duration of that half-hour conversation, Van Halen was a man with a conscience, he was a decent guy.

Musicians, they give you the straight talk. Sometimes it’s funny. A little self-deprecating.

And sometimes, it’s a little scary. Musicians are the hurricane bells of society. Ringing plaintively, and with increasing urgency, as the winds escalate.

That wasn’t in the forecast when I was in Austin, Texas, probably around 2008 or so, for the South by Southwest Music Conference. It was a beautiful March afternoon. The best time to be in Austin. I was in an alley behind a funky art gallery called the Yard Dog. Bloodshot Records, a Chicago-based label of mostly alt-country hellbellies, was putting on a showcase of its musicians. They each got 30-minute sets. Maybe 45 minutes, if they were already a proven cool commodity, like The Waco Brothers.

People were drifting around the alley, slipping around the small stage, sipping beer from plastic cups, examining each others’ tattoos. A few dogs wandered in and out. I was standing in front of the stage waiting for the next act. I greatly admire Steve Earle, and someone suggested I might want to be there, at that moment, to check out Earle’s kid. Justin Townes Earle.

Standing next to me was a tall guy in a sharp-looking, powder blue, western-cut suit. A lot of these rockabilly types go all out with the vintage clothing, thick-framed Buddy Holly eyeglasses and carefully retro hairstyles. I don’t recall if I said anything to the guy, we were just nursing our beers and waiting. Then the day’s emcee walked onstage and gave the usual “Let’s have a big hand for Justin Townes Earle” intro. And the guy in the powder-blue suit and Buddy Holly glasses stepped up onto the stage.

So now I was a fan of both Earles.

Justin Townes Earle.

The conventional wisdom suggests that Justin was fruit that didn’t fall far from the tree. That could be true, but it depends on what landscape you’re looking at.

In some ways, they seemed such opposites. Steve Earle, in his Leo Tolstoy beard and flannel shirts. Justin Townes Earle, a clothes horse who GQ magazine would go on to name one of the “25 most stylish men in the world.”

But the similarities were a little alarming. Both had gone through periods of drug and alcohol abuse, as well as civil disobedience. Justin was 12 when he started using drugs and, as best as I could determine, he’d survived five overdoses by the time he was 21, and had been in rehab 13 times. He ended up in an Indianapolis jail in 2010 after an obscenity-fueled show ended in a brawl with the club owner and damage to some property.

Rewarding domestic partnerships did not seem to be a specialty of either man. Steve Earle – he’s been married seven or eight times to date – had left Mrs. Earle No. 3 by the time Justin was 2 years old, so the influence was perhaps negligible. Except as song fodder. “Absent father, now he never offers even a dollar,” is how Justin put it in “Single Mother,” one of those tortured compositions that seems to pour so naturally out of the Earle family songbook. “He doesn’t seem to be bothered by the fact that he’s forfeited the rights to his own now.”

Still, there was a relationship, although it sounded more professional than personal. Justin played guitar in his father’s band for a while, and they appeared together in an episode of HBO’s “Treme.”

Justin had been releasing some excellent albums by the time he was booked for a show at Rochester’s Water Street Music Hall in 2014. I set up an interview and did the usual research that journalists do these days, checking out his Twitter account. I saw that Earle was fuming over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black 18-year-old in Ferguson, Missouri.

When I got Earle on the phone, I asked him about it.

“I grew up in a neighborhood where the police liked to harass us, they had definite reason to be scared,” he said. Earle figured some of them were returning vets whose thank-you for their patriotism was Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. As Earle watched the Ferguson news, the conflict that he witnessed while growing up in Nashville still resonated.

“There was a lot of separation between races there, Black and white,” he told me. “People who support the police, who don’t say anything, they’re from all-white suburbs. They didn’t go to school with Black people. If they did, it was like a token thing. The police are so disrespectful to common people now. I’ve been beaten up by cops, a lot my friends were severely injured by cops. We’re all Americans. This militarized America, this killing of unarmed Americans is absolutely out of this world to me.”

Remember, this conversation took place six years ago. Nothing’s changed. You could substitute a dozen or two names in place of Michael Brown. A dozen or two towns for Ferguson.

It’s a hard world that fuels hard-times troubadours like Steve Earle and Justin Townes Earle. Steve’s songs were frequently more political. But like his namesake, Townes Van Zandt, the characters in Justin’s songs were often relationship train wrecks you can’t turn away from.

Now I was talking to Justin about that latest album, “Single Mothers.”

“A lot of the songs on that album were the result of a rough time the past couple of years,” he said. “I had a really nasty breakup with a really nasty person, the kind of person who literally went around to my friends and spread a lot of bullshit.”

Earle was 32 years old by then, his soul was up for grabs, and he talked like he knew it. “I realized I can’t be the guy I was trying to be,” he said. “Which wasn’t to say I was that bad a guy. I was messy as hell, I ate dinner at 2 a.m.

“A lot has changed.”

What?

“I wasn’t doing drugs then. I’ve always smoked reefer, but I was clean. I guess it was my relationship with women. I had lost complete faith in that idea. That I could sustain a positive relationship.”

Earle’s response was classic American. Road trip. Run away.

“I took a trip to the mountains,” he said. Park City, Utah. “Disneyland for adults. I met a woman there that is amazing. I always wanted girlfriends from outside of my world. I always had a lot of faith in women like that, due to my mother.”

Sober since that dust-up and night in jail after the Indianapolis show, and the month of rehab that followed, he married that woman he met in the shadow of the Utah mountains. His first marriage. I counted it out on my fingers; he was still six behind dad. She was tattooed and tall, like Earle, but otherwise an outsider from his world.

Sometimes you just need to get away.

“Any environment will get ugly on you after a while,” he said. “When I went out West, I could breathe mountain air, see different scenery. I felt the same kind of wonderment as the first time I set foot in Manhattan and San Francisco. Driving out there, I actually saw the purple mountains majesty and the golden waves of grain. I’ve never been a pro-American person. But for the first time, I felt the beauty.”

I’ve gotta admit, that was another one of my favorite interviews. A lot different than Eddie Van Halen. Darker, for sure. But I liked the guy, and the words rang true.

But that hurricane bell can stay silent for only so long. Musicians hear it ringing for society, and they write about it. Or it’s a personal warning for a guy who doesn’t hear it. Maybe he chooses to not hear it. Maybe he hears it, and writes about it.

In August of this year, Justin Townes Earle died. He was 38. No official cause of death has been publicly announced, but the police were investigating it as a drug overdose.

Steve Earle says he’s going to record an album of his son’s music.

Sometimes you can sand down the rough edges. Throw on a nice, new finish. But you can’t always help what’s underneath.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

 

 

 

 

Baron Harkonnen in the White House

The internet is a museum of memes for all occasions: Trump as a character from “Dune.”

The days preceding had shown so much promise. First there was the news that the arch-villain Jerry Fallwell, Jr., president of the conservative hatchery Liberty University, enjoyed watching his wife have sex with the pool boy. Then a sneak preview of the new book by former Trump mob lawyer Michael Cohen revealed that the president enjoyed sneaking off to Las Vegas to take in live sex shows that involved golden showers.

And I thought: This is going to be sooooooome kinda rockin’ Republican National Convention.

Well, you know how that turned out. While you were Googling “golden showers,” the convention was an utter disappointment. Same old racist, divisive, snarky, lie-loaded genuflection over a childish man whose psychological profile has been elevated, by experienced mental-health professionals, from an early-presidency diagnosis of malignant narcissist to what is now full-throttle psychopath.

How is it that someone can successfully identify generic pictures of a man and a woman on a test for dementia and proclaim it’s proof of his superior mental acuity? We could spend all day making a list of the president’s inexplicable behaviors. But if you can read, you already know them.

This weekend, we took a ride east on Rt. 104 toward Oswego. Stopping at a fruit stand for peaches. Cruising around the perimeter of Fort Ontario, a massive, star-shaped construction of dirt and brick built on top of a series of destroyed or abandoned forts dating back to 1755. I bought a few bags of smoking wood from an unoccupied stand at the end of a rural road, with an honor box to put your money in, because I don’t have the time these frantic days to take a walk in the woods and pick up fallen oak branches myself.

This region was clearly marked as Trump territory. Conservative pundits like to call it “Real America.” What you see are TRUMP signs. Not like those modest “Biden-Harris” lawn signs that are starting to appear around our neighborhood. No, TRUMP banners are king-sized bedsheet in scope. TRUMP flags fly from makeshift flagpoles of 2x4s tied to the awnings of trailer homes. The sides of weathered barns are painted with TRUMP as big as a drive-in movie screen.

Why? These Real Americans may be struggling. But they likely have access to the internet, television other than Fox News, National Public Radio and reputable newspapers such as The New York Times. These Real Americans must know that Trump does not care about them. That all of his actions as president – tax cuts, deregulation of laws protecting the trees where the possums live – are for the benefit of the wealthy, the one percent, yacht-sailing America. Trump is playing these Real Americans of Western New York for suckers.

There is no evidence that says otherwise.

Oh, look! Someone has posted on the internet a bust of Trump’s head! It’s made entirely of bullshit!

It is a fact that the bulk of American men and women who comprise the armed forces come from low-income families. Real America, as they say. But we know what Trump thinks of them. The people who lay their lives on this line, and sometimes lose those lives, are “losers.” They are “suckers.” Trump denies he has said these things. But many people in Trump’s own administration have confirmed that he holds this view. Even a Fox News reporter (you must always use the word “reporter” loosely in the context of Fox News) confirmed some of these statements.

And we know these words are consistent with Trump’s history: Remember how he attacked the Pakistani immigrant and American citizen Khizr Khan, whose son – a captain in the U.S. Army – was killed in Iran while protecting his fellow soldiers from a bomb-laden car in a suicide attack? Remember what Trump said about John McCain, who spent 5½ years as a prisoner of war, tortured after his Air Force plane was shot down over Vietnam? “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”

Trump believes you are a sucker and a loser if you serve your country, rather than use the time to pursue personal gain.

There is no evidence that says otherwise.

Trump has ascended to the level of super villain, a White House version of the sadistic, unspeakably gross Baron Harkonnen of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi novel Dune. Harkonnen is a man so weighed down in depravity that he uses anti-gravity “suspensors” to support his weight.

There is no evidence that says otherwise. Those who insist it is not so are Trump’s “suspensors.”

In recent weeks, we’ve learned that Trump refuses to acknowledge that the Russian government has placed a bounty on the heads of Americans killed by the Taliban.

Just days ago, we learned that Trump has been paying his legal bills with cash siphoned off of funds Americans have contributed to his re-election campaign. And this week the U.S. Justice Department, funded by your tax dollars, and run by the insidious toadie William Barr (the sadistic Piter De Vries, if you’re following the Dune analogy), has suggested that his people should take over Trump’s defense in a defamation lawsuit filed against him by E. Jean Carroll, a woman who has accused Trump of sexual assault.

Losers. Suckers. Is that who he thinks we are?

We know Trump is a loser of fortunes, his bankruptcies say so. We know Trump is a sucker being played by Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jingping, and the Saudi Arabian King Salman bin Abdulaziz. All world leaders know the strategy: Stroke Trump’s ego, and he will follow like a puppy.

This holiday weekend, Trump supporters in Austin, Texas, gassed up their power boats, decorated them with TRUMP 2020 flags, and joined the “Trump Boat Parade” on Lake Travis. Their exuberance became a rescue operation after five of the boats sank. Fortunately, no one was hurt, so I did smile a bit at a social media post that noted how the image of the wakes from millionaire yachts swamping outboard-motor dinghies is a perfect metaphor for the Trump administration.

Only four paragraphs into this screed – thanks for staying with me! – I suggested we could spend all day making a list of the president’s inexplicable behaviors. Things that are already well reported. Yet people like you and me, guided by facts and science, sometimes can’t help but sift through his debris, like archaeologists searching for an overlooked shard of broken vase that will tell the story of a lost civilization. So our recreational reading is a list of well-documented Trump failures as compiled here by The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, in a piece called “‘I Keep My Promises,’ Trump Said. Let’s Check.” 

Hmmmm… Mexico isn’t paying for the wall…? He really said, in 2016 while running for president, “We will honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else…?”

Welcome back, suckers. That took a long time to read, didn’t it?

And Trump will release his tax returns when…? That’s been like trying to pull a sock out of my dog’s mouth.

Oh, plenty of dog analogies come to mind when I think of Trump. When consuming the morning news, a cacophony that announces the fall of America, I am a Rottweiler running wild in a candy store, snatching treats until someone throws a net over me and drags me back onto the sidewalk. Trump himself tells a story of cities on fire, Black people seizing control of white women’s suburbs, rising crime rates and the certainty of fraud in the upcoming election. Vote twice to prove it, he says.

To different degrees, these are imaginary scenarios, but they do beg the question: He’s the president, why doesn’t he do something about them?

And Wednesday morning, the news arrived that Bob Woodward’s upcoming book on Trump, Rage, reveals that Trump was aware of the deadly nature of COVID-19 way back in early February, but chose to “play it down,” as he says on the tapes that Woodward released Thursday.

Yes, as was the case with another Woodward nemesis, Richard Nixon, there are tapes.

On Woodward’s recordings of his conversations with Trump, the president blithely admits that he’s downplaying the dangers of COVID-19 because he doesn’t want to panic the nation.

As we approach 200,000 dead Americans, does that sound like a good idea? Honestly, when faced with impending danger, do people go running willy-nilly from their homes, screaming, like they’ve just spotted Godzilla lumbering down their street?

Trump wasn’t watching over our tender psyches. He was watching out for his political career.

We’re not living in a horror movie. COVID-19 is real. If something threatens your life, be it radiation-engorged giant reptile or a microscopic virus, wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you rather make the decision on how to save your life, rather than leave it to a grifter like Trump and his co-conspirators?

So allow me to add one more conspiracy that emerged recently. When Trump told a Fox News reporter – there’s that misplaced word again – that:

We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs, wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms, with gear and this and that.

Whoa! That sounds like trouble!

The reporter (I’m at a loss for the appropriate descriptor), Laura Ingraham, asked for details.

“I’ll tell you sometime,” Trump said. “It’s under investigation right now. But they came from a certain city. And this person was coming to the Republican National Convention. And there were like seven people on the plane like this person, and then a lot of people on the plane, to do big damage.”

“Coming for Washington,” Ingraham said.

“Yeah,” Trump assured her, “this is all happening.”

So who saw these thugs? Wearing the black uniforms of what organization? Coming from what city? What Federal agency is investigating this? How did the person on the plane know that these thugs were going to “do big damage?”

No one has answered any of these questions. No one ever will. With Trump, each week’s conspiracies are launched by what “some people say…” Trump, who vowed to honor the American people with the truth, and nothing else, has spewed more than 20,000 lies during his presidency, according to a running count kept by The Washington Post. And in his tale of dark forces on airplanes, likely henchmen of the Deep State, he was lying again.

We’re all trapped in the president’s fantasy world. How do we get out of here?

Baron Harkonnen watches the television in his White House bedroom, observing this disaster unfold. He’ll tell us how we get out of here. Sometime.

By then, it’ll be too late.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

When words are worth more than a can of beans

President Trump engages in a food fight.

For years now, I’ve written one or two blogs a week. Until recently. A glance at my web site confirms my suspicions, that I haven’t written one in… 10 weeks.

It’s not writer’s block. I’ve been cranking out plenty of words for my gainful employers. And I’ve been two-finger tapping away on my keyboard at the other stuff I write on my own time. The baseball book, the novel.

But when it comes to the opinions that fuel the blog, The Critical Mass…

…I just can’t find the words.

I’m overwhelmed by the firehose of bullshit that is the Trump White House, and America today. Remember when families desperate to leave the terrible circumstances of their homeland came to our southern border, seeking safety, only to be turned away or imprisoned, children taken from their parents and tossed into cages?

That’s a tragedy that’s been swept aside in a year of crashing worldwide economies and unemployment. Racism and white nationalists emerging from the shadows. Climate change and wildfires. Poverty. The longest war in American history continuing in Afghanistan, with no explanation. Murder hornets and 17-year cicadas.

We can’t focus on one outrage, the atrocity of the day, before we’re forced to confront the next one. That’s the strategy. Wear us out, until we give up.

Our claim to the title of the greatest country in the world disintegrates as we are increasingly unable to protect our citizens from a virus, while virtually every other “advanced” country – most of Europe, Canada, even North Korea – is doing better. We’re doing worse than what Trump once called the “shithole” countries of Africa. The Trump spokespeople claim the situation is getting better. The emergency room personnel, the infectious disease experts and the numbers all tell us that it’s getting worse.

Who are these strange men in unidentifiable camo outfits and unmarked vans, swooping down on citizens in the streets of Portland, Oregon, detaining them, intimidating them, then allowing them to go free after a few hours, without charging them? It’s like a dystopian novel, and we’re only in the first chapter.

What are we to make of the words this week from White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany? In defending the demand from Trump that schools must open – despite warnings to the contrary from scientists – she exclaimed, “The science should not stand in the way of this.”

“Science should not stand in the way…” The words that will surely Make America Great Again.

Trump. You’re a sucker if you’ve written a check to the Republican Party, in the hope that the money will support… oh, ideas like building a wall along the entire 1,954 miles of our southern border. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 2016 the Trump family, and its businesses and properties, have ingested $17 million in Republican National Committee campaign money. Your border wall dreams are going toward grooming Trump-owned golf courses.

I can’t find the words. But maybe Lindsey Graham can. Here’s what the senator said on May 3, 2016, during the Republican presidential primary: “If we nominate Trump, we will get destroyed… and we will deserve it.”

He was right!

During The Critical Mass drought, I did try to find the words. I keep a lot of notes, I scribble things on stray pieces of paper. Here’s one idea I jotted down:

It’s astonishing the chaos we find ourselves in today. After 244 years working on it, you’d expect the United States would have figured out this democracy concept.

Those words didn’t go anywhere.

Remember back in April, when a thousand or so people stormed the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, protesting the “stay-at-home” order as the coronavirus pandemic was overtaking the country? Militia guys in camo outfits, waving automatic rifles, demanding their right to infect anyone who gave them a cross look?

In response, I scribbled these words:

Liberals stormed the nation’s libraries yesterday, waving library cards, demanding their right to news and information…

Those words, also, led me nowhere.

Action follows words. I will no longer buy Goya products, after this week the CEO of the company praised Trump. After all Trump has said, and done, to harm Latinx people. Goya’s products are essential to the Mexican cuisine I love; we lived on the southern border for 1½ years. Goya joins a list of my personal boycotts that include Home Depot, Chick-fil-A, Hobby Lobby, WWE, Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs. I’d love to add Facebook to that list. But then, you wouldn’t be reading this, so I’ll have to dance with that devil. For now.

That photo of a smirking Trump, posing with Goya products on his desk in the Oval Office, demonstrates how divisive a can of beans can be.

Everything’s been upended. Careers. Families. Dinner.

I’ve lost a few friends this year. And our memories of those friends were limited to Facebook posts, because large gatherings in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic are dangerous. My Friend Jackie was one of them. Smart, funny, wise, sarcastic, caring Jackie. Sitting in a coffee shop at the Rochester Public Market, working on The New York Times crossword puzzle. Maybe asking me for help once in a while.

“What’s a five-letter word for home run?”

“Tater.”

She passed away on May 23. Here are words from her obituary, which she wrote herself:

Contributions may be made in her name to any political parties/organizations that work to unseat right-wing elected officials.

Political words? Perhaps. But really, they’re the words of a person who cared deeply about others. She saw what has been happening in this country. And who is responsible for what appears will be maybe 200,000 Americans dead of COVID-19 by the time the November elections roll around. And she wasn’t afraid to assign blame.

So where words have failed to appear for me over these last several weeks, I have found them in others. In fact, a whole bunch of words arrived in the mail last week. A letter from my niece, Bryden, who was planning on marrying her fiancée, Brian, this October in Colorado. In their words, why they’ve called it off:

It didn’t have to be this way. Through ineffectual leadership at nearly every level, at least 2,200,000 people have been sick and over 116,000 people are dead so far in the US. To have any of you end up in either category as a result of our little get together would be devastating.

Consider using your newfound free time for something more important: to learn more about what people who are not as privileged – and who are much more dramatically affected by recent events than we are in having to cancel our wedding – have been facing in this country. People who are Black, Indigenous, Latinx, non-white, queer, trans, non-binary, etc. Everyone we invited has undoubtedly benefited from privilege in some way to varying degrees; acknowledging that and learning from it are critical to how we improve as a society.

If you were going to come, you were going to spend a few hundred bucks on the trip. Consider donating some of that money to a cause that helps people.

The best time to make a change was yesterday, the next best time is now.

I miss My Friend Jackie. But after that letter arrived, I began to think we’ll be OK.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

Page 1 of 154

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén