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Author: Jeff Spevak Page 1 of 154

Making way for strange, sweet, otherworldly creatures

Rudy Giuliani as Inspector Clouseau.

It is so sad for us that Peter Sellers has been dead for 40 years. It would be a short reach for the comedic actor to dip into his most-famous role, as the bumbling Chief Inspector Clouseau, to play Rudy Giuliani in a movie about the final days of the Trump presidency. Can’t you see it? Clouseau/Giuliani standing in front of a landscaping store, a dildo shop metaphorically next door, as he bravely proclaims Trump has won re-election. Yelling about conspiracies even as the television news crews pack up their equipment, Clouseau/Giuliani now rendered irrelevant, because at that same moment the major networks are starting to predict that Joe Biden will be our next president.

Inspector Clouseau as Rudy Giuliani.

Or, can’t you see the eyes of Clouseau/Giuliani bugging out as he howls incoherently about election fraud, while tears of black sludge run down his cheeks? Clouseau/Giuliani floating improbable, evidence-free plots of voting machines manufactured in Venezuela under the watchful eye of dictator Hugo Chávez (who has been dead for seven years) switching millions of votes from Trump to Biden.

Perhaps the narrator of our Clouseau/Giuliani film will be John Fetterman, the 6-foot, 8-inch, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. Tattooed and goateed, with a no-nonsense speaking style perfectly suited for closing the case on the sputtering Clouseau/Giuliani charge of voting irregularities in his state: “The only irregularity we had was the president’s campaign rolling up in a clown car in downtown Philadelphia, having an impromptu press conference, and saying ridiculous things and making up lies.”

Clown car. That’s the image that has perfectly captured the final downward spiral of Trump in these last few weeks, as he bounces around like an amusement park bumper-car ride, finalizing the dishonor of: Worst President Ever.

Oh, how harmless it all seemed, five years ago, on the day the acclaimed grifter and reality TV star rode down the gold escalator in Trump Tower to make the announcement that he was running for president. And since that day, that escalator has just kept on going down, down, down, down…

On the Sunday after it was evident that Biden had won the election, and speculation turned to how many Secret Service agents it would take to drag Trump from the White House, I did not turn on the television until late that evening. I’d had enough. Outside my window, the leaves on the trees lining the street had all turned a glorious gold. All day long, I listened to The Allman Brothers Band. “Eat a Peach.” And “Live at Fillmore East,” the greatest live album of all time. One of the Top 10 albums of all time, period.

As night fell, we Zoomed with friends, equally ecstatic over Biden’s victory. While we talked the television was on, but muted, showing us images of people dancing in the streets. Dancing! Truly moving images of celebration. People holding up hand-lettered signs reading “YOU’RE FIRED!” The gloom of Trump had been lifted, for a moment at least. There was no longer a need to respond to Trump, and his thrashing about like a mastodon trapped in a tar pit. No need to pay any mind to the snarling acid trip of Clouseau/Giuliani.

All of my friends are smart, but I feel bad that a few were taken in by Trump. It’s been a tough year if you’re inclined to make excuses for 250,000 Americans dead of COVID-19. Or record-high unemployment. Or seeing fellow Americans rallying in the streets against racism as their president orders them to be tear-gassed so as to clear the way for a photo-op of him holding a Bible upside down while standing outside of a church he doesn’t attend. Or hearing Trump snarl about how he sees cities ravaged by riots and fire – on his watch, by the way – even as he applauds the anarchy of militia guys wearing camo and waving guns in the halls of government buildings. It’s a tribute to the National Rifle Association that it can inspire 17-year-old kids with automatic rifles to shoot people in the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Even as the NRA leadership, including its president Wayne LaPierre, appears to have been busy using my friends’ NRA dues to buy powerboats and take vacations to exotic islands.

There has been so much to absorb in the midst of the Trump funeral knell. As the dust and spittle settled, I read an online story that insisted the new breakout sexy-nerd star of this year’s election coverage was Steve Kornacki. The MSNBC analyst whose uniform was khaki pants and the sleeves of his white shirt rolled up to his elbows, waving his arms at a big electronic board that gave him every combination of vote totals and electoral counts imaginable. I guess we’re supposed to forget that in the weeks leading up to this election – and the 2016 election, for that matter – most of the pollsters and prognosticators had been really, really wrong.

But yes, I do find smart people to be sexy. Carl Sagan. Frida Kahlo. Dr. Anthony Fauci. Maria Popova, who writes one of my favorite web sites, Brainpickings. So I turned off Kornacki and read a Popova post entitled “250-year-old Natural History Illustrations of Some of Earth’s Strangest, Sweetest, and Most Otherworldly Creatures.” It opened with this observation:

If the legendary nanogenarian cellist Pablo Casals was right, as I trust he was, that working with love prolongs your life, and if Walt Whitman was right, as I know he was, that an intimacy with the natural world is the key to robust mental and physical health, then the English naturalist and pioneering ornithologist George Edwards (April 3, 1694–July 23, 1773) owed his longevity, which eclipsed the life expectancy of his time and place by decades, to the extraordinary creative vitality with which he reverenced nature in his work.

That’s one hell of a sentence. Popova’s point through her long essay – copiously illustrated with color prints of Edwards’ decades-long career of creating watercolor studies of monkeys, birds and anteaters – is that a long and rewarding life is to be had from comingling with nature.

I trust she is right. Spending too much time in the company of ugly creatures such as Trump, Giuliani, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsay Graham, will take years off your life.

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.

 

Dogs committing editorial comment

It’s coming to an end. Maybe. Trump had a rally a week ago at the fairgrounds in Circleville, Ohio. I had to tune in to that one, as I’ve driven past the site for many years when visiting my in-laws. It’s reliably Republican territory, so the place was packed. The usual Trump scene. No masks. No social distancing. No one at these events is going to pass on an opportunity to “own the libtards,” as they like to say, by paying any mind to science.

As I listened to Trump, I thought of the Pickaway County Fair. And how, with the car windows rolled down, I could hear the excitement of people as they took in the amusement park rides, the food vendors, maybe a vintage car show that afternoon. And there would be the animal sheds, and the smell of…

Bullshit.

The same smell emanating from Trump at the Pickaway County Fairgrounds.

Stanford University researchers have presented a study that shows Trump rallies may have caused 30,000 new coronavirus cases and 700 additional deaths. According to the science: “The communities in which Trump rallies took place paid a high price in terms of disease and death.”

Trump, and his acolytes, live in an alternate reality. They’re not stupid, they choose to believe the unbelievable. Of all the horrors of the Trump presidency, the worst is what he’s done to The Truth. Without The Truth, at our southern border children can be separated from their parents and placed in cages. Without the Truth, Russians are free to meddle in our elections and place bounties on the heads of our soldiers in Afghanistan. Without The Truth, racism and the assault on our climate will continue unabated. And without The Truth, the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic will continue to grow.

In recent months, Facebook has pretended it is some kind of Socrates of social media. But it also can’t handle The Truth. My Friend Karen – not one of those Karens – posted a photo on Facebook of a dog peeing on a Trump lawn sign. Facebook took it down. So I’ll put it back up:

This photo is editorial content. It does not rise to the dangerous level of the president using social media to urge citizens to inject bleach to fight COVID-19, or incite violence against Muslims or Mexicans. Or Americans who exercise their right to protest.

And just in case some social media detective takes down My Friend Karen’s photo of a dog peeing on a Trump campaign sign, here’s another one:

Dogs committing editorial comment. They’re everywhere. Fighting them is useless.

There is no need here to recite, once again, the horrors of the Trump presidency. They are well documented. We only need to remember what Joe Biden reminded us of at their last debate. We know who Trump is. We know who Biden is.

Last night, I watched an excellent documentary. “The Way I See It” is the story of Pete Souza, who was the official photographer for the Reagan presidency, and then all eight years of the Obama White House. And Souza is now using his images to emphasize the contrast between Obama and Trump.

Obama. Souza shows us he is dignified. Intelligent. Well read and informed. Funny, even. Loves his daughters, his wife, and his dogs. And, if you do watch the documentary, there is a word that comes up often as people talk about Obama. Empathy. We hear it time and again. Empathy for the parents who lost children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. Empathy for people who lost their homes in natural disasters. Empathy for soldiers who have lost limbs or been paralyzed while fighting in Afghanistan.

Obama is a real human being. Trump? He’s bullshit.

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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