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A world of trouble, saved by Springsteen

I am typing again this morning. I don’t know where this is going. My thoughts run in two directions, trains of thought sharing a single track. As I enjoy my coffee, a collision is inevitable.

The wink and a nod that we give to pure evil is astonishing. It is us at our worst.

Bruce Springsteen’s new album, “Western Stars,” is a work of stunning beauty. It is us at our best.

This morning, while gazing out the living-room windows at the lush trees on our street, trees enjoying the summer rains that are flooding the homes and businesses just a short drive up Lake Avenue toward Lake Ontario, I’m reading about the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein. A celebrity businessman who’s been arrested, charged with sex trafficking of minors.

Bill Clinton is a friend of Epstein’s. He reportedly ditched the Secret Service agents assigned to watch him and flew off on Epstein’s private jet, known as “The Lolita Express” for its passenger list that frequently included young girls. An unsupervised president with well-documented character issues soaring off to adventure with a pedophile.

Donald Trump also a friend of Epstein’s. He’s called Epstein a “terrific guy” and “a lot of fun.”

Clinton and Trump must have heard a thing or two about Epstein, many people have for years. But they dismissed it all with a nod and a wink.

Trump. Here we go again.

Our grifter president, using his position to scam the world for personal profit. Praising thuggish dictators who order the deaths of journalists, the trail of sexual assaults, filling important government positions with incompetent sycophants, putting children in cages, denying the evidence of science and the advice of experts who stand in the way of his personal agendas, gutting the environment, stripping women of the right to control their own bodies, the public policies enacted for political purposes rather than advancing our society, excusing the Russian cyber attacks on our democracy, ignoring the racism and misogyny and xenophobia that draw strength from his words, the tweets laden with hate and disdain for fact, the clear evidence of psychological issues, the lying, lying, lying.

All dismissed by his followers and a Republican Congress with a wink and a nod.

Let’s go back further, into not-so-distant history. George W. Bush’s administration lied us into two illegal wars, and all we have to show for them are 7,000 dead American soldiers, an estimated 210,000 dead civilians, some 10 million people who got in the way of this aggression and were displaced from their homes, and a United States that is now recognized as condoning torture and for imprisoning people for years without evidence or trial.

An average citizen who accumulated such a record of irresponsibility would be in jail now. In Bush’s home state of Texas, they might even execute him. Instead, with a nod and a wink, we allow him to exhibit in museums his retirement hobby of painting dogs and world leaders.

In my despair, I draw strength from music. This weekend, Springsteen’s “Western Stars.”

As with all great artists, Springsteen is not content with staying with what works. He is always searching for what fits the moment. The desperate young characters searching for love and a sense of place in his early albums are long gone. In “Western Stars,” the characters are searching for love and a sense of place. But not with desperation. With maturity and resignation to the fact that we’re not here to bend the world to our desires, but to live within it, among each other, among all of our faults.

I’ve heard the sound of “Western Stars” compared to the Laurel Canyon of the 1960 and early ’70s, where Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Crosby, Stills and Nash roamed. Maybe so. But I also hear a psychedelic wistfulness, like The Walker Brothers’ elegant “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.”

There’s a lot of sun in “Western Stars.” Springsteen sings and plays guitar against a backdrop of lush strings and soaring orchestrations. It is a sound that reflects the bigness of the American West, a scale that reminds a man or a woman – or a billionaire pedophile or a lying politician – of our place here: We’re mighty small, compared to those western stars in the sky.

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Ryan, you couldn’t have done it without us

Ryan Adams.

An often-repeated story about Ryan Adams has him playing a solo acoustic show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Someone in the audience is repeatedly shouting a request: “Play Summer of ’69!” Adams ends up storming into the audience, finds the guy, hands him two $20 bills and tells him to leave.

“Summer of ’69,” of course, is a pop hit by Bryan Adams. And a pop hit unworthy of Ryan Adams, apparently.

In the years since, the incident has been cast as a humorless rock star overreacting to a disrespectful, possibly drunk, fan. In a piece he wrote for The New York Times, Adams – Ryan, not Bryan – confessed that the incident left him so scarred that he had to go into therapy. And, perhaps in an effort to address this demon, Ryan Adams has since played “Summer of ’69” a few times at shows. Why, in one those moments of synchronicity that convinces you there is a God, and he has a sense of humor, the two men even share the same birthday, and Ryan has said he emails Bryan birthday good wishes.

I understand. One thing our artists share with the rest of humanity is they come in all flavors. Ryan Adams is one of the sensitive ones. Maybe that’s why I own a couple of his albums. I like the artists whose introspection spirals into self-flagellation.

But, I guess I won’t be buying Big Colors, the Ryan Adams album that was scheduled to be released in April. The Capitol Music Group, which was to distribute the album, will no longer do so. Adams has lost a couple of sponsors, radio stations are dropping him from their playlists. That’s in response to more than a half-dozen women having accused Ryan of manipulative behavior and harassment: Musicians that include Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Jaye and Karen Elson. Or musicians who have confirmed he’s capable of such behavior: Jenny Lewis and Liz Phair. Accusations that include dangling career-enhancing promises in front of them in exchange for train-wreck relationships that have even included him threatening suicide. The accusers include his ex-wife, Mandy Moore, herself a musician who you may recognize from the television show This is Us. And there is one woman who says she was 14 when she first began trading sexually explicit texts with Adams. The FBI is supposedly looking into that one.

Adams denies the accusations, but does admit, “I am not a perfect man.” Yes, he’s confessed he’s had drug issues. And – just guessing here, I’m not a doctor – psychological issues. Yet in sharing his sensitive side with us, through song and his New York Times confessional, it doesn’t occur to Adams that others around him may have vulnerable psyches as well.

So this news goes hand-in-withered-claw with R. Kelly, the hip-hop artist who has been accused of having sex with an underage girl. A grand jury was seated Monday to hear the charges. And there is Forever Neverland, the documentary featured at the recent Sundance Film Festival. It airs stories by men, young boys at the time, who claim they were sexually assaulted by Jackson at his fantasy-driven ranch, Neverland.

Actually, this isn’t news. We’ve been hearing unsettling stories about R. Kelly for years. Stories, even, that he kept women as prisoners. And while I haven’t seen Neverland, I’m pretty confident that I know that story. Jackson owned massive amounts of child porn. And something else I read about a few years ago, a story that didn’t get much attention: After Jackson’s death, besides the child porn, investigators also found animal-torture videos. According to experts in child abuse, that kind of thing is a device used to break down a child’s resistance against his or her victimization.

Add to these the sordid side of the film world, and accusations of sexual harassment or abuse against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Woody Allen.

I suppose you could call me a hypocrite because you can no longer find the music of R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, and now Ryan Adams, in my music collection. They have been purged. Yet I have an album by the old Western swing bandleader Spade Cooley, who beat to death his estranged wife. I have records by Son House and Lead Belly, bluesmen who did time jail time for killing people. And some by Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his 13-year-old cousin. Maybe it’s the passage of time that allows these crimes to fall into the category of curious history.

But maybe, I just feel differently about a guy like Ryan Adams because it’s coming from my time, a moment of which I’m in charge.

None of these supposedly modern-day men have been found guilty of anything. But there is an air of entitlement here: People of power preying on the weak, whether you’re talking movie moguls or funny uncles. Or reality television stars who somehow stumble into the White House.

How do they get away with it?

They have our permission.

“Ryan had a network too,” Bridgers wrote on her Instagram account. She dated Adams, she says, until his “obsessive and emotionally abusive behavior” brought an end to their relationship. “Friends, bands, people he worked with. None of them held him accountable. They told him, by what they said or by what they didn’t, that what he was doing was okay. They validated him. He couldn’t have done this without them.”

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If it were up to us

Jan Regan on gun control

Jan Regan.

Monday evening at The Little Café, a handful of the regulars were sitting at the usual table, passing around a copy of a letter to the editor that had appeared that morning in The Finger Lakes Times. I watched as people read it, silently nodding in approval.

The writer’s name was familiar to this group. Jan is not an uncommon name. Among Norwegian fisherman, even. More telling, she’s a Regan. That makes her sister of two other Regans in the room, Kerry and Scott, members of the band playing that night, Watkins & the Rapiers. Music enthusiasts in this town also know Scott as the host of Open Tunings, the smart morning music show on WRUR-FM (88.5).

Some of us have even met her in the past, maybe at a Finger Lakes winery. Jan Regan, a photographer, has been involved in music, for a while booking shows at Geneva’s Smith Opera. Monday night at The Little, she stepped into the gun-control debate. And nailed the issue perfectly. So damn logical, I expect gun advocates’ heads will explode when they read it.

I asked Jan for permission to reprint her letter:

To the Editor:

Singer-Songwriter Cheryl Wheeler wrote a song, “If It Were Up to Me,” in 1997 that speculates causes behind the horrific gun violence in the United States with an endless litany of societal ills: Maybe it’s video games, abuse, the internet, parents, schools, politics, and so on. Her last thought: “But if it were up to me, I’d take away the guns.”

I am with her. Not that I would venture into the dangerous territory of suggesting we ban ALL guns, but certainly the ones that appear again and again as “the weapon of choice” in so many recent mass shootings.

In many ways, Marc Thomas’s editorial “Clear Thinking Needed in Gun Debate” (March 4, 2018) makes exactly this case. He bemoans universal background checks as ineffective as so many mass shooters seem to acquire guns legally. He cites the “see something, say something” mantra as not enough (suggesting the somewhat scary notion that citizens “do something about it” on their own rather than wait out authorities). He notes the ineptitude of agencies to act on tips provided to them in the recent Parkland, Florida shootings, and the shocking reality of a professional armed guard hired to protect a school who simply didn’t act.

Exactly. These often-suggested measures to protect public spaces – background checks, reporting suspicious behavior, and placing “good guys with guns” in vulnerable places – can be important measures, but will always face human error.  A person suffering mental issues can fool everyone, and have no problems passing background checks. A parent or friend might think it impossible that this person they know, even if troubled, could actually shoot an innocent human being. An overwhelmed worker could mistakenly judge one of his or her many cases as non-credible. And if all of these checks fail, and a shooting does occur, armed personnel could, for whatever reason, be completely in the wrong place and have no impact in stopping the perpetrator.

One sure way to keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to do evil is to eliminate the guns. At least to eliminate the ones that cause the most harm the fastest, with no other apparent purpose but to do just that.

Jan Regan


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