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The box of manure in our basement  

The song is a beautiful piece of 1960s pop. Melancholy, yet upbeat. Confronting an issue – loneliness – and offering hope:

And you may find somebody kind to help and understand you

Someone who is just like you and needs a gentle hand to

Guide them along …

There is quite a distance between a cry for help and the statement made on Christmas Day by a strange loner who rigged his RV with explosives, drove to downtown Nashville and staged his own death to the soundtrack of Petula Clark singing “Downtown.” The fact that no one was killed does not ameliorate the darkness of the act. He knew better. The people around him who knew he was building bombs knew better.

So for now, we associate a violent act with a song that urges people to seek comfort among strangers. “Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city, linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty.”

The arts is sometimes a strange bedfellow to inhumanity. Paul McCartney didn’t have mass murder in mind when he wrote “Helter Skelter,” with Charles Manson’s followers using the blood of one of their victims to paint the song title on a refrigerator door during their weekend murder spree in 1969. Misspelled as “Healter,” they weren’t scholars.

Mark Chapman and his favorite book, “The Catcher in the Rye.”

The man who murdered John Lennon had an obsession with the novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” Adolph Hitler’s deep admiration for the music of Richard Wagner is well known. Yet the works of McCartney, J.D. Salinger and Wagner have survived those associations. “Downtown” will live on as well.

Of course, these stories are never as simple as all that. Wagner couldn’t control his fan base after his death in 1883. But his raging anti-Semitism (today excused as the rantings typical of a 207-year-old man) remains his responsibility.

Everything created by musicians, painters, dancers, writers and architects is a reflection of the artist. Maybe not in image, but in message. Their art outlives the worst of the self portraits that it reflects. As much as I detest Michael Jackson now, I’m sure his music will survive with future listeners not giving much thought to his alleged pedophilia.

Although, in my mind, they should.

I don’t expect even-handedness in a fractured world. The girlfriend of the Nashville RV bomber reportedly told the police a year ago that he was making bombs. They shrugged and moved on. If that bomb maker had been a Black man, rather than white, it seems likely the cops would have been kicking in the door of his RV, shooting first and worrying about what we think a little too late.

This past year was a product of the bi-polar planet on which we live. One side of it works just fine. There are times when I feel like a hyena creeping out of the desert, to the edge of a campfire, where I watch all of these amazing humans doing incredible things. And I just feel damn lucky to be close to it. Squirreled away in my home through the pandemic, I’ve read some great books. This was unplanned, but more than a few have had something to do with trees. My Friend Michele gave me Richard Preston’s “The Wild Trees,” the story of California redwoods; I learned that falling from a tree any more than 60 feet means you’re dead. Trees are to be found in nature writer Robert MacFarlane’s “Underland: A Deep Time Journey,” but its real soul is uncovered in the world beneath the roots; there is a cavern in China that is so large, it has its own weather system. And now I’m deep into Richard Powers’ Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Overstory,” in which trees are as much characters as humans. While it’s fiction, much of it is based on fact; as blight was wiping out chestnut trees across the country, an attempt was made to halt the spread of the disease by clearing trees from a 400-mile zone across Pennsylvania. The maneuver failed; the workers’ axes and saws helped carry the plague across the state.

I read that and thought about COVID-19.

Peter Gunn navigates his 1959 Plymouth Fury through another scene.

Television? It hasn’t been of much help. Amazon Prime created special “Holiday” categories of dozens and dozens of films to choose from. It’s astonishing how many really unwatchable Christmas movies have been given the green light over the last 15 years. All attempting to reveal to us The True Meaning of Christmas. Which is basically: Don’t Be An Asshole. None of these films meet the standard set by “A Christmas Story.” In that true classic, The Meaning of Christmas is simply: If the neighbor’s vagabond hounds seize your Christmas Day turkey from the table and viciously dismember it, there is a Chinese restaurant open somewhere.

In this time of quarantine, I have enjoyed an amusing dalliance with “Peter Gunn,” a private-eye series from the late 1950s and early ’60s starring an actor I’d never heard of. But Craig Stevens seems to have set the stage for Sean Connery’s James Bond. “Peter Gunn” is fedoras, jazz and blonde cocktail crooners, casual smoking, cars with big fins, fisticuffs and serious gunplay in warehouses stacked with labyrinthine arrangements of crates, good for chaotic chase scenes. All of this in less than a half hour for each episode. With an immediately recognizable theme by Henry Mancini.

Music, as always. As I’m typing this, I’m listening to Scott Regan’s “Open Tunings” show on WRUR-FM (88.5). His final song of the year is Nina Simone’s version of Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” It’s elegant, drenched in melancholy and a wistful sense of something lost.

A lost year, perhaps.

A year in which we’ve tumbled backwards.

More than 25 million Americans have either lost their job or seen a significant drop in their income. More than 8 million Americans slid into poverty. That’s all contributing to one in four American households experiencing what those who study social structure call “food insecurity.” People are going hungry. In 21st-century America.

Perhaps they are… I’m searching for the right word here… unlucky? The Institute for Policy Studies published a report that demonstrated that many Americans are not going hungry at all. In fact, since March, when the pandemic started kicking in, the total net worth of the country’s 647 billionaires has grown by almost $960 billion.

A new Gallop poll out this week reveals Trump is the most-admired man in America. I’m thinking the rest of the Top 10 – Obama, Biden, Fauci, Pope Francis, Elon Musk, Bernie Sanders, Bill Gates, LeBron James and the Dalai Lama – split the vote among sane people.

The United States is responsible for so many advances in science, yet is populated by so many people who live in denial of clear fact. Fifty-one percent of Republicans still doubt that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Forty percent of Americans are creationists.

Fifty percent of Republicans believe at least some portions of the QAnon mythology that a secret ring of Satan-worshiping pedophiles runs the U.S. government, and Trump is leading a secret fight against it. A storyline so ridiculous, any self-respecting screenwriter would lock the script in the bottom drawer of his or her desk.

Fact, and demonstrable history, is no match for populist politics. On Columbus Day, we celebrate a cruel slave trader. Town squares remain populated by statues that re-write the American south, leading up to the Civil War, as some kind of antebellum island of nobility.

We know better. At least, some of us know better.

As much as I’d like it to be true, the arts and science are not generally accepted as reflective of truth. We don’t look that deep into ourselves. The internet justification for fact-free beliefs is “owning the libs.” Downtown may be where, “The lights are much brighter there, you can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares,” but the internet is not such a place. It is a room of darkness and separation, it nurtures troubles in the same way that a box of manure in the basement feeds a crop of mushrooms.

Acknowledging climate change or systemic racism goes nowhere in this environment. Seeing that 340,000 Americans are dead of COVID-19 should be a wake-up call, not something sprouting out of bullshit.

There is no evidence that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. None. And yet…

It all brings to mind the philosopher George Carlin: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

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.

What they don’t know either helps them survive, or it kills them

The band lays down a jazzbo beat as I recite “Old Drunks.”

I’ve had a few people – well, three, that’s a trend, right? – ask me about the spoken-word piece I read at Tommy Brunett’s birthday party before a hundred or so people Sunday at Marge’s Lakeside Inn, on Lake Ontario beach. Tucked in among performances by musicians that included Suzi Willpower, Mike Gladstone and Brian Lindsay (“What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding” was a perfect choice for Lindsay), what I read was a tribute to the men and women who built America and, now worn out and broken, live out their lives in saloon shadows, lit by neon beer signs. The words are actually pulled from a yet-to-be-published novel that I wrote, “A Bottle of Mezcal.” You can find the first few chapters of the manuscript on this web site under the heading “Works.”

So, for those three people, here’s the text from Sunday’s reading:

OLD DRUNKS

A guy wearing the weary tweed jacket of a failed Bohemian novelist sits at a table talking to a woman blanketed in the too-heavy makeup of a declining actress. Yeah, she had been a star of the community players stage, once. They stare idly at the television mounted on the wall over the bar. It’s a hockey game. “We live in a violent world,” he is saying. “Even vegetarians kill plants.”

She nods, her eyes trailing off to stare down at the pimento-stuffed olive at the bottom of her glass. It looks up at her like a disapproving eye.

Ray Charles sings, and the old guys at the bar grunt with approval. Some of them have only one good arm, and the blood vessels in their noses have bloomed into bright-red gin blossoms. I watch them lean forward into their pints of beer, seemingly in unison; they are red-assed mandrills now, crouching on the river bank, sipping the water.

But years ago they built this country. They can tell you how to mix the mortar that keeps every brick in this city in place. If you ride the trains with them, they point out the window, to the lines strung on the poles outside, and tell you those wires are made of copper because they have turned green in the weather. They can start a car with a screwdriver without killing themselves. They know stuff like that. Even that old guy in the polyester suit has stories. He worked fishing boats in Alaska and logged somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. That was in the days when men used horses to drag the trees down the hillside. Those horses would work until their hearts burst, and the crews piled the carcasses against the wall of the bunk house. In their youthful exuberance, the loggers slid down the corrugated tin roof and landed on the dead horses, laughing. Polyester Suit says he once cannonballed onto a horse that exploded on impact. “His guts blew out his mouth and his asshole,” Polyester Suit says. “Musta been exactly ripe.”

These old guys shot real people in wars and dropped bombs on historic cities without a second thought, but Johnny Cash rumbling “Sunday Morning Coming Down’’ makes them cry.

Their lives are arcs of random experience. What they don’t know either helps them survive, or it kills them.

BE THE 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.

Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

BE THE 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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