Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Censorship, lies, and the n-word

One of the greatest albums ever, The Allman Brothers, “Live at Fillmore East.”

I saw with great satisfaction that Haruki Murakami is among the literary luminaries to be featured at October’s The New Yorker Festival. My Friend Monica introduced me to the Japanese writer about a decade ago. I’ve since read a half-dozen of his novels, including the weighty The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle twice. Murakami’s style has had a significant impact on my own words: I think of it as “Real Surrealism.”

Drawing far more attention was another guest who was confirmed on Monday as the festival’s headliner. Steve Bannon. But by Tuesday, the howls of protest had led the festival to drop Bannon. The toxic brand of racism practiced by the former Trump adviser was too much for intellectual spirit of The New Yorker Festival.

Censorship? What’s happened here forced me to recall some of my own brushes with the question. With Glenn Beck, when he was the king of Fox News. And the drummer from one of the world’s best-known rock bands, who dropped the n-word on me during an interview.

I had two opportunities to interview Beck. Late in 2005, he was barnstorming the country with a multimedia Christmas extravaganza of holiday music, videos of flags snapping to attention in the breeze and his maudlin ramblings about American values. Beck’s publicist called me and asked if I wanted to talk with the conservative television host, talk-radio flamethrower and best-selling author before his appearance here. This was after Cindy Sheehan, whose son had been killed in Iraq, had spent the summer following President Bush around the country and appearing at anti-war rallies, demanding the president explain his actions.

I told Beck’s publicist that I didn’t want anything to do with a guy who’d called Sheehan a “tragedy slut.” I didn’t want to talk to a guy who said of the women collectively known as the 9/11 widows, women who’d lost husbands in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “when I see a 9/11 victim family on television, or whatever, I’m just like, ‘Oh shut up!’ I’m so sick of them because they’re always complaining. And we did our best for them.”

Beck’s publicist called again on an otherwise beautiful afternoon in 2007. “Your favorite guy is coming back to town,” he said. With an even bigger show. More patriotic music, videos of soaring eagles and Beck lamenting about why can’t the world be more like he wants it to be. Did I want an interview?

“No,” I said. “He’ll have to peddle his nonsense without my help.”

Was I a hypocrite because, while Beck was critical of Cindy Sheehan speaking her mind, I wasn’t allowing him to share his thoughts with the readers of the newspaper that I worked for, allowing readers to make their own judgment?

No, not at all. It’s just that I believe people who are the shapers of public opinion, be it politicians or the media, should treat the truth with reverence. That’s the same reason I support The New Yorker’s decision to dump Bannon. Both Beck and Bannon have a well-documented, abstract relationship with the truth.

So I denied Beck access to my forum, minor as it was, just as The New Yorker has backed off on Bannon. Sometimes it’s an easy decision, and both men have their own platforms from which to spill their bile. Yet over the years, I also interviewed Ted Nugent and Kiss’ Gene Simmons. Two unlikable characters. In fact, I interviewed each of them twice. So, I’m not exactly consistent in my thinking.

But what about that interview with the drummer from one of the world’s biggest rock bands?

Butch Trucks played with the Allman Brothers Band from its earliest days, virtually inventing Southern rock at a house in Georgia, mixing in blues and jazz and whatever else a bunch of young guys do when not trapped under adult supervision. Trucks was the rhythmic force behind the sound. When I interviewed him by phone, maybe a decade ago, he was in a New York City hotel room, relaxing before a gig that night. It was an engaging conversation, he was very excited to tell me he’d just bought a DVD of the latest Lord of the Rings film. He was totally into the Tolkien books, he’d read the whole Middle Earth saga maybe a dozen times. Trucks said he loved reading, he was trying to make up for hitting the bars with the band as a young man, rather than going off to college.

We started talking about those early days. And the band’s decision to bring in a second drummer. Jai Johanny Johnson, better known as Jaimoe. Trucks was animated in his storytelling, describing his reaction upon meeting Jaimoe for the first time: “And in walks this big, black…”

And then, the n-word.

There was an awkward pause, maybe two or three seconds. I’m sure he was thinking: Uh, oh, I just uttered a racial slur to a reporter. And I know what I was thinking: What am I gonna do with that?

And, after that pause, he continued the story.

Short answer. I did nothing.

This is how I rationalized it. In his narrative, Trucks was taking us back to the days when he was a young, skinny white Southern boy of the ’60s, no worldly experience, reacting to an unknown, a black man. He was giving me his true thoughts from that moment, a half-century ago. Now he’d grown, the world had changed. Somewhat. There was no reason to believe he still thought that way.

So in the story, I wrote about Trucks’ love of Tolkien, his drive to improve himself intellectually, the early days of the Allman Brothers, his relationship with his bandmates now that they were older, some of them already dead. If I told the story of Trucks uttering the n-word, it would take over the story. Obscure the portrait of the man.

In January of 2017, Trucks himself was dead. Distraught over financial problems, he was in his Florida condo when he put a gun to his head and, in front of his wife, shot himself.

To this day, I don’t know if I made the right decision in leaving out the awkward, unguarded moment of Trucks and the n-word. I think, maybe, yes. I’m about 75 percent sure of it. That other 25 percent is, was I protecting Trucks because I liked him, and the interview had been a good one?

My internal hand-wringing over my act of censorship gets even more complicated. I’ve heard the n-word sung, to great effect, by musicians ranging from rappers to Patti Smith. I read it in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I heard black guys saying it on the bus on my ride to work. I recently watched a film, Wise Blood, an adaptation of a Flannery O’Connor story, where a white actor says it. And it made me uncomfortable, even in the privacy of my living room.

Artists use the word, and guys telling stories use it, because it has the ugly ring of reality.

Ultimately, what Trucks said wouldn’t have made much of a difference in this most-significant debate in today’s America, race. It would have simply been a gossipy little shocker, quickly forgotten, but perhaps forever damaging to Butch Trucks. From our conversation, my sense was he didn’t deserve that. And without it, in what I confess is an act of censorship, I believe I presented the truer picture of our conversation.

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America’s hideous laugh track

No television situation comedy is complete without the laugh track. That eruption of pre-recorded howls of approval that instruct the audience – even if that audience is an audience of one sitting at home in front of the television – how to react to what it has just seen.

Now we’ve seen how a bad joke works when there is no laugh track, after Roseanne Barr tweeted this inexplicable attack on Valarie Jarrett, the former aide to Barack Obama:

Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj

So for one news cycle, maybe two, a racist, xenophobic, conspiracy-consumed comedian nudges aside our racist, bigoted, megalomaniac president. A man whose glide path is eased by a different, but equally insidious, laugh track.

We’ve been watching the normalization of Trump for a couple of years now. First during his presidential campaign, and now through the 15 months of his presidency. From the outset, we knew what Trump was: A liar, a con man and a coward with no ethics. Yet in America, a country divided, there is a built-in audience for his Make America Great Again charade. A minority that struts like a majority, because it has a stamp of approval from the White House.

Roseanne Barr is done, her show cancelled. Her apologies are hollow. Last night, her barrage of tweets included retweets of Jarrett pictured side by side with an ape. Now the question being asked is: Given her history of irresponsible public comments, how did ABC even give Barr a public platform? An entertainment soapbox that quickly became the network’s top-rated show, one that even drew the praise of Trump, who said at one of his conservative-packed rallies that Roseanne was “about us.”

As always, Trump was lying. The “us” he was talking about is the blue-collar family portrayed in Roseanne. The “us” he was talking to is the blue-collar crowd that helped, along with the Russians, to get him elected. But Trump is not blue collar. He is a born-rich man with a dangerously overblown sense of entitlement, driven by impulses that can only be described as greed and immaturity.

For a couple of years now, at least, we’ve watched as the media gave Trump the benefit of what should have been obvious doubt. We kept hearing references to perhaps this Trump comment or that Trump photo op was a “pivot” to a more-presidential Trump. I experienced that myself in the outfit that once employed me, as stories and quotes from musicians and artists criticizing Trump were killed. One lower-level editor explained it to me: Those stories and quotes were killed because a higher-up editor “didn’t want to have that conversation.”

It is clear now, there will be no pivot. We are stuck with what we knew we were getting all along. Language and thoughts that had been hidden are now openly expressed. It is the new, shameful norm, endorsed by Trump.

And like it or not, now we’re forced to have that conversation.

Read that Roseanne Barr tweet once again:

Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby=vj

Realizing that her career was in jeopardy, Barr apologized for her “bad joke.”

But in the wide world of comedy writing, where is the joke in that tweet?

Barr was expecting to hear the canned laughter. But now, at least by a majority of Americans who can distinguish right from wrong, she will be greeted by silence.

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Who the hell is Prince Harry?

The happy couple. Of the moment.

As the marriage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle closes in on us, like a train moving so slowly that you can smell the mustard stains on the engineer’s overalls, it’s a pointless exercise to jump on the overloaded “Who Gives a Shit?” caboose. Not one of my friends seems to care. I haven’t had any Royal Marriage conversations with anyone, not even small talk with strangers encountered in an elevator.

So why is it dominating the news?

I’m told it’s because an heir to the British throne has once again chosen to marry what is commonly referred to in England as “a commoner.” But not a mere commoner. As I read in one news report, Markle is a “major celebrity.” With the added spice of she’s divorced. And of mixed race. And there was apparently some sort of family drama as to whether her father was going to England for the wedding.

At the hotel where I’m staying this morning, I picked up a free copy of the USA Today pamphlet, which is now so small that it’s delivered in bundles strapped to the backs of mice. As usual, it is divided into News and Self-Inflating Opinion, Money, Sports and Lifestyle. Four conveniently apportioned sections: In the editor’s world, there are never more natural disasters and wars to be reported on than there are movies to be reviewed.

All four sections had one or more stories on the Royal Wedding.

Yes, even Sports.

War and crime are always in good supply. So in order to achieve the correct balance in news content, editors are in perpetual need of fresh celebrities. Markle is a “major celebrity” because – and I had to Google this – she is “a humanitarian activist and former American actress.”

Those probably aren’t Markle’s words, so I’m not blaming her. I just want to point out that I have many friends who are humanitarian activists. They donate money to important causes, they volunteer at Planned Parenthood or organizations that work with immigrants, they build churches in Haiti. I don’t think any of these friends has ever introduced themselves as a humanitarian activist. Humanitarian activist isn’t a job title, like architect. It’s something you do. My friends are regular people doing the right thing on a world of hurt.

A “major celebrity?” If Markle has a sense of humor, and a proper level of self deprecation, perhaps she herself laughs at that description. I see she was in a television series called Suits, and the films Remember Me and Horrible Bosses. Like most Americans, I’ve never seen them. No matter how popular your TV show may be, no matter how many theaters may be playing your film, most Americans have not seen your work.

So what, then, is a “major celebrity?” LeBron James is a major celebrity. Serena Williams is a major celebrity. Stormy Daniels is a major celebrity. Longevity, success and circumstances make you a major celebrity. Who are Sutton Foster, Jameela Jamil, Ryan Reynolds, Chris Pratt, Justin Hartley, Channing Tatum, Seann William Scott and Zach Woods? Breeze passing through the internet. I wouldn’t know any of them if they were sitting next to me at the Oscars. But according to the news web site I’m looking at right now, they’re all newsworthy actors, each apparently a major celebrity since they all have résumés equal to, or greater than, Meghan Markle.

If you’re fascinated by the fact that Markle is divorced, you’re unaware that half of all marriages in the U.S. end in divorce. If you’re surprised that Markle is of mixed-race parentage, you haven’t seen any breakfast cereal commercials. And if you’re breathless over which dysfunctional family member may not show up at the Royal Wedding, then your own family is absurdly well grounded.

These major celebrities didn’t invent a life-saving heart procedure or kill a baby seal. They’re media-generated content whose job is to fill a vacuum detected by the gatekeepers who were caught without a press release from the Kardashians’ publicist that day.

Our world perspective is a cracked lens. Prince Harry is a major celebrity. The media has made him so. But he is not a major world figure. I had to look this up: As heir to the British throne, he is fourth in line. Behind a 4-year-old kid.

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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