Jeff Spevak, Writer

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The truth, and where to find it


I keep looking for, thinking about, what good might come out of this world-wide disaster. It will be difficult to find our way through this. Through the fog. Reality obscured by the daily White House coronavirus press briefings.

This one, from last week, is easier to understand if you imagine it as a Monty Python skit. With John Cleese, who excels at portraying buffoonish authority figures displaying a comical lack of self-awareness, as President Trump. And Eric Idle, master of the befuddled expression, as the Reporter.

President Trump: “I think mail-in voting is horrible, it’s corrupt.”

Reporter: “You voted by mail in Florida’s election last month, didn’t you?”

Trump: “Sure. I can vote by mail.”

Reporter: “How do you reconcile with that?”

Trump: “Because I’m allowed to.”

A true story.

I’ve stopped watching Trump’s version of FDR’s Fireside Chats. Trump’s more of an arsonist. I leave farce to the professionals.

I’m also leaving advice on how to protect myself from coronavirus to medical professionals. I leave my understanding of climate change to scientists. I leave economic theories to reputable economists, not a guy whose career has been a string of failed businesses, bankruptcies and bailouts from daddy.

The pursuit of facts, not conspiracy theories. Until recently, as the body count grew too high to deny, Trump was suggesting that coronavirus was simply a Democratic Party attempt to bring down his presidency. As if people in Italy and Spain would willingly sacrifice their lives to influence the outcome of November’s U.S. presidential election.

Trump has lowered the bar on every aspect of life in the United States.

And the standard of truth has suffered the most. Why do so many millions of Americans buy into this? It’s like that old horror film, Children of the Damned. Are they a futuristic race… or a threat to our planet?

Trump calms his followers: “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.”

What good can possibly come of this pandemic? There’s nothing to be found in the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

If anything can be rescued from this rubble, perhaps it is… time.

I’m working from home. I’m not going out to see shows, or movies, or new exhibits at the museums. I’m not hanging around with friends. I’m looking out the front window, watching my neighbors walk their dogs. What’s on TV? Tiger King, no thanks, I’m not into the spectacle of white-trash drama.

I venture onto social media, and see how you’re amusing yourselves. Posting your high-school portraits. Compiling your “Choose Your Quarantine House” list. That one’s on both Facebook and Twitter. Name five celebrities – writers, TV stars, musicians – who you’d like to be quarantined with. Here’s one of the early houses: Justin Bieber, Will Ferrell, Kylie Jenner, Dr. Phil and Mindy Kaling.

If I was in that house, I’d sleep in the garage. But it gets me to thinking. My Writers Quarantine House?

  • Certainly Haruki Murakami, so I wouldn’t have to read his books a second time just to begin to understand what the hell is going on in those pages.
  • James Joyce, so I can ask him, “Why does Finnegan’s Wake open in mid-sentence, and what do you mean by ‘wielderfight his penisolate war?’”
  • Mikhail Bulgakov, because I want to know where he got the idea to write a novel about a dog who has the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal implanted in his body, and becomes a cat-strangling Bolshevik.
  • And Margaret Atwood, because I want to know what inspired the bioengineered plague and post-apocalyptic corporate evil and blue butts of her novel Oryx and Crake.

For my fifth, how about George Saunders, because I’ve interviewed him, and I want to know where such a nice, normal guy finds such strangeness. Or Colson Whitehead, because I want to know where an elevator to the future will take us. Or Marquis de Sade, just in case things get a little too comfortable.

Time, it’s an intellectual exercise.

I’m reading obituaries in The New York Times. Bruce Baillie. Cause of death… well, he was 88. A photographer. I’d heard the name, but wasn’t familiar with his work. Now, in death, I know him. And I’m fascinated by the guy. A pioneer in avant-garde film. A hippie, counter-culture favorite. His lens was set on Zen. Short films, sometimes with superimposed imagery. One of the most remarkable is a 2½-minute film from 1966, “All My Life.” The camera slowly pans a long fence, overgrown by weeds and wild roses, as Ella Fitzgerald elegantly sings the song of the same name. Many people might find it stupid. I’m amazed at its simplicity, and beauty. If that fence were in my back yard, I’d be staring at it all evening, as the sun set, glass of wine in hand.

The Times tells me that musicians, actors and artists are dying of coronavirus. John Prine, it got him at age 73. That one seemed to hit a lot of my friends hard. People are posting lines from Prine songs on Facebook. “Lake Marie” is my favorite Prine song, and I posted a couple of lines from it.

Because we love music. And because Prine told the truth

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Time enough at last

Burgess Meredith, and the isolation of a good library.

As far as I was concerned, Major League Baseball’s Opening Day got off to a good start this week. The Cleveland Indians beat the Detroit Tigers, 9-0.

Waitaminute… the Tigers beat the Indians, 9-1.

No, the Indians beat the Tigers, 15-4.

Fantasy baseball. If there’s no sports news, we can just make it up.

Is anything more media-irrelevant in these coronavirus days than the sports pages? On Saturday morning, I browsed through The New York Times sports section. The star player of the Oregon Ducks, Sabrina Ionescu, has been denied her opportunity to compete for the NCAA Women’s basketball championship, because the season’s been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sports announcers have gone to Facebook to post factious commentaries on their dogs eating dinner. A few dozen guys, connected through basketball, celebrated a birthday together; four have since tested positive for coronavirus, two others are dead of it. And the NFL draft of college players is still on for next month, so brace yourself for four weeks of sportswriters turning to the always-useless exercise of conducting mock drafts.

Disappointment. Dogs eating dinner. Death. The NFL draft. And mock drafts would be happening anyway, coronavirus or not.

We all have our ways of coping. Who am I to point a finger? For every chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I will read today, I will just as likely sit through 90 minutes of They Saved Hitler’s Brain.

It did not help that just his morning, some web-site links arrived in the email, sent by My Friend Barbara. “For when you don’t want to read the news… or you run out of books, whichever comes first.”

The Voynich Manuscript.

She provided a link to The Internet Archive. Its goal is “universal access to all knowledge.” Digitized collections of websites, music, millions of books. Assembled by volunteers. It’s called Folkscanomy, “a system of classification derived from the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags to annotate and categorize content.”

Once I had logged in, I found all of this… amazing stuff. A link to a site that shows every page of The Voynich Manuscript, a mysterious 15thcentury book written in an as-yet unbroken code, the pages filled with drawings of obscure herbs and cosmological references, and women taking baths.

Music, some of it relevant, as musicians post videos of their coronavirtual concerts. Hip-hop mix tapes. Religious sermons. Medieval Alien Jazz by Eat Rust, an atonal collection of electronic psychedelia with titles such as “Gather The Inner Organs Into A Neat Pile – It’s A Sign That You’re Still Alive.” And way more Grateful Dead concerts than I’ll ever need.

And there is The National Emergency Library, created especially for readers in our current pandemic. Here, I found the 1925 edition of Certain Mounds and Village Sites in Ohio, an exploration of some of the Native American burial mounds in the southeastern region of the state; I’ve visited a few of them. Here’s Orwell’s always relevant Nineteen Eighty-Four, not far from Rachel Carson’s prescient Silent Spring, 396 books and magazines about Dr. Who, and a photo magazine called The New Nude.

Anatole France.

Here’s a book I never would have known of, were it not for me being granted time enough at last: From 1925, Anatole France: The Man and His Work. The digital listing allows me to read the forward on the long-dead French writer:

“Had I been Nature,” said Anatole France, “I should have made men and women not to resemble the great apes, as they do, but on the model of the insects which, after a lifetime of caterpillars, change into butterflies, and for the brief final term of their existence have no thought but to love and be lovely.”

This morning has shed its skin and evolved into that classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “Time Enough at Last,” where the book-loving Burgess Meredith is the only survivor of a nuclear holocaust. He wanders up the steps of a public library, and finds books and books and books. Then stumbles and breaks his eyeglasses. “That’s not fair,” he wails. “That’s not fair at all. There was time now. There was – was all the time I needed…! It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

Indeed. Under Feature Films, sub-head Sci-Fi / Horror…

Click …

Oh no. Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women. Zontar the Thing From Venus. Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory. Teenagers From Outer Space. Curse of the Swamp Creature. Roger Corman’s Dementia 13. The 1962 low-budget cult classic Carnival of Souls, which overcomes the zombie acing of its cast with eerie sets and foreboding organ music.

All this, and time enough at last!

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The Dead Songwriters Society

Eric Taylor, 1949-2020.

Kenny Rogers died on Friday. I didn’t know the man, of course, but I know the music. He recorded a song by my friend Bat McGrath, and seemed like a nice guy. In an interview some years ago, I asked if he’d ever been in a bar fight. Short answer: No.

Eric Taylor also died last week. I interviewed him twice over the last two decades, and it never occurred to me to ask if he’d ever been in a bar fight. But he’d been in plenty of bars, that seemed obvious.

The first time I saw Taylor was 2001 at the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin. I’d never heard of the guy. He blew me away. His songs were deep and troubled. That southern Gothic triptych of whiskey, murder and the Bible. And he did two songs by Townes Van Zandt. Before starting each one, Taylor pulled a hip flask from the inside pocket of his jacket and took a long swig.

I was pretty excited, about 12 years ago, when My Friends Rick and Monica announced that they had booked Taylor for their first house concert. Rick called and asked if I knew where he could get some beef jerky. That was one of the things in Taylor’s tour rider. Beef jerky.

And bourbon. A bottle of bourbon was in the rider as well.

I called Taylor before the show, and recalled for him how I had seen him that night in Austin, and noticed he had taken a drink from his flask before doing the two songs by Van Zandt. Was that a silent tribute to his old friend, who died in 1997 of cardiac arrhythmia, driven by his substance abuse?

No, Taylor said, in a business-like tone. “I like to drink.”

The house concert was a success, the room packed with 50 people. The deeper into the show, the deeper into the bottle of bourbon before him, the deeper Taylor went into his songs. Then it was like someone flipped an unseen switch, and Taylor was gone; now he was a guy with a pocketknife, cleaning his fingernails on the courthouse steps, waiting to drive Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe away from their marriage and on to the next metaphor.

Then the bourbon was gone, but the show wasn’t over. Rick had to scramble, but found a bottle of Chivas Regal. And the show continued.

Taylor hung out with Van Zandt for years, haunting the Houston clubs. Good times, hard living, stunning words. Writers who invented great characters that say true things. Fellow writers, like Lyle Lovett, know what a good song sounds like and smells like. Lovett’s recorded a few Taylor songs. Joan Baez, too. And Nanci Griffith; you’re writing weapons-grade material if your ex-wife records your songs.

Taylor came back to town a couple of times more, playing Abilene Bar & Lounge. He looked a little different. More at peace, perhaps? He filled me in on his long and erratic medical history. The heart attack he’d had years earlier, the triple bypass, the rehab. Even the time he’d spent counselling addicts. That might sound like asking Satan advice on curbing your sins, but Taylor was speaking from experience.

So there was Taylor again, onstage at Abilene, gently strumming his guitar, like you would pet an old dog, talking about his friend Bill Morrissey. Telling the story about how Bill, an intense songwriter in his own right, had stopped at a motel for the night in Dalton, Georgia. And later someone heard Bill’s dogs barking, he often traveled with his dogs. And they went to go look, and you knew this story would end badly.

Then Taylor kind of slipped into the background, and Bill Morrissey took his place. “I oughta stop drinkin’, but I don’t know why,” Morrissey moaned/sang. “Yeah, I’ve been through this town before,” he said, looking around Dalton. “It’s got a four-way stop, and a liquor store.”

Before the show, Taylor was telling me about how no one was surprised when Van Zandt died. Or when Morrissey died. The struggle. The sadness. The introspection.

A few of years ago, I asked the Nashville songwriter David Olney about Taylor. They ran together for years, raised hell. Olney was another guy who crawled inside his characters when he sang about them. “His music is so much him, I think he pays a price,” Olney said. “I think anybody pays a price to write music that stark.”

That price tag hangs on a lot of songwriters. The Dead Songwriters Society.

Van Zandt, Morrissey. Just a couple of months ago, Olney. Scroll back not too far in these blogs, back to Jan. 22, and you can read about Olney. He died onstage, in mid-song.

And now, Taylor has died, at age 70. On the same day that songwriters in Nashville were playing at a tribute to Olney. Surprisingly, it wasn’t Taylor’s heart that finally gave way. Or, maybe not surprisingly, it was liver disease.

I remember what Taylor said to me the last time we talked. “Sometimes, the most interesting people in the world will break your heart.”

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