Jeff Spevak, Writer

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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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This Planet is Doomed

The Austin I love. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Five in the morning at the Rochester Non-International Airport, and I am sitting next to my fellow passengers to be, eavesdropping. One of them seems like a nice-enough guy. He’s telling some people he’s just met that he’s been to Europe. Amsterdam feels dangerous, he says. Too many foreigners.

But when in Amsterdam, Isn’t he the foreigner?

Fresh perspective is always in order. I can see better at 33,000 feet.

On my way to the airport, I’d stopped at the 7-Eleven to buy a bottle of unsweetened ice tea, because I know the airport prices are outrageous. But at the security checkpoint, the bottle was confiscated. The security guy looked at me with disdain as he flipped my iced tea into a trash can, alongside containers of orange juice, soft drinks, carbonated water and other potentially dangerous chemicals. Now I have a new bottle of iced tea, acquired through proper channels. A kiosk on the other side of the De-Hydration Zone. I paid $4.75 for that bottle of unsweetened ice tea. It was excellent. And I felt safe.

As is usually the case when taking some time off, I drop into a news blackout. With my brain no longer distracted by the world’s latest tragedies, I’m free to think in non-sequiturs as I soar into the sky.

I usually wake up with a piece of music running through my head. There’s usually no explanation for what I’ve tuned into. This morning it was the theme from Hawaii Five-0.

This airplane is an MD 90, which takes me back to college, and MD 20/20. A sweet wine by Mogen David, we called it Mad Dog 20/20. It tastes like it was distilled overnight.

Whenever I get too big of a head about my status in this community – big-shot writer – I get on an airplane. After just a few minutes, I look down at the ground and remind myself that we are now out of range of my public radio news reports, commentaries and blog. The people in those tiny, tiny houses do not know me, they have never read or heard a word from me.

Up here, way up here, I look out the window and carefully observe the wings that are keeping this airplane aloft. They look flimsy, a little too bendy. The wing I’m looking at has a black dot on it, about the size of the drain in your bathtub (No, I probably haven’t been in your bathroom, but bathtub drains seem to be pretty standard). Next to the dot, I can read some stenciled words: ICE SENSOR DO NOT PAINT. Just below that, with a small arrow pointing at what we non-aeronautics engineers would call the flaps, is another set of stencils placed every few yards along the length of the wing: NO STEP AFT. These are a set of warnings to work crews, suggesting they watch their step, so as to not accidentally disable some of the technology that we might be needing at 33,000 feet. Those words also get me to thinking. Aren’t the men and women who prepare these airplanes for flight properly schooled in not slopping paint over an electronic sensor, and to please not stomp on delicate moving parts?

I’m not afraid to fly. But I don’t want to die trying.

From my window, the United States of America looks bleak. Take that as political commentary, if you must.

By the way, I like this pen that I’m using to take these notes. A nice, steady ink flow. It’s the Pilot G-2 07, if you’re interested.

It’s been five or six years since the last time I was in Austin. I’ve always loved the music, the food, the bats whirling out from beneath the Congress Street Bridge at dusk. The characters sauntering along, many walking very happy-looking dogs. The old guy with dreadlocks falling down the back of his head, stopping just an inch or two from the sidewalk. Margaret has been here for a few days before I arrive, and has already warned me that the city has changed dramatically.

The capitol building in Austin, now dwarfed by the 21st century. Photo by Margaret Spevak.

It has. Spectacular high-rise buildings, all shiny glass, have pushed their way into the now unfamiliar skyline. Many of the shops, filled with smart new art or rusty horseshoes or Cuban guayabera shirts that once belonged to someone’s uncle, are gone. Threadgill’s, one of the rattle-bangy music venues and restaurants of South Austin, is closed, the space soon to be a towering condo. Jon Langford, the charismatic leader of bands such as The Waco Brothers and The Mekons, used to have his artwork hanging in a quirky gallery called The Yard Dog. It is dark as well, a sign posted on the door telling former customers that the owners could no longer afford the rent.

This doesn’t feel right. Forcing out the merchants who once gave life to these streets. But what city official would say no to these millions from heaven?

Some stuff’s still here. I stop at Waterloo Records and buy a vinyl album by the Sun Ra Arkestra, Thunder of the Gods, and a book of Sun Ra’s Afro-Futurist poems. The Skylark looks like it was built out of sheet metal, with a ceiling of varying sizes of planks and duct tape. It’s afternoon, but so dark inside that I can’t see the Shiner Bock in front of my face. But I can hear the blues singer.

We’re staying at Our Friends John and Denise’s house. Standing by the pool, high up on the hill on the other side of Barton Creek, you can see a house owned by Sandra Bullock. One of them, anyway.

Denise has a shrine to The Monkees. I think that’s pretty cool. She knew them. We’re sitting outside drinking coffee, talking about the spirituality stuff we used to read in college. I mention Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Denise suggests Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. We all agree that the Carlos Castaneda books were bullshit. John disappears for a few moments; when he comes back, he has three Castaneda paperbacks in his hand. I thumb through Journey to Ixtlan:

We hardly ever realize that we can cut anything out of our lives, anytime, in the blink of an eye.

Really? It’s that easy to cure cancer? Or fix your car’s transmission?

The legendary Continental Club is still here, a dam holding back the total condo takeover of South Congress Street. There’s a blues quartet playing, young guys, The Peterson Brothers. I’m enthralled.

My feet have been aching for new boots. The Austin streets are full of them. I fell for a pair of size 13 black Luccheses They cost $450. I have never paid that much for an item of clothing. Never, ever. In fact, I once bought a car for less than that. Nevertheless, I bought the boots. I’m betting they’ll last longer than that car.

That night I have a dream that I’m in a record store and buy a strange-looking album of electronic music for $33. Someone says to me, “Why would you do that?”

Alejandro Escovedo’s dog. Photo by Karen Schiely.

Sunday at Maria’s Taco Express, it’s the Hippie Church Breakfast. One of my favorite Austin musicians, Alejandro Escovedo, strolls in, with a very cool-looking dog on a leash. I scratch the dog behind his ears. Escovedo asks if I have a dog. “Yeah, a Weimaraner,” I tell him. Escovedo is familiar with the breed. Turn your back on her for 20 seconds and she’ll clear that table of tacos.

My Friend Karen has been documenting the trip in photos. She takes a picture of Escovedo’s dog, but later realizes she didn’t bother to shoot Escovedo. She has priorities.

We go to another record store. I see a double vinyl album, a collaboration between the minimalist composer John Cage and Sun Ra. John Cage Meets Sun Ra. It’s the entire live show put on in 1986 by the two avant-garde giants. And priced at $36.99, it’s damn near my dream come true. I buy it.

Chicken-shit bingo! Photo by Margaret Spevak.

The Derailers have been a pretty slick countrypolitan band for years, but the shine’s worn off a little; now they’re the house band for Sunday afternoon’s Chicken-Shit Bingo at C-Boy’s Heart & Soul. Here’s how Chicken-Shit Bingo works: There’s a big cage with squares marked on its floor, bar patrons buy the squares, someone gets one of the chickens out their pen in the back yard and shoves the chicken into the cage. After a few minutes – the chickens have been eating Cheerios – the chicken poops on a square, and a winner is announced. I suggest an arena-sized upgrade would be Cow-Shit Bingo, and my friends seem willing to consider it.

I’m on an airplane again, Austin to Detroit. Then the connection to Rochester. I’m looking out the window next to me. We’re climbing over a dark Detroit, and the guy in the aisle seat isn’t looking too energetic. Thirty seconds after takeoff, he suddenly jerks his head toward the floor and barfs. Luckily, I had the presence of mind to pack my new boots in my suitcase, rather than wear them on the plane. After a few moments, the women he came on with, who’s sitting between us, looks at me and silently mouths, “I’m sorry.” No need for me to say anything: There’s an air-sickness bag in the pouch on the back of the seat in front of me. On it, it says “Hope You Feel Better.”

Everyone has their own personal TV screen mounted on the back of the seat in front of them, 15 inches from their faces. I’m the only one who doesn’t turn it on. All of the adults are watching Fox News or Transformer movies or Pixar movies of kids with huge, round eyes. I pull out my new Sun Ra book, This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra, and read:

all governments

on earth

set up by men

are discriminating

but the government of death is a

pure government

it treats all in an equal manner

it is a startling, revealing picture

of equality for all

and all in the realm of death

is nothing else but

peace

Profound. Sun Ra is no Carlos Castaneda.

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World War III, with proper cultural annotations

With the conniving John Bolton vanquished, World War VI has been sidestepped, thanks to quick action by President For Life Donald John Trump, as accurately recorded on social media (See Trump Presidency Tweets, Vol. 3, 7:38 a.m. Jan. 29, 2020).

A long period of degeneration of political intellect had left a vacuum that was, briefly, occupied by World War V’s Zombie Apocalypse (See “The Walking Dead,” season 11, episode 7). But the period of national conflict (the Bowling Green Massacre) leading up to the era of anti-intellectualism (99 out of 100 scientists were indeed wrong about climate change) was offset by President Trump’s decision to wisely turn to the new powers entrusted to him (Alan Dershowitz, “if a president did something that he believes will help him get elected — in the public interest — that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment,” CSPAN Jan. 28, 2020). Just as King Solomon of Israel settled an early child-custody case by suggesting splitting in half an infant (The Hebrew Bible, 1 Kings 3:16–28), Trump’s solution to the challenges he faced was separating the presidency from the antiquated notion of checks and balances (The Constitution of the United States, separation of powers, Articles 1, 2 and 3, ratified June 21, 1788).

Republicans quickly realized that reaching a threshold does not necessarily mean that threshold has been reached: “Just because actions meet a standard of impeachment does not mean it is in the best interest of the country to remove a President from office” (Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Jan. 31, 2020). This is a refreshing take on language (Abbott and Costello, “Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know’s on third”). The degree to which President Trump’s critics accused him of personal corruption seems hardly commensurate with the man who – and we know this from his own words – tenaciously fought corruption in Ukraine (Joseph Heller, “Catch-22”).

These are complexities beyond the grasp of most Americans, who are now free to turn to their iPhones and watch videos of baby pandas learning how to walk at the Berlin zoo, or surf Netflix for documentaries on how the noise from wind turbines causes cancer (Donald Trump, National Republican Campaign Committee fundraiser, April 2, 2019). As has been widely quoted in recent years, “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them (George Orwell, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”). From this base theory, we draw corollaries difficult for commoners to comprehend, including “War is peace” (Ibid); “Freedom is slavery” (Ibid); “Ignorance is strength” (Ibid), and, “A trial does not necessarily require witnesses” (Senate Republicans, First Trump Impeachment hearing).

Normalization was now the new normal (Rudy Giuliani, “We’re not meddling in an election, we’re meddling in an investigation,” The New York Times, May 9, 2019).

Trump further solidified his base support by identifying troublesome sectors of the general population. The rise in hate crimes validates his efforts. “Fake News” outlets would soon be trampled as well. We know ancient cartographers once untruthfully depicted the Earth as flat, but debatable science is often unquestioningly accepted as real, ergo the war on truth (See climate change, the Hurricane Maria death toll, President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Senator Ted Cruz’ father was a part of a conspiracy to assassinate President John F. Kennedy, dozens of women accusing the president of sexual assault).

The emergence of the President’s alternative facts was skillfully enabled by what has been called Congressional Republicans’ “cringing shamefulness” (The Washington Post Editorial Board, Jan. 31, 2020).

The president set aside distractions such as parents whose sons and daughters gave their lives while in military service. And environmentalists protesting war-effort initiatives that included Trump’s freeing up national parks and waterways for the exploration of much-needed oil and the disposal of contaminated waste. And left-wing groups such as the American Bar Association rating his judicial candidates as “not qualified.” And while more than 160 countries that have banned the use of land mines due to their history of killing and wounding civilians, Trump rescinded restrictions on the U.S. military’s use of the weapons in order to further bolster the defense of the Homeland.

Trump discovered that healing the world was more swiftly accomplished when negotiating with just one man (Russian president Vladimir Putin) than having to answer to millions of his fellow citizens (Democrats, and anyone who refused to believe that Hillary Clinton’s cloud-based email server was actually a physical piece of hardware hidden in a basement in Ukraine).

Trump was the first (and one of the few, outside of White Nationalists) to recognize that Obama was planning to use Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to build concentration camps to lock up dissenters and nullify the 2016 election (Trump re-directed those FEMA funds to the more-democratic concept of building alien detention camps and separating children from their parents).

“So it goes” (Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five”).

Prior to World Wars III, IV and V, it was common to see television cable news shows explain global conflicts by deploying retired generals in front of wall-sized maps, with arrows depicting how American troops were executing a series of “pincer movements” to trap Saddam Hussein’s army (“The O’Reilly Factor,” Fox News). Pincer movements have long played a significant role in military history (Soviet Red Army vs. German Wehrmacht, Stalingrad, winter of 1942-’43). Yet the strategy had fallen out of favor by the time of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan at the end of the 20th Century; when Taliban soldiers saw the pointy part of the arrow coming toward them, they withdrew into the desert or mountains or general population until they observed the back end of the arrow, thereupon returning to the fight (“Lawrence of Arabia,” Best Picture, 1963 Academy Awards).

Looking ahead to World Wars III, IV and V, President Trump signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. It set the military budget at $738 billion, which included the establishment of a new military branch with excellent insignia patches, the U.S. Space Force (Although the Prime Directive as initially defined by “Star Trek” prohibits members of the United Federation of Planets from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations).

Such futuristic thinking is generally the province of speculative fiction. “With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter” (“The War of the Worlds,” H.G. Wells).

In that manner, President Trump sagely anticipated the arrival of Martians and their spindly-legged machines armed with death rays. His cool and calculated unpredictability kept the rest of the world breathlessly in check (Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb”). Yet other dangers were far less obvious. The passage of time has shown us that World War III was not announced with a dramatic act of aggression, as we saw with Pearl Harbor and the American entry into World War II (Gordon W. Prange, “At Dawn We Slept”). Instead, it arrived with all of the quietude of a housecat hopping onto a bed to join its slumbering masters (Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine), unpublished manuscript, “And Then We Hit the Snooze Button and Rolled Over”).

The solutions to other dangers had proven to be far more costly. We can trace the true origins of World Wars III, IV and V to the American incursions into North Korea and Vietnam, and the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, roach motels of war from which there was no escape for either nation’s politicians or soldiers.  (“Apocalypse Now,” Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz, speaking to Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard, “You’re an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill”).

Thus, while expanding their world reach through the economics of military spending working hand-in-hand and the symbolism of missile design (Sigmund Freud, common cocktail party chatter), Russian leaders learned that the bill will always come due. With the failure of its own war in Afghanistan, Russia traded such certified penis envy for teenage computer geeks (a monthly minimum wage of 12,130 rubles, or $191.05 in U.S. currency) launching dissolute bargain-basement cyber attacks from the comfort of their potato-filled kitchens. Their aim? To drive a wedge into America’s racial and economic fault lines, assuring the election of President For Life Trump.

Trump responded with shock-and-awe economics (the 2020 U.S. military budget, $738 billion) that demonstrated its limitless resources. And was time to party, taxpayer’s money well spent ($3.4 million on the Super Bowl LIV blowout at Mar-a-Lago, your invite’s still in the mail).

What could go wrong? (Edward Gibbon, “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.”) Certainly the United States Senate (President James Buchanan, “The greatest deliberative body in the world”) has never entertained such thoughts.

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