Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Tag: Ted Nugent

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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The Critical Mass

The party of Norris, Lovitz, Stein, Nugent and Williams Jr.

I see that the Republican Party has evolved into a homeless shelter for washed-up entertainers.

Despite his much-discussed conversation with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention, we’ll leave Clint Eastwood out of this argument. He’s 82 and I can overlook a few late-season errors, because his spaghetti westerns, Play Misty For Me, Bird, and even a couple of those later movies – Gran Torino and the two Iwo Jima films – were quite thoughtful. Also, I was raised by a cranky old man. I get it.

Chuck Norris has no excuses. He’s a D-minus karate actor used as a stooge by both the Huckabee and Gingrich campaigns, which had him stand behind their dubious candidates like a cardboard cutout, nodding his head in agreement to their strange visions.

Norris and his wife, Gena, have just put up an anti-Obama video on YouTube. At one point, Gena quotes Ronald Reagan circa 1964, back when that faded actor was throwing his support behind Barry Goldwater for president:  “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to take the first step into 1,000 years of darkness.” A victim of typecasting to the end, Norris stands beside his wife, nodding his head in agreement with this strange vision. He’s thinking maybe he can land a bit role in this new prequel he’s just heard about, Lord of the Rings: 1,000 Years of Darkness.

Jon Lovitz called Obama a “fucking asshole” on a podcast because the comedian doesn’t agree with the president’s tax policy. Then he refused to apologize, despite heavy criticism, because Obama’s “not king.” In a talk-show appearance later with another former Saturday Night Live Star, Dana Carvey, the two over-the-horizon stars commiserated on what a terrible world we now live in, a world where a comedian can’t crack a joke at the president’s expense. Neither acknowledged this obvious fact: If they want to earn a laugh, the joke has to be funny.

Ben Stein, the monotone actor, has resurrected his profile as a conservative commentator. At least he’s not a newcomer: He was a speech writer for Nixon. Stein’s schtick is arguing on behalf of dismissed ideologies, including creationism. He co-wrote and starred in a documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, that claims a belief in evolution may have led to the Holocaust. Really.

Ted Nugent. No one listens to his music anymore. So he screams for attention like a petulant child, threatening Obama and writing essays for a conservative newspaper, The Washington Times, that are filled with fact errors and distortions. He even went on Fox News’ Your World With Neil Cavuto a few years ago and lied about a conversation that he had with me. With me!

Hank Williams Jr., a continuing embarrassment to a great legacy, was at it again this week.“We’ve got a Muslim for a President who hates cowboys, hates cowgirls, hates fishing, hates farming, loves gays, and we hate him!” the country singer told a crowd  in Fort Worth, Texas. People cheered, some guy in the front waved a Confederate battle flag.

Williams’ words inspired an awesome Tweet by the actor Alec Baldwin. “If Hank Williams Jr wasn’t such a pathetic, wheezing fossil I’d have a talk with him. I think we need to call Hank Williams Jr what he is…. A broken-down, senile, racist coot.”

Get used to it. The party of Lincoln is now the party of Norris, Lovitz, Stein, Nugent and Williams Jr.

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