Monthly Archives: September 2020

The Reagan Test

As I’ve noted before, I have exactly zero uncertainty about who I’m voting for this year. There really isn’t even a choice to be made, as far as I’m concerned, and I find it difficult to believe anyone out there still believes there is. But just in case there is someone who hasn’t made up their mind yet, and assuming that person somehow stumbles across my little corner of the internet, I’d like to share John Scalzi’s recent suggestion that we ought to apply the question Ronald Reagan asked the electorate way back in 1980 to our current situation: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” (To which my pop-culture-saturated brain immediately conjures up the flinty voice of Clint Eastwood for an addendum: “Well, are you… punk?!” Which, if you remember anything at all about the Reagan era, is not an unreasonable thing to think of.) Anyhow, this is John’s reply to that question, and I couldn’t have said it any better myself:

Four years ago, I could leave my house without wearing a mask (I mean, I guess I could leave the house without one, if I was an asshole who didn’t care about the health and safety of others as well as myself, but I’m not, so I wear a mask).

Four years ago I could go to a restaurant or see a movie or go to a party or get on a plane without worrying about possibly contracting a disease that could put me on a respirator, kill me or give me serious, chronic, long-term health issues.

Four years ago I didn’t worry about sending my kid to school.

Four years ago I didn’t have family and friends who had to choose between exposing themselves to a disease that could kill or seriously debilitate them, or being able to pay rent or buy medications.

Four years ago I had a federal government that actually had a well-thought out plan for dealing with highly-infectious, potentially pandemic-level diseases like the one we’re currently living through.

Four years ago I could trust the information from the CDC (and NOAA, while we’re at it) to represent the best available scientific information, not the information that was deemed the least damaging to the president, according to political apparatchiks installed into those organizations by the White House.

Four years ago I didn’t have a president who lied about the severity of a pandemic to the public while privately acknowledging that severity.

Four years ago tens of thousands of people more than there should have been weren’t dead, and even more sick, of a disease that they might have avoided if accurate information and a well-formulated plan had been offered at the federal level. These numbers include people I know and care about.

Four years ago there were far more countries I could travel to with an American passport than ones I could not, including the one directly north of us.

Four years ago, I could go to conventions and have book tours to promote my work and to make connections with business associates.

Four years ago I could get nearly any kind of soda I wanted in an aluminum can.

Four years ago there were no shortages of basic home necessities.

Four years ago I did not have a president who championed white supremacy and conspiracy theories over science and the well-being of all Americans.

Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my vote, or the votes of family members and friends, would be counted fairly and accurately.

Four years ago my health insurance cost less and covered more.

Four years ago I didn’t think about whether my mail would be sent or arrive in a timely manner.

Four years ago I had a president who hadn’t insulted the work and sacrifice of service members, who include both friends and family members.

Four years ago I didn’t worry whether my access to the services and function of the federal government, in an emergency or at all other times, would be contingent upon whether the president had decided someone in my state state was his friend or his foe, or had flattered him enough that he felt inclined to do the job that he was in fact required to do, by law and by the Constitution.

So, no. I’m not better off today than I was four years ago. I am in fact rather worse off: I have a little bit more money, at the expense of an actual, functioning country and society. This is not a good exchange. I will vote accordingly.

I know a lot of people are unhappy with the thought of a Biden presidency for various reasons, but four more years of this… chaos… won’t do any good for anyone who actually works for a living.



A Song You Remember From Your Childhood

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 29: A Song You Remember From Your Childhood

“Sundown” is the title track from Gordon Lightfoot’s fifth album on the Warner Bros/Reprise label (his tenth album, overall). It was a number-one hit in the summer of 1974. I was just under five years old at the time, so it’s unlikely I have any real memories of the song in the context of that year. And yet somehow it’s become associated in my mind with a series of impressions that add up to a scene that very likely did occur around that time… so maybe I actually do remember it. Memory is such a weird, slippery thing, especially when you’re looking back across four and a half decades. But whether I’m experiencing a genuine memory when I hear “Sundown” or just something I’ve manufactured for myself that uses the song as accompaniment, it always conjures up a vision of riding alongside my pretty young mother in her 1956 Ford pickup truck, the one with rust-red primer on the fenders and an eight-track deck welded into the dashboard. A long bar of sunshine-polygons pivots across the curving sides of the windshield and the truck shimmies and squeaks as old cars do, like living things with a touch of arthritis in their joints. The sweet, floral smell of just-cut alfalfa flows through the open wing-window. Dad has a swather machine and picks up a few extra bucks on the weekends cutting and baling hay for the local farmers. We’re on our way to meet him with a midday snack, a box of his favorite raspberry Zingers on the bench seat between us, a styrofoam cooler on the floor between us loaded with cans of Fanta Red Cream Soda and Coke in tall glass bottles. I’m drowsy in the heat, and the world seems very large and uncrowded.

This memory is a safe place, a happy place that I find myself retreating to more and more often as I get old and current events become more grim and frustrating. Strange that it would be so tangled up with a song about a “hard-headed woman that’s got me feeling mean.” But like I said… memory is weird…



A Song By An Artist Whose Voice You Love

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 28: A Song By An Artist Whose Voice You Love

An artist whose voice I love? Well, let’s see… I already used the Bangles way back at Song Number 9, so Susanna Hoffs is out. How about…

Mary Chapin Carpenter.

You might remember her from a string of hits on the country charts back in the early ’90s that included “Down at the Twist and Shout,” “Passionate Kisses,” “I Feel Lucky,” “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her,” “I Take My Chances,”  and her biggest seller, the number-one favorite “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”

Despite these successes, though, mainstream country was never a great fit for Chapin — I call her Chapin; I have no idea if anyone else does or if she would be cool with it — especially at that particular moment when her contemporaries tended to be glammed-up dollies like Reba McEntire and Faith Hill. By contrast, Chapin has always seemed to be most comfortable in a flannel shirt and a ponytail, and neither her speaking nor singing voice has the slightest trace of a twang. She took five years off in the late ’90s, but since the turn of the century — man, that still sounds weird! — she’s been recording and releasing new music that has moved farther and farther away from the country genre, both in sound and subject matter. Today, it’s probably best to describe her simply as a singer-songwriter whose work comprises literate meditations on aging, politics, and contemporary events. Sounds pretentious, but her music always had an intellectual edge, which is partly why I like her. Her lyrics are smart and often include striking imagery, as well as unexpected flashes of humor, even when the subject matter seems heavy. She’s a storyteller, which isn’t that unusual among singer-songwriters or country musicians, but the way in which she tells her stories are uniquely her own, and as a wannabe storyteller myself, I admire that.

As to her voice, it can be sexy on the right song, but mostly it’s warm and smooth. The cliche’d description would be “like honey,” but cliche or not, that’s what it reminds me of. Especially on the song I’ve selected for this post, which is the introspective title track from her 1994 album Stones in the Road, the same one that yielded the playful “Shut Up and Kiss Me.” This one refers to historical events that would have more resonance for Baby Boomers than my own age demographic, but I still relate to the overall mood and themes, and I love the final verse about what becomes of those innocent children when they hit working age.

“Stones” was not released as a single, so there’s no official video for it. There are some live performances on YouTube, but I really like the sound in the studio version you’ll hear here. Chapin didn’t do many videos in any case; much like the glamorous hair and dresses, she never seemed comfortable doing them. It’s probably for the best anyhow. Just close your eyes and pay attention to the words she uses…


I Wish We Could Move On from This

So here we are again. This day..

This year, for the first time, I have one of those “healing fields” right next door to my house. Long rows of American flags on the lawn of the local civic center, standing about as tall as I am on poles made of white PVC, their colors bright under the September sun. During rare moments when there’s a lull in the traffic on the busy road out front, I can hear a whispering sound as folds of nylon cloth ripple and slide past each other in the light breeze. It’s rather peaceful. Pleasant, even. And yet… I hate it.

I hate that it’s been 19 years since that other sunny September morning and we’re still putting up these fields of flags and ritualistically posting images of the lost towers and the words “never forget” on our social media. What good does it do us as a society to keep doing this? How long will it take, how many years of putting up “healing fields” does it require, until this nation finally is healed? Or even beginning to heal? Or at least pretending to?

Not that anyone asked, but I’ll tell you what I think: I don’t believe Americans really want this particular wound to heal. I think we enjoy our martyrdom too much.

Blasphemy, I know, and maybe more than a little asshole-ish to say it out loud. But look… we don’t behave this way around December 7, and as far as I know, we never did. We just got on with the business at hand. I suppose it can be argued that 9/11 was more traumatic than Pearl Harbor, because it happened on the mainland instead of 2500 miles away, right in the heart of our most important city, and we all saw the towers fall on live television. But still… it’s been nearly two decades. An entire generation has been born and (mostly) grown up in that time. So why are we still doing this?

In a couple of recent posts, I mentioned the way I reacted to breaking up with someone when I was 20, the way I moped about it for much, much longer than I should have. I didn’t see it that way at the time. Back then, all I knew was that I was hurting. But here’s the thing: Looking back now, I think that after a while, I chose to keep hurting. It became a sort of identity for me. I saw myself as the wounded romantic, the tragic figure who lost at love. In some weird, fucked-up, masochistic way, I think I actually liked hurting and pining for a lost love. But it was foolish and self-destructive. Maybe a little bit phony, too; that is, maybe I wasn’t really hurting so much as I believed myself to be. And it was self-limiting: Who knows what opportunities I missed out on, that I was utterly blind to, because I was so absorbed with this… idea. Because in the end, that’s what I was really hung up on, an idea of loss more than the actual girl that I lost. And it was all, when you get down to it, somehow… somehow it was my fault that I felt that way. It was my choice to remain in that headspace instead of pulling myself together and getting on with living.

I think that’s what Americans are doing with 9/11 at this point. We’re choosing to continue this annual ritual of mourning that is, to my way of thinking, far out of proportion with the number of lives actually lost. Three thousand people died in the twin towers and in the Pentagon and in that field in Pennsylvania, and that is tragic. The manner of their deaths was absolutely horrible. But how many died in the wars of revenge that we waged after 9/11? How many have died of COVID-19 in the past few months, and how many are going to die of it before it finally burns itself out or recedes to the level of an annual nuisance instead of a scourge? Are they going to get an annual day of remembrance too? Because I think this damned plague has been every bit as traumatic and painful as that terror attack 19 years ago. But that’s different somehow, isn’t it?

Don’t misunderstand. I’m sure there are still people who lost loved ones in the attack or who live near to where it happened who struggle this time of year. I’m not unsympathetic to that. I don’t think we should stop all commemoration of the event or of the lives lost. But I’d like to see it start to scale back. To become a regional thing that happens at the places where people actually died, like the annual commemoration on the USS Arizona. We shouldn’t forget what happened or ignore it moving forward, but can’t we be a little more measured about it now that we have some distance from it?

And for god’s sake, can we avoid turning this into yet another “America, Fuck Yeah!” holiday? Because I fear we’re drifting that way now that this day has been officially designated as “Patriot Day.” In addition to that field of flags, my hometown is planning a classic-car parade and fireworks tonight at — naturally — 9:11 PM. I can’t tell you how distasteful I find that. This day is supposed to be a solemn memorial for the dead, but let’s have a party too. But I suppose that’s the America way, when you get down to it. Armistice Day becomes Veterans Day, which becomes a three-day weekend and an opportunity for a killer deal on a new pickup truck. I know that I’m just spitting into the wind with my desire to see Patriot Day rolled back to something quiet and small and dignified. But then I’d also like to see American troops leave Iraq and Afghanistan once and for all, and I’d like to not have to take off my shoes at the airport anymore too.


A Song That Breaks Your Heart

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 27: A Song That Breaks Your Heart

Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” is a beautiful ballad, as insightful and emotionally truthful as any I’ve ever heard… so truthful that for a very long time, I couldn’t stand to listen to it.

This was partly an accident of timing. The song was released in October of 1991, and while I was on the mend by then from the romantic trauma I mentioned in the previous entry, “on the mend” is a long way from “100% recovered.” It didn’t take much in those days to rip the scab off and this song was just… too much. It stung me like a physical slap every time I heard it. So naturally it was a big hit that I couldn’t seem to avoid hearing all through the fall and winter months of that year. The universe has a sick sense of humor sometimes. Even if it hadn’t come out right then, though, I think I might have struggled with this song anyhow. It really is very sad.

Watch the video closely… the man you see playing the piano at the end is none other than Bruce Hornsby, who’d just had several hits of his own in the late ’80s with Bruce Hornsby and the Range. He also played piano on Don Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” around this same time. He was evidently the go-to guy for melancholy…


A Song That Makes You Want to Fall in Love

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 26: A Song That Makes You Want to Fall in Love

In the summer of 1991, I was 21 years old and finally beginning to move on from a heartbreak I’d experienced the previous year. In retrospect, I never should have allowed myself to sulk for so long about that situation, which really couldn’t have turned out any other way except the way that it did. But that’s the somewhat wiser perspective of a 51-year-old whose scars (and hormones) have faded. Back then, when it was all fresh and red and oozing, and I was still more of a boy than any kind of functional adult… well, back then I fancied myself some kind of Byronic hero, a tragic figure swathed in melancholy, wounded by love as no one in the history of humankind had ever been wounded before, existing in the shadows and clinging to the bright pain that gives life meaning. (“Call me... Darkman…”)

Christ, no wonder I had such a hard time getting a date!

Seriously, though, now that I think about it, this awful period was probably my first encounter with the Black Dog of depression, and I probably could’ve used some professional help instead of muddling through it on my own. I’m more than a little embarrassed about my behavior and thinking during that time. But as I said, by the summer of ’91, I was starting to pull myself out of the funk. And in spite of the aforementioned difficulty, I was starting to land the occasional date, too. For example, there was the afternoon I escorted an old friend to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves at the theater where I worked.

Now, that movie is what it is and this isn’t the place to debate its merits or lack thereof. And whatever intentions (hopes? wishes?) I may have had toward that friend didn’t pan out. We had a nice afternoon at the movies, but that was all. Perhaps I wasn’t as ready to move on as I thought as I was, or maybe too much time had passed to rekindle anything with that particular girl. Maybe I never actually had any intentions at all and I just wanted to see a movie with a friend. I don’t recall for sure anymore. But whatever the ultimate outcome, there was a moment during the movie’s closing credits when I suddenly felt… well, something between us. It might have been wishful thinking, it might just have been the mood generated by the movie’s romantic ending, but it was there, and it did me a world of good to feel that way, if only for a moment. To know that I still could feel that way. For that reason alone, I’ve never been able to join in when everybody else starts ragging on that movie.

Music is, of course, a huge component of how a movie affects the viewer, and I have no doubt that the song that played over the end credits of Prince of Thieves was as responsible for how I felt in that moment as anything. “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was Bryan Adams’ first foray into movie music and it proved to be a good career move for him, as the song became a number-one hit in 16 different countries and remains Adams’ biggest-selling song. It also led to him writing and recording a slew of other movie songs, both for himself and for other performers, including a couple of power ballads that were very similar to “(Everything I Do)” in sound and mood: “All for Love,” a collaboration with Rod Stewart and Sting for the 1993 Disney version of The Three Musketeers and “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” from the Johnny Depp vehicle Don Juan DeMarco. For my money, though, “(Everything I Do)” is the best of these, as well as one of the best love songs of the last several decades. Because while love songs are a dime a dozen, especially in pop and rock circles, I’ve never heard one that captures the feeling of tenderness in such an honest, true-to-life way. At least to my ear. Your mileage may vary.

This song isn’t about the early infatuation stage of a relationship or about physical lust, as intoxicating as those things are; this song is more mature than that. It’s a promise. It’s a knight pledging himself to a lady.

And one day back in 1991, it really did make me want to fall in love again

A final note about the video: I know there was one that incorporated clips from the movie along with Adams in a long black coat walking along a stony English-looking beach, but for some reason, I couldn’t find that one. Probably something to do with licensing, I would guess, because of the movie footage. Here’s another version that’s not nearly as good… but we’re here to listen to the music anyhow, right?


A Song You Like by an Artist No Longer Living

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 25: A Song You Like by an Artist No Longer Living

I heard a lot of Elvis’ music when I was a kid. My mother is a longtime fan and, while she was never one of those extremists who built a shrine in the living room following his death, it seems like there was always one of his records playing on our massive old hi-fi console when I got home from school. Unlike most kids who probably just rolled their eyes at whatever their parents liked to listen to, I actually enjoyed it. Most of it, anyhow.

I’ve gone back and forth over the years about which era of Elvis I prefer. Generally speaking, he was at his most exciting in the early days, the late 1950s, before his stint in the army and that long string of Hollywood movies that seemed to drain away all the mojo that had been so threatening to whitebread America when he first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. However, I also have a real soft spot for his work from the early ’70s, the records that Mom was listening to most often in my memories of that time. “In the Ghetto,” “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain,” and “Burning Love” are great songs, as iconic in their way as anything he did when he was young.

However, for a plain old crank-it-loud, get-the-heart-pumping rock-and-roll experience, I always dial up “Promised Land.” Originally a Chuck Berry tune from 1965, Elvis recorded it in 1973, and released it as a single in the fall of ’74. It peaked on the charts at number 14 and became the title track of an LP the following year. I was five at the time.

The video I found appears to be fan-made, using footage from the film Elvis: That’s the Way It Is, which documented a string of live appearances at the International Hotel in Las Vegas (now known as the Westgate Las Vegas) in August 1970. Promoted as the “Elvis Summer Festival,” this was essentially the same sort of residency that has now become de rigueur for aging rockstars. People tend to sneer at “Vegas Elvis,” but he was pioneering something we now take for granted, and as cheesy as the jumpsuits and karate moves might now appear to be, I’m sure they were electrifying at the time. There has to be a reason why the man sold out 837 of those Vegas performances.

One final thought: You might remember this one from the first Men In Black movie, when Tommy Lee Jones is driving on the ceiling of the Queens Midtown Tunnel while blasting his favorite eight-track. (“Elvis is not dead, he just went home.”)