An Ally of the Light, Not of the Darkness

As I mentioned in the previous entry, my vote in the upcoming election is already locked in. I was always going to vote Democratic regardless of who the nominee might have been. That said, I did have my favorite in the primary… and Joe Biden wasn’t it. I had nothing against him, I just had another preference. But after catching up on his speech last night on the final evening of the DNC, I’m a lot more enthused about the idea of President Biden.

He’s not the greatest speaker in the world. He doesn’t have the soaring oratorical skills of Bill Clinton or the infectious optimism of Barack Obama. But he’s authentic and he’s earnest. He wears decency and empathy on his sleeve. I like how during the course of this speech, you can hear flashes of genuine anger at how the current president has gone astray. Not just because I’m deeply, deeply angry about Donald Trump’s destructive rampage against everything the Democrats have accomplished since the New Deal, although I certainly am. But rather because it’s real emotion. That’s real humanity shining through, but not overwhelming his reason. I like when his voice thickens while he’s talking about his late wife and son, too. Joe Biden is a human being. Not some weird damaged husk, or a slick, impassive replicant.

And he says the things I want to hear. About what it’s going to honestly take to handle this goddamn pandemic, and that he’ll start to do it on Day One (we should’ve had a national stat-at-home order and masking mandate months ago). And also about rebuilding the country — broadband! — and fixing the institutions that are broken and confronting climate change. I like that he talks about trusting in science. And restoring our friendships around the world. I am appalled that Trump and his sycophantic organization have trashed decades-old alliances simply because of his xenophobia and obsession with the idea that America needs to be paid for everything like some kind of nationalistic protection racket. Biden’s words on the subject were… soothing. If he gets in, I think we have a chance of salvaging some degree of American prestige… although if the right wing thought Obama’s “apology tour” was too much, they’re going to lose their minds over what Biden will be required to do.

I am more dubious about Biden’s claim that we’re on the verge of getting rid of America’s systemic racism, even though the BLM protests of recent months have been the most remarkable thing around the subject that I’ve seen in my lifetime. But again, I like what Biden has to say about the possibility. I like that he’s talking about possibilities in general.

It was a good speech. I look forward to more like this…

Transcript follows the video (bolded emphasis is mine):

Good evening.

Ella Baker, a giant of the civil rights movement, left us with this wisdom: Give people light and they will find a way.

Give people light. Those are words for our time.

The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger. Too much fear. Too much division. Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us not the worst. I will be an ally of the light not of the darkness.

It’s time for us, for We the People, to come together.

For make no mistake. United we can, and will, overcome this season of darkness in America. We will choose hope over fear, facts over fiction, fairness over privilege.

I am a proud Democrat and I will be proud to carry the banner of our party into the general election. So, it is with great honor and humility that I accept this nomination for President of the United States of America.

But while I will be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president. I will work as hard for those who didn’t support me as I will for those who did. That’s the job of a president. To represent all of us, not just our base or our party. This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.

It’s a moment that calls for hope and light and love. Hope for our futures, light to see our way forward, and love for one another. America isn’t just a collection of clashing interests of Red States or Blue States. We’re so much bigger than that. We’re so much better than that.

Nearly a century ago, Franklin Roosevelt pledged a New Deal in a time of massive unemployment, uncertainty, and fear. Stricken by disease, stricken by a virus, FDR insisted that he would recover and prevail and he believed America could as well. And he did. And so can we.

This campaign isn’t just about winning votes.

It’s about winning the heart, and yes, the soul of America.

Winning it for the generous among us, not the selfish. Winning it for the workers who keep this country going, not just the privileged few at the top. Winning it for those communities who have known the injustice of the “knee on the neck”. For all the young people who have known only an America of rising inequity and shrinking opportunity. They deserve to experience America’s promise in full.

No generation ever knows what history will ask of it. All we can ever know is whether we’ll be ready when that moment arrives. And now history has delivered us to one of the most difficult moments America has ever faced. Four historic crises. All at the same time. A perfect storm. The worst pandemic in over 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.
The most compelling call for racial justice since the 60’s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change. So, the question for us is simple: Are we ready?

I believe we are.

We must be.

All elections are important. But we know in our bones this one is more consequential. America is at an inflection point. A time of real peril, but of extraordinary possibilities. We can choose the path of becoming angrier, less hopeful, and more divided. A path of shadow and suspicion. Or we can choose a different path, and together, take this chance to heal, to be reborn, to unite. A path of hope and light. This is a life-changing election that will determine America’s future for a very long time. Character is on the ballot. Compassion is on the ballot. Decency, science, democracy. They are all on the ballot. Who we are as a nation. What we stand for. And, most importantly, who we want to be.

That’s all on the ballot. And the choice could not be clearer. No rhetoric is needed. Just judge this president on the facts:

  • Five million Americans infected with COVID-19.
  • More than 170,000 Americans have died.
  • By far the worst performance of any nation on Earth.
  • More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment this year.
  • More than 10 million people are going to lose their health insurance this year.
  • Nearly one in 6 small businesses have closed this year.
  • If this president is re-elected we know what will happen.
  • Cases and deaths will remain far too high.
  • More mom and pop businesses will close their doors for good.
  • Working families will struggle to get by, and yet, the wealthiest one percent will get tens of billions of dollars in new tax breaks.
  • And the assault on the Affordable Care Act will continue until its destroyed, taking insurance away from more than 20 million people — including more than 15 million people on Medicaid — and getting rid of the protections that President Obama and I passed for people who suffer from a pre-existing condition.

And speaking of President Obama, a man I was honored to serve alongside for 8 years as Vice President. Let me take this moment to say something we don’t say nearly enough: Thank you, Mr. President. You were a great president. A president our children could — and did — look up to.

No one will say that about the current occupant of the office.

What we know about this president is if he’s given four more years he will be what he’s been the last four years. A president who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators, and fans the flames of hate and division.
He will wake up every day believing the job is all about him. Never about you. Is that the America you want for you, your family, your children?

I see a different America. One that is generous and strong. Selfless and humble. It’s an America we can rebuild together.

As president, the first step I will take will be to get control of the virus that’s ruined so many lives. Because I understand something this president doesn’t. We will never get our economy back on track, we will never get our kids safely back to school, we will never have our lives back, until we deal with this virus. The tragedy of where we are today is it didn’t have to be this bad. Just look around. It’s not this bad in Canada. Or Europe. Or Japan. Or almost anywhere else in the world.

The President keeps telling us the virus is going to disappear. He keeps waiting for a miracle. Well, I have news for him, no miracle is coming. We lead the world in confirmed cases. We lead the world in deaths. Our economy is in tatters, with Black, Latino, Asian American, and Native American communities bearing the brunt of it. And after all this time, the president still does not have a plan.

Well, I do.

If I’m president, on day one we’ll implement the national strategy I’ve been laying out since March. We’ll develop and deploy rapid tests with results available immediately. We’ll make the medical supplies and protective equipment our country needs. And we’ll make them here in America. So we will never again be at the mercy of China and other foreign countries in order to protect our own people. We’ll make sure our schools have the resources they need to be open, safe, and effective. We’ll put the politics aside and take the muzzle off our experts so the public gets the information they need and deserve. The honest, unvarnished truth. They can deal with that. We’ll have a national mandate to wear a mask-not as a burden, but to protect each other. It’s a patriotic duty. In short, I will do what we should have done from the very beginning.

Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to this nation. He failed to protect us. He failed to protect America. And, my fellow Americans, that is unforgivable.

As president, I will make you this promise: I will protect America. I will defend us from every attack. Seen. And unseen. Always. Without exception. Every time.

Look, I understand it’s hard to have hope right now.

On this summer night, let me take a moment to speak to those of you who have lost the most. I know how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest. That you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes. But I’ve learned two things.First, your loved ones may have left this Earth but they never leave your heart. They will always be with you. And second, I found the best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose. As God’s children each of us have a purpose in our lives.

And we have a great purpose as a nation: To open the doors of opportunity to all Americans. To save our democracy. To be a light to the world once again. To finally live up to and make real the words written in the sacred documents that founded this nation that all men and women are created equal. Endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

You know, my Dad was an honorable, decent man. He got knocked down a few times pretty hard, but always got up. He worked hard and built a great middle-class life for our family. He used to say, “Joey, I don’t expect the government to solve my problems, but I expect it to understand them.” And then he would say: “Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect. It’s about your place in your community. It’s about looking your kids in the eye and say, honey, it’s going to be okay.”

I’ve never forgotten those lessons.

That’s why my economic plan is all about jobs, dignity, respect, and community. Together, we can, and we will, rebuild our economy. And when we do, we’ll not only build it back, we’ll build it back better. With modern roads, bridges, highways, broadband, ports and airports as a new foundation for economic growth. With pipes that transport clean water to every community. With 5 million new manufacturing and technology jobs so the future is made in America. With a health care system that lowers premiums, deductibles, and drug prices by building on the Affordable Care Act he’s trying to rip away.
With an education system that trains our people for the best jobs of the 21st century, where cost doesn’t prevent young people from going to college, and student debt doesn’t crush them when they get out. With child care and elder care that make it possible for parents to go to work and for the elderly to stay in their homes with dignity. With an immigration system that powers our economy and reflects our values. With newly empowered labor unions. With equal pay for women. With rising wages you can raise a family on. Yes, we’re going to do more than praise our essential workers. We’re finally going to pay them.

We can, and we will, deal with climate change. It’s not only a crisis, it’s an enormous opportunity. An opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process.

And we can pay for these investments by ending loopholes and the president’s $1.3 trillion tax giveaway to the wealthiest 1 percent and the biggest, most profitable corporations, some of which pay no tax at all. Because we don’t need a tax code that rewards wealth more than it rewards work. I’m not looking to punish anyone. Far from it. But it’s long past time the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations in this country paid their fair share. For our seniors, Social Security is a sacred obligation, a sacred promise made. The current president is threatening to break that promise. He’s proposing to eliminate the tax that pays for almost half of Social Security without any way of making up for that lost revenue. I will not let it happen. If I’m your president, we’re going to protect Social Security and Medicare. You have my word.

One of the most powerful voices we hear in the country today is from our young people. They’re speaking to the inequity and injustice that has grown up in America. Economic injustice. Racial injustice. Environmental injustice. I hear their voices and if you listen, you can hear them too. And whether it’s the existential threat posed by climate change, the daily fear of being gunned down in school, or the inability to get started in their first job — it will be the work of the next president to restore the promise of America to everyone.

I won’t have to do it alone. Because I will have a great Vice President at my side. Senator Kamala Harris. She is a powerful voice for this nation. Her story is the American story. She knows about all the obstacles thrown in the way of so many in our country. Women, Black women, Black Americans, South Asian Americans, immigrants, the left-out and left-behind. But she’s overcome every obstacle she’s ever faced. No one’s been tougher on the big banks or the gun lobby. No one’s been tougher in calling out this current administration for its extremism, its failure to follow the law, and its failure to simply tell the truth.
Kamala and I both draw strength from our families. For Kamala, it’s Doug and their families. For me, it’s Jill and ours.

No man deserves one great love in his life. But I’ve known two. After losing my first wife in a car accident, Jill came into my life and put our family back together. She’s an educator. A mom. A military Mom. And an unstoppable force. If she puts her mind to it, just get out of the way. Because she’s going to get it done. She was a great Second Lady and she will make a great First Lady for this nation, she loves this country so much.

And I will have the strength that can only come from family. Hunter, Ashley and all our grandchildren, my brothers, my sister. They give me courage and lift me up. And while he is no longer with us, Beau inspires me every day. Beau served our nation in uniform. A decorated Iraq war veteran. So I take very personally the profound responsibility of serving as Commander in Chief.

I will be a president who will stand with our allies and friends. I will make it clear to our adversaries the days of cozying up to dictators are over. Under President Biden, America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on the heads of American soldiers. Nor will I put up with foreign interference in our most sacred democratic exercise — voting. I will stand always for our values of human rights and dignity. And I will work in common purpose for a more secure, peaceful, and prosperous world.

History has thrust one more urgent task on us. Will we be the generation that finally wipes the stain of racism from our national character? I believe we’re up to it. I believe we’re ready. Just a week ago yesterday was the third anniversary of the events in Charlottesville. Remember seeing those neo-Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists coming out of the fields with lighted torches? Veins bulging? Spewing the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ’30s? Remember the violent clash that ensued between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it? Remember what the president said? There were quote, “very fine people on both sides.”

It was a wake-up call for us as a country. And for me, a call to action. At that moment, I knew I’d have to run. My father taught us that silence was complicity. And I could not remain silent or complicit. At the time, I said we were in a battle for the soul of this nation. And we are.

One of the most important conversations I’ve had this entire campaign is with someone who is too young to vote. I met with six-year old Gianna Floyd, a day before her Daddy George Floyd was laid to rest. She is incredibly brave. I’ll never forget. When I leaned down to speak with her, she looked into my eyes and said “Daddy, changed the world.” Her words burrowed deep into my heart. Maybe George Floyd’s murder was the breaking point. Maybe John Lewis’ passing the inspiration. However it has come to be, America is ready to in John’s words, to lay down “the heavy burdens of hate at last” and to do the hard work of rooting out our systemic racism.

America’s history tells us that it has been in our darkest moments that we’ve made our greatest progress. That we’ve found the light. And in this dark moment, I believe we are poised to make great progress again. That we can find the light once more. I have always believed you can define America in one word: Possibilities. That in America, everyone, and I mean everyone, should be given the opportunity to go as far as their dreams and God-given ability will take them. We can never lose that. In times as challenging as these, I believe there is only one way forward. As a united America. United in our pursuit of a more perfect Union. United in our dreams of a better future for us and for our children. United in our determination to make the coming years bright.

Are we ready? I believe we are. This is a great nation. And we are a good and decent people. This is the United States of America. And there has never been anything we’ve been unable to accomplish when we’ve done it together.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney once wrote:

“History says,
Don’t hope on this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme”

This is our moment to make hope and history rhyme. With passion and purpose, let us begin — you and I together, one nation, under God — united in our love for America and united in our love for each other. For love is more powerful than hate. Hope is more powerful than fear. Light is more powerful than dark.

This is our moment. This is our mission.

May history be able to say that the end of this chapter of American darkness began here tonight as love and hope and light joined in the battle for the soul of the nation.

And this is a battle that we, together, will win.

I promise you.

Thank you. And may God bless you. And may God protect our troops.

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A Cool Breeze on a Hot August Night

Political conventions are basically pep rallies for the home team. They’re geared toward a sympathetic audience, and I am under no illusions that anything that’s said at the DNC can or will persuade anyone from the opposing party to change their vote. (Likewise, I am not going to be moved one iota by anything that might be said at the other guys’ convention next week — especially this year when there is no question whatsoever which side I’m voting for. As if there ever has been for me.)

Now, normally, I don’t need to hear the “go, fight, win” speeches myself. As I suggested above, my vote is pretty much locked in. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I am a liberal Democrat and I vote a straight-party ticket, Democratic all the way. Yeah, I know you’re supposed to consider each candidate individually and pick the best person for the job and all that. Fact is, though, since I reached voting age, there has never been a Republican I considered worth my vote. Not one. Not for president. Not for Congress. Not for dogcatcher. Their values, priorities and philosophies are not mine. Especially since Newt Gingrich, the Tea Party, and all the right-wing, ahem, commentators like Limbaugh, Hannity and Jones started defining what Republican priorities and values were. So yeah, my vote is solid and I don’t need any encouragement to use it.

The last few years, though, and the last six months in particular, have been deeply, deeply demoralizing. That horrible excuse for a man who currently occupies the White House, that small-minded, bigoted, hardheaded, narcissistic, petty, vindictive little crime boss, that inarticulate, bullying buffoon, has made certain that every single day of his term — every single fucking day — has brought some fresh new outrage, some new assault on decency, logic, precedent, history, science. Everything that matters to me as a Democrat and as a compassionate, thinking, ethical human being has come under attack. And though I’ve done my part to shore up my fellow travelers’ spirits — I’ve quoted Aragorn’s speech before the Black Gate a lot — I’m not immune to the effects of it all. Truth is, I’m tired. Tired of all the stupidity and casual meanness, tired of the malaprops and the meandering sentences that go nowhere and reference things that never happened and always end in a sneer.

Last night, I found, much to my surprise, that I did need to hear a convention speech. I needed to hear a dignified, intelligent man who can speak like an educated adult tell me that I’m not crazy for still believing in the common good. I needed to hear someone talk about the future with optimism instead of fear.

Barack Obama did not disappoint me. He did what he always does, what he does best. He made me feel, in the great words of Mr Spock, like there are always possibilities. And I’ll be honest… it was gratifying to hear him finally take a few shots at Donald J Trump, a pathetically needy man who has spent his time in the Oval Office trying to undo every single thing that Obama ever touched. Obama would have every right to be foaming-at-the-mouth furious. The fact that he does not give into the temptation to rant says everything about his character.

Know hope again.

Transcript follows (bolding is my emphasis):

Good evening, everybody. As you’ve seen by now, this isn’t a normal convention. It’s not a normal time. So tonight, I want to talk as plainly as I can about the stakes in this election. Because what we do these next 76 days will echo through generations to come.

I’m in Philadelphia, where our Constitution was drafted and signed. It wasn’t a perfect document. It allowed for the inhumanity of slavery and failed to guarantee women — and even men who didn’t own property — the right to participate in the political process. But embedded in this document was a North Star that would guide future generations; a system of representative government — a democracy — through which we could better realize our highest ideals. Through civil war and bitter struggles, we improved this Constitution to include the voices of those who’d once been left out. And gradually, we made this country more just, more equal, and more free.

The one Constitutional office elected by all of the people is the presidency. So at minimum, we should expect a president to feel a sense of responsibility for the safety and welfare of all 330 million of us — regardless of what we look like, how we worship, who we love, how much money we have — or who we voted for.

But we should also expect a president to be the custodian of this democracy. We should expect that regardless of ego, ambition, or political beliefs, the president will preserve, protect, and defend the freedoms and ideals that so many Americans marched for and went to jail for; fought for and died for.

I have sat in the Oval Office with both of the men who are running for president. I never expected that my successor would embrace my vision or continue my policies. I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.

But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.

Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t. And the consequences of that failure are severe. 170,000 Americans dead. Millions of jobs gone while those at the top take in more than ever. Our worst impulses unleashed, our proud reputation around the world badly diminished, and our democratic institutions threatened like never before.

Now, I know that in times as polarized as these, most of you have already made up your mind. But maybe you’re still not sure which candidate you’ll vote for — or whether you’ll vote at all. Maybe you’re tired of the direction we’re headed, but you can’t see a better path yet, or you just don’t know enough about the person who wants to lead us there.

So let me tell you about my friend Joe Biden.

Twelve years ago, when I began my search for a vice president, I didn’t know I’d end up finding a brother. Joe and I came from different places and different generations. But what I quickly came to admire about him is his resilience, born of too much struggle; his empathy, born of too much grief. Joe’s a man who learned — early on — to treat every person he meets with respect and dignity, living by the words his parents taught him: “No one’s better than you, Joe, but you’re better than nobody.”
That empathy, that decency, the belief that everybody counts — that’s who Joe is.

When he talks with someone who’s lost her job, Joe remembers the night his father sat him down to say that he’d lost his. When Joe listens to a parent who’s trying to hold it all together right now, he does it as the single dad who took the train back to Wilmington each and every night so he could tuck his kids into bed.

When he meets with military families who’ve lost their hero, he does it as a kindred spirit; the parent of an American soldier; somebody whose faith has endured the hardest loss there is.

For eight years, Joe was the last one in the room whenever I faced a big decision. He made me a better president — and he’s got the character and the experience to make us a better country.

And in my friend Kamala Harris, he’s chosen an ideal partner who’s more than prepared for the job; someone who knows what it’s like to overcome barriers and who’s made a career fighting to help others live out their own American dream.

Along with the experience needed to get things done, Joe and Kamala have concrete policies that will turn their vision of a better, fairer, stronger country into reality.

They’ll get this pandemic under control, like Joe did when he helped me manage H1N1 and prevent an Ebola outbreak from reaching our shores.

They’ll expand health care to more Americans, like Joe and I did ten years ago when he helped craft the Affordable Care Act and nail down the votes to make it the law.

They’ll rescue the economy, like Joe helped me do after the Great Recession. I asked him to manage the Recovery Act, which jumpstarted the longest stretch of job growth in history. And he sees this moment now not as a chance to get back to where we were, but to make long-overdue changes so that our economy actually makes life a little easier for everybody — whether it’s the waitress trying to raise a kid on her own, or the shift worker always on the edge of getting laid off, or the student figuring out how to pay for next semester’s classes.

Joe and Kamala will restore our standing in the world — and as we’ve learned from this pandemic, that matters. Joe knows the world, and the world knows him. He knows that our true strength comes from setting an example the world wants to follow. A nation that stands with democracy, not dictators. A nation that can inspire and mobilize others to overcome threats like climate change, terrorism, poverty, and disease.

But more than anything, what I know about Joe and Kamala is that they actually care about every American. And they care deeply about this democracy.

They believe that in a democracy, the right to vote is sacred, and we should be making it easier for people to cast their ballot, not harder.

They believe that no one — including the president — is above the law, and that no public official — including the president — should use their office to enrich themselves or their supporters.

They understand that in this democracy, the Commander-in-Chief doesn’t use the men and women of our military, who are willing to risk everything to protect our nation, as political props to deploy against peaceful protesters on our own soil. They understand that political opponents aren’t “un-American” just because they disagree with you; that a free press isn’t the “enemy” but the way we hold officials accountable; that our ability to work together to solve big problems like a pandemic depends on a fidelity to facts and science and logic and not just making stuff up.

None of this should be controversial. These shouldn’t be Republican principles or Democratic principles. They’re American principles. But at this moment, this president and those who enable him, have shown they don’t believe in these things.

Tonight, I am asking you to believe in Joe and Kamala’s ability to lead this country out of these dark times and build it back better. But here’s the thing: no single American can fix this country alone. Not even a president. Democracy was never meant to be transactional — you give me your vote; I make everything better. It requires an active and informed citizenry. So I am also asking you to believe in your own ability — to embrace your own responsibility as citizens — to make sure that the basic tenets of our democracy endure.

Because that’s what at stake right now. Our democracy.

Look, I understand why many Americans are down on government. The way the rules have been set up and abused in Congress make it easy for special interests to stop progress. Believe me, I know. I understand why a white factory worker who’s seen his wages cut or his job shipped overseas might feel like the government no longer looks out for him, and why a Black mother might feel like it never looked out for her at all. I understand why a new immigrant might look around this country and wonder whether there’s still a place for him here; why a young person might look at politics right now, the circus of it all, the meanness and the lies and crazy conspiracy theories and think, what’s the point?

Well, here’s the point: this president and those in power — those who benefit from keeping things the way they are — they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. That’s how they get to keep making decisions that affect your life, and the lives of the people you love. That’s how the economy will keep getting skewed to the wealthy and well-connected, how our health systems will let more people fall through the cracks. That’s how a democracy withers, until it’s no democracy at all.

We can’t let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Don’t let them take away your democracy. Make a plan right now for how you’re going to get involved and vote. Do it as early as you can and tell your family and friends how they can vote too. Do what Americans have done for over two centuries when faced with even tougher times than this — all those quiet heroes who found the courage to keep marching, keep pushing in the face of hardship and injustice.

Last month, we lost a giant of American democracy in John Lewis. Some years ago, I sat down with John and the few remaining leaders of the early Civil Rights Movement. One of them told me he never imagined he’d walk into the White House and see a president who looked like his grandson. Then he told me that he’d looked it up, and it turned out that on the very day that I was born, he was marching into a jail cell, trying to end Jim Crow segregation in the South.

What we do echoes through the generations.

Whatever our backgrounds, we’re all the children of Americans who fought the good fight. Great grandparents working in firetraps and sweatshops without rights or representation. Farmers losing their dreams to dust. Irish and Italians and Asians and Latinos told to go back where they came from. Jews and Catholics, Muslims and Sikhs, made to feel suspect for the way they worshipped. Black Americans chained and whipped and hanged. Spit on for trying to sit at lunch counters. Beaten for trying to vote.

If anyone had a right to believe that this democracy did not work, and could not work, it was those Americans. Our ancestors. They were on the receiving end of a democracy that had fallen short all their lives. They knew how far the daily reality of America strayed from the myth. And yet, instead of giving up, they joined together and said somehow, some way, we are going to make this work. We are going to bring those words, in our founding documents, to life.

I’ve seen that same spirit rising these past few years. Folks of every age and background who packed city centers and airports and rural roads so that families wouldn’t be separated. So that another classroom wouldn’t get shot up. So that our kids won’t grow up on an uninhabitable planet. Americans of all races joining together to declare, in the face of injustice and brutality at the hands of the state, that Black Lives Matter, no more, but no less, so that no child in this country feels the continuing sting of racism.

To the young people who led us this summer, telling us we need to be better — in so many ways, you are this country’s dreams fulfilled. Earlier generations had to be persuaded that everyone has equal worth. For you, it’s a given — a conviction. And what I want you to know is that for all its messiness and frustrations, your system of self-government can be harnessed to help you realize those convictions.

You can give our democracy new meaning. You can take it to a better place. You’re the missing ingredient — the ones who will decide whether or not America becomes the country that fully lives up to its creed.

That work will continue long after this election. But any chance of success depends entirely on the outcome of this election. This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win. So we have to get busy building it up — by pouring all our effort into these 76 days, and by voting like never before — for Joe and Kamala, and candidates up and down the ticket, so that we leave no doubt about what this country we love stands for — today and for all our days to come.

Stay safe. God bless.

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A Song from a Band You Wish Were Still Together

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 24: A Song from a Band You Wish Were Still Together

This was another tough one because most of the bands I like are still together, at least in some form or other. But after wracking my brains and scrolling back and forth through my iTunes library, I finally came up with a candidate: The Go-Go’s! So obvious, right?

Except it turns out that they’re not quite as broken up as I thought they were. It seems they still perform together sporadically, have just in the past two weeks released a new song (it’s not bad!), and are even loosely planning for a tour in 2021, if the COVIDs allow. But considering that their heyday was the early ’80s and their output as a group essentially finished by since the early ’90s, I’m going to stick with them for the purposes of this entry.

The Go-Go’s hold a pretty exalted place in the annals of rock and roll history. They were the first and so far remain the only all-female band that wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and topped the Billboard album charts.They had five top-40 hits between 1981 and 1984, the biggest of which — “We Got the Beat” — is practically a Gen-X anthem. (That’s probably in part because it played over the opening scene of the seminal ’80s film Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) It was also one of the first 45-rpm singles I ever bought. Still have it, too!

As much as I like that song, though, I find myself drawn today toward “Vacation,” the title track of their second album, released in the far-off summer of 1982. It became their second highest-charting single, right behind the aforementioned “We Got the Beat.” I’ve always liked the infectious cheerfulness of this one (in spite of the lonely-heart lyrics), and unlike a lot of other stuff from this era, it never sounds dated to me. It’s just good listening. And the truth is, after five months of working from home and COVID-related paranoia, I’m craving a good vacation myself. Or at least a carefree summer like we had back in ’82.

I don’t know that The Go-Go’s are remembered as an MTV band per se, but they came along about the same time as that phenomenon and I’ve always enjoyed their videos. I think this one is especially cute. The band itself evidently thought videos were a waste of time, and according to guitarist Jane Wiedlin in the oral history I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, they were all very drunk while pretending to waterski. Weirdly, the thought of that makes me smile…

One final thought: When I wax nostalgic for the ’80s, this is the era I’m remembering, not the later years of the decade when the shoulder pads and hair styles seemed to be in an arms-race to see which would collapse under their own weight first. The looks (and ladies) of the early to mid ’80s, though… I miss those.

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A Song You Think Everybody Should Listen To

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 23: A Song You Think Everybody Should Listen To

I’ve often said that the year I spent working as a telephone customer-service representative was the worst 12 months of my professional life. That’s not entirely true — the year I spent struggling with underemployment, as the expression goes, while pretending I knew how to be a freelance writer was objectively far worse, not to mention the times when I’ve been out of work entirely — but yeah, my experience as a “phone drone” was… not good.

It was my first “adult” job after graduating college and leaving behind the safe womb of the movie theater, where I’d pretty much done as I pleased without much supervision or many rules. The phone shop was different. There, I was tied to my desk and phone console, my productivity rigidly monitored, my time micromanaged to the extent that I was warned for taking too long in the restroom. There was always the possibility of someone listening in on my calls without me knowing about it. Opportunities to get to know any of my coworkers were severely limited. It was my first experience of really, truly feeling like a faceless cog in the machine. I hated every second of it.

And I had a commute for the first time, too, a half-hour drive each way instead of the minutes it had taken me to reach the theater, in heavy traffic in one of the busier parts of the valley. I hated that too. But out of that, at least, came something good: I discovered a radio station I’d never heard before, “The Mountain,” KUMT, all the way over the end of the FM dial at 105.7. The format was something called AAA, “adult album alternative,” which in practical terms meant a little bit of everything. On The Mountain, I heard deep cuts from familiar classic rock artists, occasional pop tunes from the ’50s right up to that moment in the early ’90s, stuff I would later learn was called “roots music,” and stuff I had no idea how to classify. You could hear things like Los Lobos followed by Boston followed by Annie Lennox followed by the Grateful Dead. It was “jukebox” programming years before iPod shuffle mode made that a thing, and I liked most of what I heard, which I could no longer say about most of the other stations in town. Naturally, though, something that cool wasn’t destined to last; as I recall, “The Mountain,” at least in that format, was around only about as long as I was a phone drone. In the end, though, it had served its purpose. It kept me sane during my daily drives to and from a place I really didn’t want to be, and it introduced me to a number of artists I hadn’t known before and possibly never would’ve stumbled across any other way. Sonny Landreth, Nanci Griffith, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and Jonny Lang. And most especially a cat named Keb’ Mo’.

Keb’ Mo’ — street-talk for Kevin Moore — plays a style of music I describe as “happy blues.” The sounds and rhythms are undeniably classic Delta blues, but the lyrics and overall tone tend to be upbeat, infused with a gentle and frequently self-deprecating sense of humor. His music is simply good, and listening to it makes me feel good. I first heard Keb’ on The Mountain during one of my nerve-wracking commutes to my nerve-wracking job as a phone drone. The hours I spent in that office were soul-crushing, but if I caught a Keb’ Mo’ song on the way home, it was like healing energy coming from the air itself. He quickly became a favorite, and Anne and I have now seen him live four or five times. We were scheduled to see him again this fall, with a personal meet-and-greet before the show, but this stupid plague we’re enduring put a stop to that.

Anyhow, for my “song I think everyone should hear,” I’ve chosen the title track from Keb’s second album, Just Like You. It’s always a showstopper when he performs it live, especially in outdoor settings after the sun has set and a breeze is floating through the crowd. The lighters come out — well, smartphones now — and the mass of people begin to sway as one, and in that moment, that sweet, wistful, yearning moment, you believe that maybe we really can figure all this out and learn to live together.

I’d like to think this song could have that same effect right now, in this Year of the Plague 2020, when people are in the streets crying out for justice and others are telling them, essentially, that they’re not justified in feeling the way they do and that they should shut up and stop raising a ruckus. I know, of course, that it won’t. It’s just a song. Lots of people don’t even pay attention to them. But… I do like to think. I hope you’ll give it a listen and pay attention and maybe walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

And no, your eyes don’t deceive you: that’s Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne in the video, lending a hand…

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A Song That Moves You Forward

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 22: A Song That Moves You Forward

In his Oscar-winning performance in the film Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges plays “Bad” Blake, a one-time country music star who’s been reduced to playing in bowling alleys and dive bars, earning just enough from each gig for a tank of gas and another bottle of rotgut. He’s a man on his way to the bottom, and very likely an early grave. But then a chance meeting with a journalist who’s looking for a story (and who also happens to be a cute single mother) provides the catalyst he needs to straighten himself out, although the movie is wise enough to not end up in quite the place you think it’s headed toward. In the end, Blake is not a conquering hero back on top with his girl at his side… but he’s better off than he was.

I figured I would like this film when I first saw it back in 2010, but I was surprised by how much it affected me, and by how much I identified with Bad Blake. Not that my life in any way resembles his; I am not, after all, an alcoholic has-been musician. But as with any good art, the film resonated with me. I was 40 years old in 2010 and it seemed as if I’d been in a midlife crisis since my twenties. The feelings Bad Blake struggles with were all too familiar: regret, guilt, the crushing sorrow of feeling like you’ve wasted whatever talent and potential you may once have possessed. The fear that maybe you never really had that much potential to begin with. And most especially the self-loathing that comes from knowing that you fucked up your life and there’s nothing you can ever do that will repair the damage or bring back the lost time.

In the film, Blake’s redemption is facilitated by a song he writes to try and express all of that accumulated everything he’s been carrying around. He sells it to another country star played by Colin Farrell, who naturally makes it into a hit, and Blake is on his way back to something resembling a life. In the real world, that song — “The Weary Kind” — was written and performed by Ryan Bingham, a former rodeo bull rider whose voice sounds far too weathered and wise for someone so young. The song earned Bingham multiple awards, including a Grammy and an Oscar. It’s a song for everyone who has ever felt burned out, used up, cast aside, or ruined. It’s as desolate as the southwest. A song that sounds like the last few drops in the bottle, the last dollar on the table when you see that you’ve got a losing hand. It haunts me. And yet…

Seeing Crazy Heart for the first time was deeply cathartic for me, in part because it was so unexpected. I remember walking out of the theater thinking that if Bad Blake can somehow find his way to the other side, maybe I wasn’t quite so lost myself.

That was the first time “The Weary Kind” could be said to have moved me forward. There was another occasion when it granted me that gift, though, and that perhaps was an even larger kindness than shuffling me through something as mundane as a midlife crisis.

A year after I saw Crazy Heart, in 2011, a young woman I worked with was killed in a car accident on a cold, foggy winter morning. I didn’t know her that well, but her death hit me hard. It was so sudden, so unexpected, and so completely unfair. She was a beautiful, smart, vivacious, and above all likable girl. Half the men in our ad agency, including myself, had a crush on her. She was good at her job, she’d won an award, and she was working on her MBA. Everyone knew she had a bright future ahead of her. And then in the blink of an eye, the future was ripped away from her. I remember that I wasn’t simply grieving about her death. I was angry about it. I was pissed at the gods or fate or the Force or whatever had conspired to put her in front of that lead-footed asshole with the frosted-over windshield instead of a minute of even just 30 seconds behind him. My imagination summoned up a horrific vision of her final moments and what the fire that consumed her little car had done to her face and her golden hair. And I couldn’t get that picture out of my mind for days, and I was pissed off about that too.

And then for some reason, I thought of “The Weary Kind.” The lyrics, of course, have nothing to do with a young woman cut down in her prime. But then… they don’t specifically speak of a frustrated wannabe novelist who’d just hit his 40th birthday either. But the tone — run-down and redolent of bone-deep sorrow and exhaustion — well, that certainly matched how I was feeling. And it reminded me of Julie. I thought that wherever she was, maybe she could appreciate the emotion, if not the lyrics.

I listened to “The Weary Kind” a lot the day of Julie’s memorial, which I wasn’t able to attend because of a work project I couldn’t get away from. I listened to it a lot over the next few days, too. And gradually my anger about her death and the nightmarish fantasy I’d conjured for myself faded into the background. I moved forward.

I still play this song when I’m feeling wiped out and lost and I can’t sleep because the regrets won’t leave me alone.

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What Had Long Been Forsaken

In the future, when our children and grandchildren ask just what the hell happened to us, this is a pretty good summary:

COVID-19 didn’t lay America low; it simply revealed what had long been forsaken. As the crisis unfolded, with another American dying every minute of every day, a country that once turned out fighter planes by the hour could not manage to produce the paper masks or cotton swabs essential for tracking the disease. The nation that defeated smallpox and polio, and led the world for generations in medical innovation and discovery, was reduced to a laughing stock as a buffoon of a president advocated the use of household disinfectants as a treatment for a disease that intellectually he could not begin to understand.

As a number of countries moved expeditiously to contain the virus, the United States stumbled along in denial, as if willfully blind. With less than four percent of the global population, the U.S. soon accounted for more than a fifth of COVID deaths. The percentage of American victims of the disease who died was six times the global average. Achieving the world’s highest rate of morbidity and mortality provoked not shame, but only further lies, scapegoating, and boasts of miracle cures as dubious as the claims of a carnival barker, a grifter on the make.

As the United States responded to the crisis like a corrupt tin pot dictatorship, the actual tin pot dictators of the world took the opportunity to seize the high ground, relishing a rare sense of moral superiority, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The autocratic leader of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, chastised America for “maliciously violating ordinary citizens’ rights.” North Korean newspapers objected to “police brutality” in America. Quoted in the Iranian press, Ayatollah Khomeini gloated, “America has begun the process of its own destruction.”

Trump’s performance and America’s crisis deflected attention from China’s own mishandling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, not to mention its move to crush democracy in Hong Kong. When an American official raised the issue of human rights on Twitter, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, invoking the killing of George Floyd, responded with one short phrase, “I can’t breathe.”

These politically motivated remarks may be easy to dismiss. But Americans have not done themselves any favors. Their political process made possible the ascendancy to the highest office in the land a national disgrace, a demagogue as morally and ethically compromised as a person can be. As a British writer quipped, “there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid”.

As they stare into the mirror and perceive only the myth of their exceptionalism, Americans remain almost bizarrely incapable of seeing what has actually become of their country. The republic that defined the free flow of information as the life blood of democracy, today ranks 45th among nations when it comes to press freedom. In a land that once welcomed the huddled masses of the world, more people today favor building a wall along the southern border than supporting health care and protection for the undocumented mothers and children arriving in desperation at its doors. In a complete abandonment of the collective good, U.S. laws define freedom as an individual’s inalienable right to own a personal arsenal of weaponry, a natural entitlement that trumps even the safety of children; in the past decade alone 346 American students and teachers have been shot on school grounds.

The American cult of the individual denies not just community but the very idea of society. No one owes anything to anyone. All must be prepared to fight for everything: education, shelter, food, medical care. What every prosperous and successful democracy deems to be fundamental rights — universal health care, equal access to quality public education, a social safety net for the weak, elderly, and infirmed — America dismisses as socialist indulgences, as if so many signs of weakness.

How can the rest of the world expect America to lead on global threats — climate change, the extinction crisis, pandemics — when the country no longer has a sense of benign purpose, or collective well-being, even within its own national community? Flag-wrapped patriotism is no substitute for compassion; anger and hostility no match for love. Those who flock to beaches, bars, and political rallies, putting their fellow citizens at risk, are not exercising freedom; they are displaying, as one commentator has noted, the weakness of a people who lack both the stoicism to endure the pandemic and the fortitude to defeat it.

— Wade Davis, “The Unraveling of America,” Rolling Stone, August 6, 2020

I’ve been saying for years that 9/11 — or rather our panicky response to it, when we willingly started surrendering our personal liberties in the name of “safety” and declared war on a country that had not attacked us — put the lie to our national self-image as “the home of the brave.” That was the first of our myths to crumble. Now it seems like all of them are crumbling, all at once. COVID-19 has exposed every crack in the shaky foundation of our society, every weakness of the no-holds-barred capitalist system and the every-man-for-himself philosophy that have defined this nation, at least during my lifetime. And although I’m perfectly cool with those concepts getting thrown in the bin, the way it’s happening — our national humiliation on the world stage — is agonizing. And infuriating. I think I finally understand the anger so many right-wingers have felt for so many years, their impotent rage at the notion that the country they thought they knew is dissolving before their very eyes. Of course, they attribute the dissolution to an entirely different set of causes, and they have an entirely different set of solutions. But the basic emotional stew of anger, sorrow, shame, and utter powerlessness… yeah, I get that now.

I’m really hating this year.

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A Song You Like with a Person’s Name in the Title

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 21: A Song You Like with a Person’s Name in the Title

Steve Winwood first released the song “Valerie” in 1982, in a fairly simple form that he himself would later call “under-produced,” whereupon it failed to attract much attention at all. At the time, Winwood was 34 years old and had been a musician since he was just 14, when he and his older brother had joined The Spencer Davis Group. He’d subsequently been part of Traffic and Blind Faith (the Eric Clapton-led “supergroup” that released only a single, immensely successful album), as well as a session musician through most of the ’70s. He had a big solo hit in 1980 with “While You See a Chance,” but the relative flop of “Valerie” and the album it came from, as well as his reluctance to tour, left him thinking that maybe it was time to find something else to do with the rest of his life. Instead, he got himself a new manager, moved to New York, and found a coproducer (he’d done everything himself on his earlier solo work), resulting in the 1986 album Back in the High Life, five hit singles, three Grammy Awards, and a reinvigorated career.

The following year, he helped compile Chronicles, a greatest-hits collection that included a remix of “Valerie.” The polished, synth-heavy version shot to #9, validating Winwood’s faith in the song and paving the way to his next hit album, Roll With It. Not bad, considering he’d been on the verge of cashing in his chips only a short time before.

I don’t have any particular memories involving “Valerie,” but I do tend to associate it with my freshman year of college (the song was peaking on the charts in December of 1987, right between fall and winter quarters). My good friend Cheryl once remarked that Winwood’s music in general is “so damned optimistic.” So naturally it was a perfect complement for a time of my life when every single day seemed to offer some novel experience, and I thought I had infinite possibilities ahead of me. God, how I miss that feeling…

 

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A Song That Has Many Meanings to You

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 20: A Song That Has Many Meanings to You

I have to be honest, this category was something of a challenge. Whether it reflects the type of music I enjoy or my own lack of sophistication, I simply could not think of a song with multiple meanings. Most everything I like tends to be… unambiguous. What you hear is what you get. I came close to just begging off on this one and moving to the next item… and then something popped into my head:

“Sister Christian” by Night Ranger.

Oh, don’t laugh. This one is as much a landmark of its era as anything by Prince, which is why you’ve heard it in movies and TV shows ranging from Family Guy to Boogie Nights, and on every cheap truckstop “Best of the ’80s” compilation CD you’ve ever seen. And as it happens, I have had a number of conversations with friends who were unsure of just what the heck it was actually about.

To my ear, it’s pretty obviously a coming-of-age tune in which a big brother expresses concern — but also gentle support — for his little sister growing up and becoming sexually active. No one ever disputes that; the debates I’ve had seem to turn on the chorus, specifically the repeated word “motoring,” which seems to throw many listeners.  I translate that as “cruising,” as in the mostly obsolete practice of driving around looking for a, um, friend for the evening, which is evidently what the little sister in the song is doing. (If anyone reading this is too young to have ever done that, check out the films American Graffiti and/or Dazed and Confused. I myself participated in this quintessentially American activity a few times, but never with much success. Good thing I just like to drive.) The word also suggests speed to me, that the sister is moving toward her goal fast… maybe too fast, and that worries the singer. So, there you go: multiple interpretations. However, that little quibble about the chorus is not what prompted me to think of “Sister Christian” as “a song with many meanings.”

For me, this song is also indelibly associated with another rite of passage, high school graduation. But not my own, strangely enough. Way back in the spring of 1986, my junior year of high school, I worked for one class period each day as an aide in the media center — the library. Mostly I hung out in a little room filled with VCRs, TV sets, and overhead projectors, fiddling with a really cool stereo system in between checking out equipment to faculty members. I had a few interesting adventures in that room, which I might get around to talking about some day. And I also occasionally got pulled into jobs involving the stage crew; my “boss” in the media center was their advisor. One of those occasions was when I helped to assemble a slideshow and the accompanying music for the final senior assembly for the outgoing class of ’86, held in the last couple weeks of school before they graduated. The slides were all photos of their class from the past four years — dances, football games, that sort of thing — and the music had been deliberately selected for maximum nostalgic effect. I remember sitting in that assembly alongside the clicking slide projector, hot and bored. Hey, it was late May, the A/C wasn’t up to the job, and we weren’t looking at pictures of my class!  But then the opening notes of “Sister Christian” began, that so-familiar little piano riff. And very soon after, I felt that something had changed in that auditorium. The energy was different. More open somehow…. more vulnerable. And then I started to hear sniffling… here… there… and I realized that quite a few of these big tough seniors, who only moments ago had been cracking jokes, shifting restlessly, cynical and ready to be done with Bingham High and off to whatever adult lives they had planned… were crying. “Sister Christian” had struck a chord within them, and for at least a moment, maybe they too felt like they were growing up too fast and wondering what was the price for achieving their flight. I know I did. I wondered about it all through my own senior year, wondered if my fellow classmates felt it too or would feel it if they heard the right song in our senior assembly. I’ll confess that it took me a long time to really grow up and to move beyond high school. In a lot of ways, I suppose I never have, considering I ended up in charge of my 30-year reunion a couple years ago. And I think my impulse to hang on might have started that day listening to Night Ranger in a stuffy auditorium.

Incidentally, it is purely a coincidence that the official video for “Sister Christian” is themed around a high school graduation. I don’t remember seeing the video until long after I was out of high school, and in any event, I wasn’t the one who selected the song for that slideshow.

Now for the technical stuff: The song comes from Night Ranger’s second album, Midnight Madness, and it became the band’s biggest hit. Released in March 1984, it was on the charts for 24 weeks and would peak at number five in June. Midnight Madness sold over a million copies — one of which found its way into my Walkman — largely on the strength of “Sister Christian” and its follow-up “When You Close Your Eyes,” another exercise in wistful nostalgia. It probably won’t surprise anyone reading this to learn that both songs are favorites of mine.

On that note, why don’t we do some “motoring?” Sing it with me, kids:

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A Song That Makes You Think About Life

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 19: A Song That Makes You Think About Life

Whether it’s because of some quirk in my genetic makeup, an “old soul,” a karmic hangover from a past-life misdeed, or perhaps a long-forgotten childhood trauma, I think it’s safe to say that my default emotional state tends toward the melancholy. Not full-on depressive, although I’ve certainly flirted with the Black Dog a few times. And I do have moments of happiness and sometimes even completely good days from beginning to end. But life for me is almost always tinged with a bittersweet flavor, an undercurrent of something… well, sad. So when I was asked to name a song that “makes you think about life,” naturally I came up with one of the saddest ones I’ve ever heard.

“Taxi” was the first track released from singer-songwriter Harry Chapin’s debut album Head & Tales, way back in 1972. Clocking in at slightly under seven minutes long, it was an unlikely hit in the days when radio stations were hesitant to play anything longer than three or four minutes. But Chapin had two strokes of luck with the song. First, he debuted it on The Tonight Show, where he was able to play it in its entirety to a massive television audience, as well as an appreciative Johnny Carson. (Supposedly the performance was so well-received that he was brought back the following night for an encore, but it’s possible that story is apocryphal. I can’t find any proof that it actually happened.)  The other break was when a popular radio DJ named Jim Connors discovered the song and pushed for it to be aired despite the length. As a result of these twin boosts, the song spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #24.

I can’t remember when I first heard “Taxi.” It’s one of those songs that’s just always been there on my personal soundtrack, and it’s always had an effect on me, even when I was a young boy who couldn’t begin to understand what it was about. Now… well, now I know all too well what Chapin was talking about… that empty feeling you get in the wee hours of a rainy night when you realize just how far away from your dreams you’ve really drifted.

Harry Chapin would also explore the theme of middle-aged regret in his two other best-known works: “W.O.L.D.,” about an aging disc jockey who’s sacrificed his personal life for his career — another possibly apocryphal story has it that TV writer Hugh Wilson was inspired by this song to create WKRP in Cincinnati — and of course his timeless #1 hit “Cat’s in the Cradle,” a tune that has been known to reduce grown men to helpless sobbing. For me, though, Chapin’s most poignant expression of that theme was in its first iteration, a story about a cab driver named Harry and a would-be actress called Sue.

The video clip of the song that I’ve found for my Loyal Readers is a curious artifact. It predates MTV by a good decade, and is described on YouTube as an “industrial film.” It ends with a lengthy spoken section by (I believe) Jac Holzman, the founder of Elektra Records, describing how he discovered and signed Chapin to his label. Aside from that little oddity, though, this photographic montage set to music is clearly something we Gen Xers would understand to be a “music video.” So what is it, really? Is it more accurate to call it a “proto-video?” And what were MTV videos if not “industrial films” intended to promote sales, as creative and bizarre as they often were? This has nothing to do with anything, I suppose, I just find it interesting when new information reframes something I’ve long understood in a certain context. And it demonstrates how sometimes phenomena that “come out of nowhere” have actually been around in one form or another for a very long time.

As for Harry Chapin, he met with a sad ending in 1981, killed in a car crash while on his way to a gig. He was only 38. A life cut short. Almost like something from one of his own songs.

 

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A Song From the Year You Were Born

30-Day Song Challenge, Day 18: A Song From the Year You Were Born

I can do one better than just a song from the year I was born. How about an old favorite that was in fact released the very month I was born?

“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival came into the world about the same time I did, in September of 1969, as the B-side to another of the band’s big hits, “Down on the Corner.” On its own, “Fortunate Son” would peak at #14 on the Billboard chart two months later. But then something interesting happened: Billboard changed its methodology for tracking double-sided hit records, i.e., 45-rpm singles that had a hit song on both sides, which wasn’t unusual at the time. (Creedence, in fact, released a number of these “twofer” records over the next couple of years.) That change meant that “Fortunate Son,” now in combination with “Down on the Corner,” continued to climb the charts, the two of them together finally reaching #3 on December 20, 1969. I was three months old.

The song is widely understood to have been a protest against the Vietnam War, as that’s the backdrop it was conceived and released in, and that impression has been reinforced over the decades by its use in Vietnam War-themed movies (Forrest Gump) and video games (Battlefield Vietnam), and even in politics (John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign appropriated the song to try to illuminate the difference between Kerry — who served in ‘Nam — and incumbent George W Bush, who did not). But “Fortunate Son” never actually mentions Vietnam; it’s really more of a primal scream about class and the way the wealthy play by different rules than people who work for a living, which is a far more universal — and sadly unchanging — theme. And that, I believe, explains why you still hear “Fortunate Son” five decades later and why it still feels relevant when you do. I mean… when was the last time you heard the “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish? The Creedence tune, on the other hand, is probably playing on your local classic-rock station right now, or at least it will be in the next 30 minutes or so.

Besides being just a great, catchy rock-n-roller, the song has special resonance for me. My career is far removed from my dad’s life as a diesel mechanic at an open-pit copper mine, but I still tend to identify with my blue-collar roots. And after some of the experiences I’ve had dealing with people who very obviously thought themselves to be my “betters,” I have a somewhat jaundiced view of what wealth does to a person’s character. The song’s refrain of “it ain’t me” could be my own personal motto… and it’s one I find myself wanting to shout from the rooftops more and more often these days.

But that’s beyond the scope of this particular post, so let’s just enjoy the song, shall we? The clip below is the official video released just last year for the song’s 50th anniversary, and as you can see, it’s less a protest against war or an indictment of the 1% than it is a celebration of salt-of-the-earth types of all descriptions. In the end, maybe that’s the strongest protest  of all, just showing the real America — rural, urban, black, white, native, immigrant — all of us just doing the best we can, in spite of the guys at the top…

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