Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Hail, Farewell   Leave a comment

January 1, 2018

    I’ve been writing for the Lighthouse Peddler for years now, yet each month I wonder what idea, event, or emotion will surface as the stimulus for an essay. Without fail my mind’s journey almost always touches on the arts in general, or some specific musician or filmmaker or event. Most months I’m as surprised as anyone by the topic that becomes central to my column. And then, like a gift from the mysterious muse, the keys of my MacBook begin to make noise and a few hours later I read what I’ve written.

     In January we may be pleased that the old year is over (this year’s old year in particular) and we’re ready to focus on the year ahead. However, whatever we thought of the year just ended, we invariably find ourselves looking in the rear view mirror. Satchel Paige became almost as famous for one of his quotes as for his baseball career. He cautioned, “Don’t look back: Something may be gaining on you.”

     Ignoring Paige’s advice, we’re once again publishing a list of 60 notable people who died in 2017 and are worth remembering. Our list could easily have been 200, and paring the names was no easy task. (The ’60′ are on page 4 of this issue.) What follows are thoughts on some of those who made our short list.

     Writer Frank Deford is gone. I loved Deford. He hit my radar when he created the short-lived National Sports Daily. After the Daily folded a year and a half later, Deford continued as a commentator for NPR, and became a prolific writer, including 18 books. About 15 years ago, a dear friend in Connecticut (where we all then lived) arranged for a meeting where she graciously introduced me to her friend Frank; I was like a teenager meeting his favorite rock star backstage. Composure regained, we talked a bit about his writing style, his books, and the state of sports in America. It’s a wonderful memory. Others from the literary world we lost in 2017 include William Peter Blatty, who introduced us to the fictional MacNeil family in The Exorcist. Daughter Regan became possessed by Satan and Blatty later, along with director William Friedkin, scared the living daylights out of us with the film.

   And then there was Jimmy Breslin, the poster-child for writers in New York’s newspaper world. In his obit, the New York Times said “With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers.”

     Actor John Hurt left us, and I thought about his career and the wide range of characters he portrayed. He was as supremely impactful in his central role as John Merrick, the Elephant Man; and he was also credible in the film Contact, in his semi-cameo role as the billionaire S. R. Hadden, the character who articulated the obvious (and painfully true) first rule in government spending: “Why build one when you can have two at twice the price?”.    Mary Tyler Moore got her TV start as wife Laura Petrie Mary 7659660192_56085e863f_zon the Dick Van Dyke Show. However, she became everyone’s best friend, or the friend everyone wished they had, as Mary Richards, her character on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Set in the Twin Cities, the show was sufficiently impactful that today there’s a statue of Moore in downtown Minneapolis.    And we lost Sam Shepard, whose rugged good looks and believability on screen made him credible whether he was in front of the camera, behind the camera, or delivering a newly-authored play. Shepard’s brief on-screen appearance early in the film The Pelican Brief is a testimonial to his ability to imbue his character into the moment, and then stay with us through the balance of the film.

     Comedians we lost in 2017 include Bill Dana, whose alter-ego was the highly politically incorrect ‘astronaut’ Jose Jimenez. Pointing to his space helmet, Milton Berle once asked Dana (in character as Jimenez) “What is this called, a crash helmet?” Jimenez replied in his special accent, “Oh, I hope not”.

     We also lost the  World’s Foremost Authority, Professor Irwin Corey. To understand his authority, one really should look for a YouTube video clip. Shelley Berman died this year. He was often referred to as a bit of a tortured soul. He probably was but he was brilliant. We’ll not see his equal anytime soon. Don Rickles was the delightfully savage comedian whose mission was to regularly insult almost anyone and everyone. And yet unlike some who casually brandish insults today, almost no one was offended by Rickles.

      John Anderson was my congressman when we lived outside Chicago. Although a member of the GOP, Anderson was refreshing, interesting, and intelligent. He ran for president in 1980 first as a republican, and then as an independent. It was the latter candidacy that led me to support him. When we had a chance conversation at a campaign event in Los Angeles that year, it reaffirmed my belief that Anderson was a good choice. He received 6.6% of the popular vote, including mine.    And let’s say goodbye to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee who became an accidental mayor by virtue of the seat left open by the departing Gavin Newsome. No one really disliked Lee. And surprisingly (to me, anyway), in the City of San Francisco, he was the first Asian-American to hold that office.

     Musicians who’ve left us include the great singer Al Jarreau, jazz guitarist Larry Coryell, southern icon Gregg Allman, jazz drummer Grady Tate, diva Roberta Peters, Jon Hendricks of the famed Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Steely Dan’s Walter Becker, and Americana legend Rosalie Sorrels. Tate, for the record, was one of those unusual drummers who put his instrument aside, to become a vocalist. His baritone was a genuine gift to the genre. He even delivered on the theme song from M*A*S*H, “Suicide Is Painless”.  In addition Glen Campbell died after a long career that found him starting as a studio side-musician (guitarist for hire), before rising to stardom (including television) with the songs of John Hartford (“Gentle On My Mind”) and Jimmy Webb (“By The Time I Get To Phoenix”). chuck-berry-duck-walking-7 CR (1)And the icon of Rock ’n’ Roll, Chuck Berry finally proved he was mortal in 2017, although his music will continue for decades and generations to come. My older brother bought a copy of “School Day” in 1957 and I’m sure it’s somewhere in my collection to this day. I saw Berry twice. First in 1972, when he was in Chicago for a concert date built on the success of a quirky #1 hit titled “My Ding-A-Ling”. The second time was a Connecticut casino show in the late 1990s. He was already showing his age but he could still take a moment to play his guitar while doing his patented ‘duckwalk. Don’t know what that is? YouTube it.

     I trust I’m not alone in suggesting that we’ll miss these people. We may not hold them all in the same regard, but I’ll guarantee that someone on this list was a favorite of yours too. To all of them I can only quote from Chuck Berry: “Hail, Hail, Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

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Lobster, Privacy   Leave a comment

“Peekaboo. I Can See You”
December 1, 2017

 

     I can’t remember the moment I first tasted lobster—or “lopsta”, as I learned the correct pronunciation while living back east—but I truly enjoy it. Broiled, fried, steamed, if it’s the real deal from the coast of New England, I’m there. Unfortunately, Maine lobster is $30-$50 per pound in restaurants. (The Palm Restaurant, famous for steaks and lobsters, is reportedly currently charging $75 for a 3-pound Nova Scotian—not Maine—lobster.) Needless to say it’s been a long, long time since I had dinner, much less order lobster at the Palm; it’s simply too pricey for most of us. As an alternative to dining out, there are deals on the internet where you can order live lobsters, at a much lower price, and get them shipped to your home. But then you have more issues.

 

     I recall a New Years Eve get-together twenty years ago where everyone knew lobster was one of the food items for our celebration. I ordered live lobsters from Maine, shipped to our home in Connecticut. Once the carton was opened, the enthusiasm of friends and family quickly waned; they didn’t even wish to look at the living creatures. Comments were swift in coming. “You’re really going to kill them? I can’t eat him, her, them.” As for me, I looked the lobsters in the eyes, and carefully explained about the pot,Happy-lobster-cartoonREV the steam, butter, sauce, and their expected place on the table. In reality, lobsters seem to lose interest when they understood that they’re not ‘coming to dinner’, but rather ‘were to become dinner’. As I couldn’t send them back, I persevered and cooked them. No one else ate the lobster that evening.

 

     From a physiological standpoint, whether lobster or fried chicken, everything we intake (eat), travels along our internal highway, on its way to an eventual “outflow”. All of this brings me to something I recently read.

 

     It appears that lobsters (and other menu items) may need to get dressed up so that they can smile for the camera during digestion. In an article titled “FDA Approves First Digital Ingestion Tracking System Med”, the Associated Press reported that the Food and Drug Administration “has approved the first drug in the United States with a digital ingestion tracking system.” That’s right. Swallow this little pill and not only may it make you feel better or cure what ails you, but in theory your doctor or primary care provider will be able to determine the exact location of that pill. I am not making this up. The pill, or as it’s referred to by the drugmakers—the “digitally enhanced medication”—sends a message to a sensor on a wearable patch somewhere on your body. At first glance some might shrug and say, “so what, big deal.” However, given what the Russians have been doing for the past few years, it’s entirely likely that the Kremlin will be able to track my lobster dinner as it travels through me. Let’s be honest. It might also be tracked by the FBI, the NSA, or the CIA (the CIA in Langley, Virginia, not the CIA cooking schools in Hyde Park, New York, or St. Helena, California). If the Russians, or anyone else got hold of Hillary’s emails, it would seem like a small task to read the information traveling through me and stored on a patch.

 

     I’m one of those people who’s been reluctant to send my saliva (and $60-$100 or more)
to companies like 23 And Me to have my DNA analyzed. I’ve long maintained that I am DNA 01EXPpart-English and part-German, based on my mother’s description (with her emphasis on “English”). Besides, I’m just not that curious about my exact makeup, due to a couple of factors. First, I don’t care if the analysis shows me to be 30% English, 16% German, 21% French, 13% Martian, and 20% cheddar cheese (although my friends believe this last one is quite probable). The prospect of my DNA being analyzed, and subsequently used to evaluate, compare, contrast, and categorize me and other people into very specific groups is not compelling to me either. DNA 02EXPMore to the point, it’s my belief that these DNA-companies will in all likelihood sell and resell my DNA information to other companies or worse.

 

     Two billion (that’s ‘B’: billion) people, 27% of the planet use Facebook each month. And if we haven’t yet learned about Facebook’s business structure, it’s high time we did. Simply put, the more information we put on Facebook the more clicks are generated on Facebook as our friends, family, and our social and business connections check in with us. And every click, each and every piece of data, is stored in Facebook’s database, forever. You, too, add to the clicks as you check out the pages of friends, family, total strangers, and cats. Here’s a simple example. That cat video you just watched is another click captured by Facebook. While you enjoy the cat, Facebook is capturing your viewing as data to be sold and resold to advertisers, marketers, and “interested parties”. It is no coincidence that once Facebook knows that you like cats you suddenly begin receiving offers for cat sand, cat food, cat toys, cat brushes, cat clippers, cat clothes, cat beds, cat medicines, and so on.

 

     DNA contains the fundamental and distinctive characteristics of who we are. DNA testing services are, I believe, a variation of the Facebook model.  So just what do I believe the DNA companies will do with our information? Sell it. And if they don’t sell it, someone will gain access to it. Some people don’t care if their information, including DNA, is sold and resold, and I’m fine with that. For me, if DNA companies want my DNA, they can pay me for it. Privacy should be close to sacred. But private data is not always DNA Helixsecure. Ask Equifax. Between May and July, 2017, the Social Security numbers, birth dates, and home addresses for up to 143 million Americans were hacked. Oops. Yet, consider this little 40 word section from one DNA company’s Privacy Statement:

 

“As our business continues to grow and change, we might restructure, buy, or sell subsidiaries or business units. In these transactions, customer information is often one of the transferred assets, remaining subject to promises made in then prevailing privacy statements.”

 

     My interpretation of this could find the following chain of events: A corporation in the United States owns a DNA Company, collects a $99 fee, analyzes the DNA and sends you or me the results. They also retain the information. Forever. Twenty minutes or twenty years later, the corporation sells its DNA business to another corporation headquartered in, say, Tajikistan. The individual’s DNA will be, according to the above quote, one of the transferred assets. The buyer (new owner) will now have access to all of the DNA information collected to that point. The primary languages in Tajikistan are Tajik and Russian. Who might tap into that DNA database? Mmmmmmmm.

The Farmers Market   Leave a comment

Fresh Food. Mmmmmmm.

October 1, 2017

     I don’t really recall my first visit to a farmers’ market. It was probably a local outdoor summer market when we lived in Wonder Lake, Illinois. (Yes, the town is actually called Wonder Lake, and there really is a lake.) In those days McHenry County was one of those postcard-esque pastoral places oozing with charm, farms, lakes, streams, and people (like us) who worked in Chicago but wanted to enjoy living in the country. Our home was an 800 square foot A-frame situated between the Lake and Nippersink Creek. We lived there for two years, and thought about whether we’d find something as charming in Los Angeles. (A&M Records was moving me to California to work out of the ‘home office’ in Hollywood. But that’s another story.)

In a way, we were hearing the distant voice of newspaperman Horace Greely who encouraged one and all to “Go west.” In part his thoughts were wrapped up in an idea of what to do with an abundance of veterans of the American Civil War, finding themselves all too often displaced. The publisher of the New York Tribune may have had another motivation for encouraging westward movement: “Washington is not a place to live in. The rents are high, the food is bad, the dust is disgusting and the morals are deplorable. Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.”

With our own move west, we were ready to see what change would bring, but were nevertheless apprehensive. Once we began looking for a home, we learned that Greely was at least part right. Housing prices were high and headed higher still. The food wasn’t bad but there was plenty of dust in the Santa Clarita Valley, about an hour north of my office in Hollywood. As for the morals, most of my extended family who today live in the midwest would probably chime in that Hollywood’s morals are still deplorable.

Our home purchase budget was limited as we entered the red-hot southern California real estate market of the 1970s. It was not unusual to look at a $60-70,000 tract house on Actor-William-S.-Hart-as--007Saturday, think about it for a few days, and find out five days later that the price had gone up by $2000. So we jumped in. As lovely as it was, Wonder Lake had no real claim to fame. Our new hometown, Newhall, was probably best known as the home of the William S. Hart estate, now a park. Hart was an early silent film star, making many movies and making lots of money between 1915 and 1925.

While working in Hollywood, one of my good friends from Chicago was now also in Hollywood and also working for A&M. Jayne Neches (later Neches-Simon) and I were going to have lunch, and as to “where”, she had a suggestion to make.  We drove south from the A&M offices at Sunset and LaBrea to the general area of 3rd & Fairfax, the location of L.A.’s Farmers Market. Ignore Amish men and women selling produce in Pennsylvania in the 19th century, or any other example of an “original farmers market”. In Hollywood, history is created anew all of the time. And the Farmers Market at 3rd and Fairfax was (and is still) touted as the “original”. When we got there, Jayne looked for a parking space on Fairfax and then opted to have the valet park her car. Yes. Although there was street parking in the area, Jayne found the one (?) lot that had valet parking. As Randy Newman sang, “I Love L. A.” Today that Farmers Market has somewhere close to 100 merchants, offering cell phones, stickers, and keys, and restaurants ranging from Moishe’s Restaurant to Mr. Marcel Pain Vin Et Fromage. It’s like the Galleria Mall from Sherman Oaks was picked up, moved, and re-branded as a farmers market.

Back on earth in Mendocino County, we have numerous farmers markets, and guess what? Almost every stand—produce, bread, coffee, meats, plants, jams, and more—is owned by a local person selling local food or local products. Go figure.

IMG_0313     Last week’s Saturday market was one of those fantastic coastal days. (By the way, we get a lot of those days here on the Mendocino coast, but don’t tell anyone.) The sun was shining, and all of the usual people had set up their tables. Donna had her jams, vegetables, and seaweed products; Allan was offering grapes, green apples, leafy goodies, and micro-greens while Astrid was selling tarts and waffles cooked fresh at the market. A young couple (sorry, didn’t get their names) were selling fresh bread, and I do mean fresh. The plant lady was there selling house and small garden plants perfect for our climate, which means they don’t require an excessive amount of water. Tom was selling his Little Green Bean coffee. A musician was playing his battery-powered electric keyboard, the handmade jewelry stand was open. Wing and Zoe of Westside Farm  had set up their tables (above, right), and Abby and Sammy from Oz Farm (left, below) were getting their IMG_0316goods ready. Both Westside and Oz displayed their beautiful food as if there was a competition to see who could make their produce for a photo shoot. On this Saturday, it was a tie.

The market officially opens at 9:30am, and we reluctantly recognize the official start time. That doesn’t hold back the ‘drool factor’  as the regular shoppers begin to gather near  the tables, all the while voicing varying levels of desire. “I want her heirloom tomatoes.” “I want those bell peppers.” “Did you see those raspberries?” “The apples look amazing.” At 9:15am the early shoppers—me included—hover like sharks waiting for the right moment to strike. Then all at once, at exactly 9:30am, there’s a mild frenzy, almost always good natured. Having spent my $40 budget for the week on large garlic, fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, green beans, rainbow chard, winesap apples, basil, and Russian kale (holy shit, I actually bought kale. My mother would be so proud and also probably dumbfounded). As always I get a cup of Tom’s coffee to go. By 10:30 the second wave of sleepier shoppers show up, but the early shoppers have already headed home. We got the good stuff.

The glitz of the stores at 3rd and Fairfax belie the reality of just what constitutes a farmers market. As corporate farms continue to pump out tons of red this, green that, and yellow somethin’ else, they’re often just selling ‘stuff’ that may look good as in, for example, tasteless rock-hard tomatoes from Florida. Here on the coast we continue to lament the last day of the farmers market around November 1, and start counting the days until our fresh local food returns in April or May. To Allan, and Astrid, and Donna, and Abby and Sammi, and Wing, and Zoe, Tom, and everyone else, thank you.

David Steffen

©2017 David Steffen

Of Rabbit Holes and Bubbles   Leave a comment

July 1, 2017

      I enjoy the internet. I make use of the internet. I don’t worship it and I’m reasonably certain I could live without it. Well, much of it. As the music industry changed in the 1980s and 1990s, I was within that business, allthewhile observing as technology and the internet began driving ever more  change. And much of it was unnerving to those of us who made a living helping unknown recording artists become successes, and successful artists become superstars. By the time I moved to New York in 1990 the change was even more pronounced, and within that decade a newly-formed company was getting attention.

MP3.com was a 1997 startup that drove record labels crazy, and record store owners even crazier by selling music directly to consumers, bypassing much of the established music-business order. Happily for me, at that moment I had already moved from business to academia to complete my BA and go on to graduate school. While teaching college students about music and the music business (to help pay for my own college and grad courses) I tested the changing and turbulent business waters by purchasing a new album as a download from MP3.com. (I also chose to get a CD copy as well.) The group was Red Delicious and the motivation was a song titled “Casualties”. I loved the recording but I was also learning the power of the internet to interrupt the status quo.

While MP3.com was an exciting startup, nervous recording industry leaders were aghast. Their place as gatekeepers of new music in the century-old music business had reached a moment of truth. With the approaching millennium change was more than inevitable; for some record label people it seemed like a non-stop runaway freight train was headed straight for their wallets. MP3.com, Napster, and the iPod would signal how the “new” music industry would evolve. Marketing people400px-Down_the_Rabbit_Hole copy would figure out which pieces of the business to embrace and exploit, and they would make their choices hand-in-hand with the new technology in a post-millennium internet age.

One of those emerging tech companies was YouTube. Founded in 2005 it was acquired by Google in 2006, assuring its future and making YouTube’s founding multi-millionaires even wealthier. The new company seemed perfectly fit for America’s ever increasingly narcissistic predilection. A regular feature on host David Lettermen’s Late Show on CBS, “Stupid Pet Tricks”, was about to give way to an infinitely larger audience. For example, with YouTube, cats (and their lesser intellectual support system, i.e., humans) had an infinitely larger venue to display both the cute behavior (cats) and the idiocy (humans), all to create a nano-measure of fame. And yet, this month I found myself caught up in my own YouTube moment. To get there, I had to jump into a rabbit hole. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the current application of the phrase, it is strictly metaphorical. Here are the basics. You look at something—almost anything—on the internet and are then presented with serial distractions. Kathryn Schulz described the phenomenon far more eloquently in a 2015 column in The New Yorker:

“Those online rabbit holes, while wildly variable in content, take recognizable forms. One is iterative: you’re settling down to work when you suddenly remember that you meant to look up that flannel shirt you saw in a store but couldn’t find in your size, and the next thing you know, it’s two hours later and you have scrutinized two hundred and forty-five flannel shirts. Another is exhaustive: you go in search of a particular fact—say, when Shamu debuted at SeaWorld—and soon enough you are well on your way to compiling a definitive account of captive killer whales. A third is associative: you look up one thing, which leads to looking up something distantly related, which leads to looking up something even further afield, which—hey, cool Flickr set of Moroccan sheep.”

STINGEDDYBENJENrev (1)     So I found myself on YouTube looking for a piece of music because a friend of mine, knowing my taste, had suggested I hear a particular performance. Having found the artist I listened to 8-10 tracks, including her performance of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing In The Dark”. Terrific version. But then, it got me thinking that I’d like to hear other cover versions of Springsteen songs. Click. Click. Click. Click. Suddenly I found myself watching a string of clips from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors. There was Sting singing “The Rising”; followed by Eddie Vedder performing “My City of Ruins”; and then a duet of “I’m On Fire” featuring Ben Harper and Jennifer Nettles. These three clips are stunning in the arrangements, production values, and sheer delivery. Stunning. But there was more.

The Kennedy Center Honorees that December were, in addition to Springsteen, Grace Bumbry, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Robert De Niro, and all five were clearly deserving of the honor. But there were a couple of other images that caught my attention. Sharing the box in the Kennedy Center that evening with the five honorees were two other people worth mentioning. Earlier this year they completed an extraordinary performance of their own. Michelle+Obama+Dresses+Skirts+Strapless+Dress+g84EM1pX9TZxNot a performance, rather, a journey. From impossible, to highly improbable, to might just happen, to reality. They succeeded.  And on January 20, 2017, their life changed again as they moved from public housing to a private residence.

Seeing the images of the Obamas from a December evening almost a decade ago was an emotional moment. It made me come to grips with just what a bubble we’ve been living in for the past eight years. It was not one of those ‘clueless’ bubbles, but rather a bubble that a majority of Americans gladly embraced. It was a good thing. The bubble that enveloped us was with an American president and his wife who spent eight years bringing dignity, humor, grace, pride, and ideas to Washington, D.C. There were successes and mistakes. But unlike most other presidents of the past half century, there were no scandals, no crazy behavior, no new wars. And let’s not forget that Barack and Michelle Obama arrived in 2009 to assess the almost total collapse of the American economy they inherited and nurture it back from the brink. The current occupant of that same unit of public housing that the Obamas left behind makes it clear how much things have changed. And not for the better. Perhaps going down a rabbit hole from time to time isn’t such a bad idea after all.

David Steffen

© 2017 David Steffen

 

Credible News. Seems Simple, But. . . .   Leave a comment

Challenging The False Narrative From #45

June 1, 2017

I’ve always been an early-riser. As a child my mother found that my body clock was set for 5:00am. She dealt with this reality as would any mother wishing to keep her sanity. Since she worked 3rd shift as a registered nurse (and didn’t return home until 7:30am,) I accepted her guidance. My mother taught me how to make my own breakfast, and provided me with an understanding of why I would live longer if I didn’t wake everyone else in the house at 5:00am. It was no surprise that years later when I delivered papers in Milwaukee, I worked for the morning paper, The Milwaukee Sentinel.

To my own surprise (based on my early years in school) I find that I read a lot these days. It’s a habit I developed in the 1970s while living in Chicago, where I became a regular reader of the Chicago Sun-Times. That choice—Sun-Times vs. Chicago Tribune—was based on two simple ideas: first, the story selection and the writing style of the Sun-Times connected with me; second, I preferred the physical size and shape of the the Sun-Times tabloid format vs. the Chicago Tribune’s broadsheet. It didn’t matter that the Tribune was larger (in number of pages and readers) and far more powerful than the Sun-Times. We all have our preferences.

The Chicago Sun-Times always seemed grittier to me, more blue-collar than white collar; more Main Street than Wall Street. Looking back to those days in Chicago my memory paints a picture of a Sun-Times that was something of a real-life version of The Sun in Ron Howard’s 1994 film The Paper, or The Day in Richard Brooks’ 1952 film Deadline U.S.A. In fact, as I recall the Sun-Times was the backdrop for the 1981 film Continental Divide Belushicd02starring John Belushi as a gritty reporter. Moving to Los Angeles in 1977 didn’t change my habits; just the names of the papers. As a resident I looked to the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and The Los Angeles Times. Both were pale versions of the Chicago papers but for more than a decade I followed the world through the lens of the Los Angeles papers. And as I began working nationally and internationally, I also expanded my reading list to include the New York Times, which I continue to read today, along with the Washington Post and occasionally the Press Democrat here on the coast.

There’s a scene in the 1977 film Futureworld, where the film’s two lead characters—a TV reporter played by Blythe Danner and a print reporter played by Peter Fonda—talk about which is more important and more popular for getting news and information. After a brief exchange (and the question remaining unresolved) they turn to a stranger. The Fonda character asks the man if he gets his news from television or newspapers? His response went something like this: “Me? I’m a tube freak, man”.  The film may be 40 years old but looking at the media landscape today, it seems that the ‘tube freak’ was on to something. According to a recent Pew Research analysis, “. . . TV continues to be the most widely used news platform; 57% of U.S. adults often get TV-based news, either from local TV (46%), cable (31%), network (30%) or some combination of the three. This same pattern emerges when people are asked which platform they prefer – TV sits at the top, followed by the web, with radio and print trailing behind.” The analysis goes on to confirm that “the greatest portion of U.S. adults, 46%, prefer to watch news rather than read it (35%) or listen to (17%).”

How we get news is less important, in my opinion, than the credibility of the news we get. There’s no question that our current president, number 45, likes to talk about ‘fake news’ as a way to explain his “stolen popular vote”, or the smaller crowds at his inaugural, or the popular resistance to his gutting of the social safety net and his denial of climate change. I don’t care if #45 believes Martians or Mexicans voted illegally to keep him from winning the popular vote. I just wish he’d either start governing or pack up his marbles and go home. Either is preferable to the continuing mistrust he sows in our society.

A couple of weeks ago I started watching 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, in part perhaps, to help me believe that our government might start governing. Alas, I didn’t watch the entire movie because I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that there is even one strong and honorable “Jefferson Smith” residing in today’s U.S. Senate. I’d even settle for the film’s Senator “Joseph Paine” to come to mr_smith_goes_to_washington_61073-1920x1200our rescue, and tell him to keep some of the graft for his effort. Governing isn’t a lost cause, but fake news is pushing us in that direction.

Jacob Soll wrote in Politico last December that “fake news’ dates back almost 600 years, essentially since Gutenberg in 1439. As an example Soll offers this nugget: “To whip up revolutionary fervor, Ben Franklin himself concocted propaganda stories about murderous “scalping” Indians working in league with the British King George III.” With the consolidation of news outlets, local beat reporters are an endangered species, and regional and national reporters are at the very least a group under threat. Soll concludes that “Real news is not coming back in any tangible way on a competitive local level, or as a driver of opinion in a world where the majority of the population does not rely on professionally reported news sources and so much news is filtered via social media, and by governments. And as real news recedes, fake news will grow. We’ve seen the terrifying results this has had in the past—and our biggest challenge will be to find a new way to combat the rising tide.”

I’ll keep looking for real news and pass along what I find. I hope you’ll do the same.

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Van Gogh and Van Zandt: Art & Art   Leave a comment

The Personal and Lasting Nature of Art

March 1, 2017

I like art of all kinds. Music, films, graphic art, paintings (oils, watercolors, acrylics, etc), and I like to visit art museums. It’s not like I spend enormous amounts of time or money these days driving from one museum to the next. Rather it’s my long-held interest in exploring as I’ve traveled. Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Louvre and Jeu de Paume, MOMA, Chicago’s Art Institute, and many others. Sometimes the attraction to the art and artist is by chance, and sometimes by design. I recall standing in front of Rembrandt’s 1642 masterpiece The Night Watch (De Nachtwacht) at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum and feeling drawn into that scene from three and a half centuries ago, like I am standing among the burghers. But Amsterdam is also home to the Van Gogh Museum, and there are few things to leave as lasting an impression on a visitor as being immersed into the works of Van Gogh. The artist was born 164 years ago this month (March 30, 1853).

593px-van_gogh_self-portrait_with_straw_hat_1887-detroitAmsterdam’s original Van Gogh Museum building had a mezzanine, where you could walk the long, somewhat narrow pathway, with the art hanging on the wall, and a railing
 behind you overlooking the main gallery. The exhibit space enabled one to see an abbreviated progression of the artist’s works. Regardless of the brilliance of his art, hanging and viewing an original or reprint of any number of Van Gogh’s images may be a bit disconcerting. There were many self portraits, and a few years before he died he painted Self-Portrait with Straw Hat (1887). The intensity of the eyes speaks volumes of the intensity of the artist. In spite of, or because of his artistic intensity, Van Gogh died July 27, 1890, three days after shooting himself with a 7mm Lefaucheux revolver. He was 37. Obviously his brilliant art has survived and thrived for more than a century since his passing.

Music, as regular readers of my column know, has been a passion for most of my life. I sometimes write about musicians I’ve seen, or heard, or met, or all three. One of those musicians was a somewhat soft-spoken troubadour named Townes van Zandt. Before I even met Townes, I knew he was something special. His songwriting was soulful, introspective and speculative. I just happened to ‘discover’ his music while working first, at a college radio station, then a commercial station, and later promoting releases from RCA Records, the big label which happened to distribute the independent Poppy Records label, whose creative owner Kevin Eggers signed a relatively unknown guy named Townes to a recording contract and began releasing new albums. Did you follow that?

It’s best to hear the melody that accompanies the lyrics he wrote, but even without the music, the lyrics alone will provide a little insight into what I’m talking about. Townes’ songs would often quietly break through almost any objective listener’s wall of suspicion and become embedded in their psyche. “Kathleen”, from Our Mother The Mountain, reflects the epitome of a song you could get in your head and have difficulty removing:

“It’s plain to see, the sun won’t shine today
But I ain’t in the mood for sunshine anyway
Maybe I’ll go insane
I got to stop the pain
Or maybe I’ll go down to see Kathleen.”

Regardless of whom she represented for the singer (girlfriend, ex-girlfriend, lover, prostitute) Kathleen was therapy of one kind or another. Recorded in a slightly more energetic delivery is “Come Tomorrow” from Delta Momma Blues. Some fans and critics dislike the recorder and the small string accompaniment to “Come Tomorrow”. Those same critics probably don’t like the accompaniment to “Kathleen” either. These are superficial critiques. As always the underlying song is the central element.

“Well, it’s strange how many tortured mornings, Fell upon us with no warning, Lookin’ for a smile to beg and borrow, It’s over now, there is no returning, A thousand bridges sadly burning, And light the way I have to walk alone, Come tomorrow.”

Many of van Zandt’s other songs were also in the tortured soul subset.

Each songwriter works within the confines of their own inherent or self-imposed comfort zone. Perhaps all of his boundaries were defined within the confines of soulful lament, regardless of tempo. Nevertheless, Townes was able to reach people with his music. Other musicians knew the value of his writing, as when Emmylou Harris included “If I Needed You” on her Duets album (in this case singing along with Don Williams.) The first verse is quintessential Townes:

If I needed you would you come to me
Would you come to me for to ease my pain
If you needed me I would come to you
I would swim the seas for to ease your pain

Clearly his best known song is the story of “Pancho & Lefty”. Perhaps Townes was knowingly or subliminally channeling the story of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Or maybe this was just a wistful dream from his childhood in Texas. I loved Townes’ recording, but to be honest, I loved the version by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard even more. The song is wonderful, colorful, daring and sad. And that, unfortunately, could also describe his too short life. Townes died at age 52, January 1, 1997. A year after his death, writer Michael Hall wrote in Texas Monthly:

late-great-tvz-0001Townes never released an album on a major label. He was never a music business professional and was never much concerned with his career. He was never concerned with much of anything, in fact, but writing, touring, and hanging out with friends and family. He loved paradox—living it and spreading it. Born into comfort, he preferred the company of the poor and desperate and sometimes gambled away what money he had. He was a lighthearted prankster who wrote some of the saddest songs of the century.

I never met van Gogh, but I did meet van Zandt. These two artistic supernovae—creative minds, from two different times, and two different worlds—died a century apart. Yet art can transcend borders, languages, cultures, and time. We should not dwell on how they lived or how they died. Instead, focus on the fact that long after their passing, both continue to touch so many people with their passion, their art.

David Steffen

 

 

Note: In March 1970 Townes was passing through Milwaukee on a performance and promotion tour, arriving near his birthday (March 7). To help promote his new album and celebrate his 26th birthday I organized a dinner. Looking back on that evening I recognize that celebrating with Townes was more img-1serendipitous than a matter of brilliant planning. The dinner party, seen in this photograph included (l-r) Townes’ road manager Vin Scelsa, local radio host Bob Reitman, me, radio host John Houghton, Townes, radio programmer Steve Stevens, and RCA Records promotion manager John Hager.

© David Steffen 2017

Tears And Fears   1 comment

Coping In The Age of Goo
February 1, 2017

 

Do you recall the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail? A classic Monty Python comedy.  Loosely—very loosely—incorporating King Arthur, the Round Table, quests, and death. In 10th Century England there was a plague upon the land. (Note: not the 14th century as history records but the 10th as Monty Python records.) So many people were dying that “dead collectors” went through the streets telling good citizens to bring out their dead. One unfortunate citizen’s body was in the process of being collected by the dead collector when the citizen asserts “I’m not dead.” A debate proceeds but after being hit in the head with a club, the “citizen” is now, well, dead.

A few months ago I fully anticipated that by February I would, at the very least, be near the end of channeling Elisabeth Kübler Ross. Her classic model on how we deal with grief is well known: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Understanding these stages is supposed to help us get through the process of dying and death (in that order). Whether it’s our own mortality or that of a family member or friend, we all can relate to Ross’s conclusions. The good news from the stages is that ultimately we all hope to arrive at acceptance. The night of November 8th I went to bed in what I’d describe as something other than denial, but I was clearly aware of what news the Wednesday morning papers would bring. It’s been a little like that for some people since November 9th.

Acceptance arrived, and I spent a couple of months waiting for the pivot. You know, it was to be that moment when Trump, our recently elected Great Orange Overlord (GOO) would come down to earth and govern. Unfortunately, GOO turned out to be unable or unwilling to pivot, and he spent late January issuing edicts. While many of his executive orders got my attention, it was one in particular that struck a nerve: “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States”. Essentially GOO was following through on his promise to treat Muslims differently than everyone else. And amazingly by design or rank ignorance he managed to do this on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day in which GOO omitted mentioning the slaughter of Jews. One university professor, Daniel Drezner of Tufts, was so incensed by the order and the timing that he let fly an amazing Tweet:

 

“Dear @POTUS: on Holocaust Remembrance Day my synagogue told me the Syrian refugee family we’re sponsoring is not coming. Go fuck yourself.”

 

Drezner later apologized for the closing three-word expression of disfavor, but doubled down on his feelings about the policy. The New York Times offered this: “That [Trump’s executive] order, breathtaking in scope and inflammatory in tone, was issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day spoke of the president’s callousness and indifference to history, to America’s deepest lessons about its own values.” From this side of America we are left to wonder if this latest order is GOO’s stalking horse for a laundry list of people, countries, groups, and religions with whom he and his administration disagree. After all, GOO has one prominent supporter suggesting the United States begin registering Muslims, while another thought the WWII Japanese internment camps were “a good precedent”. Think about it; zealous supporters offer Manzanar as a good idea, a good precedent.

In 1988 a seven-year effort to start a family became a reality for us. Our daughter has been amazing. She’s worked as hard as can be to carve a place in society and this month began a new chapter by changing careers, going to work for a tech-related company in San Francisco. I treasure every moment we’ve had and I hope we have many, many more. But it was the rhetoric of GOO and his close associates that made me wonder just what can be next? Our decision to start a family was not surprising—lots of other people have done it, really—but any journey that takes seven years to succeed, as ours did, sort of focuses the mind. Like Star Trek’s character Mr. Spock, a Vulcan who mates only once every seven years, anticipation and success can be a long process.

     Caitie was born on February 7, 1988, and it was an event that I was not able to attend. For that matter, neither was my wife. Caitie was born in Korea. After

chsb seven years of paperwork, interviews, and waiting, we were matched with this wonderful baby who happened to be born in Seoul. In short, my feeling to this day is that it was like winning the lottery. Only better. We flew to Korea, spent three days in Seoul, and returned with our baby on September 2, 1988. As I once said to friends of mine when their first child was born in 1976, ‘the three of you are now one.’ And now so were we.

In June 1989 we sat in the Los Angeles chambers of Judge C. Bernard Kaufman, and he made our adoption final. A year later we were once again in downtown Los Angeles. This time it was at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and where, along with a thousand or so of our closest friends, we were to participate in a ceremony making a lot of people in that hall citizens of the United States. The room was absolutely colorful. There were whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. Too many countries, and too many stories to list, but the common thread was someone in each group was about to receive American Citizenship. That morning there were plenty of flags, kind words, and a collective singing of the National Anthem (and it wasn’t even a ball game.) There were a thousand people saying the pledge of Allegiance, along with the recorded voice of Country star Lee Greenwood singing “God Bless The USA”. Not a dry eye in the house, including mine.

And here we are almost three decades later. It feels like recalling that convention-hall camaraderie today is more important than ever. In 1990 we were all as one at the Citizenship swearing-in ceremony. It was  a kind of tent revival meeting, with everyone hugging strangers, shaking hands, singing together, celebrating for ourselves and for all of those who came before us. So when our leaders begin to register, arrest, intern, and deport people based on family name, skin color, birth country, or religion, we must speak up. This is not what constitutes making America great again. When GOO attempts to turn the clock back a century or two, to some time in America’s past, we must all be aware and engaged. Forget the stages—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Save those for bad news from the doctor. What we need now is everyone to stand up for everyone else. No exceptions. This country has a constitution, and a history of tolerance. Last month 200-300 people were marching in downtown Gualala, California as part of the post-inaugural Womens March, and it was a genuinely beautiful sight. On that day millions of people reminded us that it is not the time stay in the house and hibernate. Now is the time to pay close attention and let our government hear why the policies of GOO have nothing to do with greatness.

 David Steffen
© 2017 David Steffen
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