Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Meet John Doe and Then, Meet John Doe There and Back Again

            There was a time when in my life when my whole world, the one that mattered to me, was a very small room with white walls and some kind of radio/cassette recorder, a jam box whose origins were either the display case at a Radio Shack or possibly something a relative got for me.  I was 16 in 1985, and about a year removed from the death of my father.  The nerve endings were still raw, and in a lot of ways I think the tumult of that time was such that I couldn’t even have stepped back to grasp what I’d just been through.  My aunt and cousins didn’t understand – and my aunt’s advice for dealing with such a traumatic episode was to basically sit me down one day and say, ‘Get over it!’, or words to that effect.  I’d walk along the highway, the roads leading out of our suburb on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, or I’d venture across that mighty body of bubbling, churning water via a quick trip on the ferry, and everywhere I went I saw people that just didn’t get it.  If I’m honest with myself most days of my life still seemed filled with the blank faces of strangers who would neither care nor empathize with the darker corners of my memory.  And, I’ll bet in most cases if I asked them to stop for a moment and consider what I’d been through they’d give me the same answer my aunt did all those years ago.  Our deepest pains are always our cross to bear.

            But, when I was 16 there was this one constant companion, something that never judged, that only provided inspiration and sustenance of a spiritual nature: that jam box, small and with its tiny speakers, and that spoke to me in the language of rock-n-roll.  I learned a lot of things from that little machine.  There was the magic of songs and how to write them.  Stories in interviews or in the songs themselves that told me there was some sort of true artistic expression to be had in picking up a guitar or a harmonica, and just talking about how you felt. And, there were the bands themselves, the people who wrote and played the language that blasted with as much fury as the warbly speakers in that undersized plastic gizmo could muster energy for out into the air molecules of my most lonely of lonely rooms.  There were the New York Dolls, something I picked up in earnest after listening to a few tracks of their stuff on WTUL, Tulane University’s radio station which, at the time, was the chief repository of ‘college rock’ in New Orleans. Motorhead’s ‘Another Perfect Day’ was an important piece of the puzzle, this new language I was trying to understand as a respite from my grief, as was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Pack Up the Plantation’ live cassette.

And of course there was X, who I’ve written about here, and also here.

            X was and remains my all-time favorite band.  The one I’ve looked up to and hero-worshipped for the better part of 30 years.  Of all the new syntax that I was absorbing in that tumultuous period theirs was the most direct, most poignant, that I felt I was listening to. Sure, it was punk rock and that in and of itself was not that far afield from the Ramones or Violent Femmes or (on the rare occasions I would listen to them) Black Flag. Stylistically a little different maybe, but good rock-n-roll is just good rock-n-roll, and when you get a feel for the good stuff, which takes a while, you know it when you hear it. What made X different I guess was that there was this, I don’t know, this controlled anger at the heart of it.  Not the raw in-your-face bombast of, say, Henry Rollins of Black Flag but that was something I could kind of relate to.  It’s easy to lash out in pain, or in frustration. To do so in such a way that touches people, that you can sing along with or dance to or in some other way interact with, that’s more of a delicate balancing act.  That’s something special.

            And, so in a way it’s funny that, given all the conversations I’ve had with guys who sport Platinum records on the walls of their palatial homes or various members of bands I’ve accosted or spent time in the company of in the crude ink sketches of the many-layered canvas that was my extended sojourn into the world of nightclubbing, the only member of my all-time favorite band I’ve ever actually talked to is its bass player, co-lead vocalist and conscience, a fella who calls himself John Doe.  That’s not his given name, I don’t believe, and if memory serves the name itself comes from some old movie from the 40s or thereabouts, ‘Meet John Doe’.  So, yes, I’ve met John Doe but the funny thing is, I’ve met him a bunch of times over the decades.  I doubt that he remembers me when it happens, the glamorous world of entertainment being one where you surely must meet a lot of people, but he always has time to talk to me.  That’s true of course for just about anybody who’s a fan, who comes up to speak with him in the afterglow of another live performance, in another town on the way to the next town.  I’ve never known the guy to not be approachable no matter what the circumstances – sometimes your heroes are every bit as much as what you cracked them up to be.

            The first time I crossed paths with this individual was in 1989 or 90, I think.  X was on hiatus following the one-two punch of Billy Zoom quitting and John and Exene Cervenka’s marriage falling apart all around the same period, mid 80s.  Later they would all get back together as one big happy family to tour, but this time out there was just the band’s former bassist, now sporting a record contract with one of David Geffen’s companies and out to prove he could stand on his own.  The show was at Tipitina’s, uptown New Orleans on Tchoupitoulas St.  Doe was playing on a weird off-night, I want to say a Monday. I’d read about his band in a puff piece in Tower Records’ magazine when I was perusing the magazine rack there one day a few weeks previous, marveling at the line-up that the former X frontman had assembled for his debut.  Everyone from Dwight Yoakum’s drummer to Richard Lloyd, the guitarist opposite Tom Verlaine in the famed 70s New York band Television, was on the payroll (a funny aside here: more than a decade later, when I was living in Austin, I watched John Dee Graham play a set at the Continental Club and remarked to him after the show how much his band’s guitar sound reminded me of Television; as luck would have it, the other guitarist opposite Lloyd that night at Tipitina’s all those years back was, yes, John Dee Graham). Sounded like a super backing crew, and eclectic to boot, just the kind of outfit Doe would put together.  I recall standing at the lip of the impossibly tall stage at Tipitina’s, staring up in wonder at Richard Lloyd’s feet as the blonde musician set up his well-worn collection of Boss or Digitech guitar pedals, set up atop a board with all of the separate units strung together like the lights on a Christmas tree.  These were the legends of rock-n-roll, these sort of men.  Furrowing their brows and downing the obligatory swigs off a long-neck beer bottle or from a small shot glass of brown-tinted whiskey, they would blast away on their selection of tunes in the sweltering New Orleans heat amidst the assembled throngs of the teeming crowd for our amusement.  So, this was then the fulfillment of all that time taking in that magical new language I’d spent so much time ingesting as a 16 year-old, this kind of night.  I was about 20, legal (the drinking age was only 18 in the city then) and now, after several years of hero worship and much contemplation of what was to come, I was about to See John Doe perform, if not exactly meet him.

            Doe got up on stage in front of the band, resplendent in this brown-and-white cowboy shirt, not quite a Nudie suit but a more subdued affair. On the loudspeakers the news of the New Orleans Saints’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers was percolating around the atmosphere of the bar, Monday Night Football being as usual more than a little cruel to the followers of the Black-and Gold in those days.  John Doe surveyed the crowd, a big grin stretched across his face, and he said, “Hey, sorry to hear about your team losing.  That stuff is just a bunch of big guys beating each other up!”

Then, they kicked into it.

It was a heck of a show.

            Afterwards, I hung around the side of the stage, and to be honest I don’t recall having a particular reason for doing so.  So, I’m standing around looking off into space and who should emerge from the shadows but the singer himself, a kind of triumphant look on his face.  It was him, and so I did the obvious thing and for the first time got to Meet John Doe.  I introduced myself and Doe said, “Hi, Craig!”  Obviously, he didn’t need to do the same given that we both knew who he was.  That was the extent of the conversation, and I didn’t get but a brief chance to thank him for making Los Angeles, which was alright.  Doe was off to the next conversation and I was left wondering if there was more to it than that to meet the people who made the voices that had animated my jam box just a few years before; apparently, that was pretty much all there was to it.

            I wasn’t to meet John Doe again until almost a decade later, or about a decade actually.  In the mid-90s I’d dropped out of circulation to take up a job in oil and gas services.  That was a good gig from a payout standpoint (I’ve never had what you would call a traditional career and have been on the ‘gig economy’ profile in terms of how I earn a living long before it became fashionable), but after about two years I began to get a bit of a longing for the old life I’d had, the one I’d given up as I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you grew up.  I was at this coffee shop when I saw it, this flyer for something called ‘The John Doe Thing’ at this French Quarter bar called the Shim Sham Club. The Shim Sham Club at the time was a pretty happening spot, and there were a number of great bands both locally and from out-of-town that were there on any given night (I’ll never forget the time I walked in off the street, asked who was playing, and found myself a few hours later catching a set by legendary psycho-billy pioneer Hasil Adkins).  One other notable feature about the place was that it had its own burlesque troupe, the Shim-Shammettes, primarily a collection of comely veterans of that most infamous of Bourbon Street’s notoriously seedy strip clubs, Big Daddy’s, slumming as 50s-style dancers of the pasties-and-a-g-string variety.  Around 2000 this place had a real buzz around it; there was always stuff going on.

            There were three main areas to the Shim-Sham Club.  One was the traditional French Quarter bar in the front, behind the oaken edifice rows upon rows of just about every spirit known to humanity short of Absinthe (which, sadly, made a big comeback after like a century’s long absence a few short years after I left town) situated around an imposing bar mirror that looked as though it had seen a thousand fights, ten thousand inebriated make-out sessions, and just about every smoke, drink, and the smokers and drinkers who consume them as had ever lived on God’s Green Earth.  Upstairs was a lounge area that was a study in crimson: red bulbs in the fixtures, red covers on the table lamps, and to the best of my recollection over the dim rim of a shot glass of memory red vinyl couches.  The name of this spot was something Devil-themed, and the best story I ever overheard while hanging out downstairs was from some burly-armed barmaid and Gulf War vet recollecting the use of that upstairs couch by a member of the Irish band the Pogues and one easily impressionable female fan of the band who’d shown up the night they’d played the Shim Sham and had made the mistake of pouring out her woes to said member of the ensemble, who in turn managed to get her on said couch after the show for some, oh, cheering up or something.

            In the back was where they had the shows.  And, this was kind of the weird part.  The stage itself was large and of a professional quality, large enough to house anything from Irish tin-whistle ensembles to a dozen or so scantily-clad women festooned in fishnet stockings, feather boas and matching giant torso-obscuring feather fans, with an old-school Vegas Strip style backing band alongside that!  It was certainly big enough to host whatever John Doe from X, now bereft of his bigshot deal with David Geffen but still I was sure had the fire in the belly to put on one of his profoundly moving live performances, was bringing with him that evening. But, the odd part of the Shim Sham’s concert area was the scenery that was stapled to the walls. There were these white picket-fence props, like something from a production of Our Town that had been left up in haste by the previous tenants of the building, perhaps a dinner theater that would’ve been better served taking up residence out in Harahan or Little Farms or some other subset of neighboring Jefferson Parish. There might’ve also been some trees and I want to say like a farm-house thing along one wall; seeing as how most of the times I was back there I, too, had often had a few tee many martoonis, with additives, and all of this happened over 15 years ago as of this writing I could be a little sketchy on some of the gritty details. Regardless, it was an odd choice for a bar that catered to a clientele that dressed like extras from either a Nick Cave or Tom Waits video, depending on the night of course.

            There were two acts playing that night, John Doe and his crew, and one Cindy Lee Berryhill.  I found this personally amusing given that, many years previous, I had actually gotten a copy of Cindy Lee Berryhill’s first record on cassette (I gave up on LPs when I was about 13, I think, and got most of my music in cassette format), Naked Movie Star, again off a conveniently placed recommendation in Tower Records’ puff piece freebee. And, you know, it was actually pretty good.  So, this was kind of a pleasant surprise, then.  About a decade after she trotted out such never-heard-of-‘em classics as ‘Gary Handeman’ (still my favorite Berryhill number, for what that’s worth), Cindy Lee appeared by herself onstage in front of a good 200 or so people, dressed head-to-toe in black, like 50s counter-culture Beatnik black, holding a red semi-hollow body electric guitar. And, she just got up there, cracked a few jokes and played songs off her new record at the time; sadly, I don’t recall her doing ‘Gary Handeman’, even though I requested it out loud. 

After her set, but before John Doe and co. took the stage, I went over to Ms. Berryhill and regaled her of my high opinion of the one record of hers I had owned in my Quarter Rat days and her eyes kind of lit up, you know, like the look of a woman who’d been wandering without provisions in the desert for a few days, and I’d just dangled a mustard-splashed corn dog in front of her.  “And, I really liked the new stuff’” I said, “I just wished you could’ve played ‘Gary Handeman’.”
 Then I asked her, “So, how did you end up opening for John Doe on this tour?”

Berryhill’s reply was priceless, and it said a lot about the guy who was about to get on stage.  “Well, John liked my new CD, and he sent me a fan letter telling me how good it was!”

This went on for a few minutes longer than most of my typically abbreviated conversations with sort-of famous people, and it was only after she walked away that I realized that, to her, I was probably hitting on her.  I look upon the near-miss with Miss Berryhill as one of the bigger missed cues in my time spent nightclubbing; if I’d kept at it, I might’ve ended up playing bass on a couple of her records as Mr. Cindy Lee Berryhill, but hindsight is always 20-20.
It was time for the John Doe Thing to get on stage. The crowd was fervent with anticipation!  Drunk X fans were shouting for ‘White Girl’ or ‘In This House That I Call Home’ to be played!  I kept thinking it would be another all-star round-up like the early 90s show but, low and behold, the John Doe Thing in its turn-of-the-century incarnation was just John armed with an old Guild electric, X’s master musician drummer DJ Bonebreak, and a bass player with long hair named Drew. 

I mean, that was it. 

That was the whole Thing.

            But, it was great.  Here you had Doe, his face a little more lined than the time I’d seen him a decade before, looking otherwise tan and trim and leading his two partners in crime through a selection of the fresh stuff off his new album.  There were no guitar solos (after hanging out with guys like Billy Zoom, Dave Alvin and Richard Lloyd I guess John figured there was no point in pushing the fish-out-of-water bit).  There was a little bit of drama when the front man’s amp began to sizzle, and I can’t recall if the thing blew up outright or simply had to be given a swift kick to its midsection to continue to perform, but the technical glitch didn’t spoil the festivities.  John did in fact play a couple of X numbers, including ‘White Girl’, but what really struck me about the vibe in that room that night was that, you know, here you had this world-famous rock star guy, someone who’d taken fake punches from Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse and been Julianne Moore’s porn star’s long-suffering ex-husband in Boogie Nights, somebody who’d been just an eyelash from mega-fame prior to the tanking of X’s disastrous Ain’t Love Grand record, and he’s in this room with a bunch of fans of his old band, and it was like almost this high school reunion sort of environment.  One thing that truly separates X fans from the pack, in at least as has been my personal experience, is the genuine degree of affection that exists between the band’s members and those fans.  You know, I’d like to think sometimes it was just me, but I’ve been to shows where the group did like three encores and the like, and I can testify that if there is one true, honest-to-goodness troubadour out there who actually cares what his fans think, and cares on some level about them, it’s John Doe. And, believe me, the fans feel the same way.

            Afterwards I all but accidentally ran over Drew the bass player as we both made for the same door to the front of the house, and I told him how much I liked the group.  Sensing where this was going, Drew helpfully suggested that “maybe you should talk to John”, and I thought to myself, ‘Gee, why didn’t I think of that?’  So, I made my way back into the Our Town dinner theater/concert hall, and off to the side, sitting in semi-darkness and a little sweaty, was Mr. Doe.  Yes, I got to Meet John Doe for a second time (like that’s a surprise, right?). This was more of an actual conversation, with a guy who’d been through the opposite end of the celebrity wormhole and had come out the other end seemingly more sober if not less cheerful.  When I told John that I was impressed with how the new band sounded and how, if I’d just walked in off the street and not been a fan, how impressed I would’ve been with the new material he did like this fist pump and blurted out a “Yes!’ to go with it.  It was such a strange contrast though.  The John Doe I’d briefly chatted with at Tipitina’s was the same guy I met that evening at the Shim Sham, only now he didn’t look as big and rock star-like as the time before.  It was not that I was any less of a fan boy, but I think in maturity you realize that even your heroes, no matter how ginormous they may appear on a stage or the silver screen well, sometimes they don’t measure up to Brobdingnagian proportions because nobody in real life is ever that big to begin with. No, not even Andre the Giant.

            The last Meet John Doe story I have (and there are, of course, others, and I’m sure some of you reading this who may be X fans have your own to tell as well) to share here is from around 2007, in Austin at a club on 6th St.  This was a Knitters show, and again that’s one of the things that’s great about being a fan of this particular artist – John Doe has been in so many bands, and more importantly so many good bands, that if you live in a place that’s along his touring circuit as Austin was you’re bound to have multiple chances to catch him live per year.  For the uninitiated, the Knitters were John and Exene Cervenka of X’s mid-80s country project, basically X save with the Blasters’ Dave Alvin (who briefly handled guitar chores in X after Billy Zoom left) on guitar and an upright bass player handling the bottom chores.  For this mid-2000s show Doe showed up in, if memory serves, like this rose-colored shirt, like a 70s-era crooner.  Strumming along with his acoustic guitar, he absolutely ripped this version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Silver Wings’, and watching that I couldn’t help but wonder what this guy could’ve done in another era as a vocal stylist working the boards of Opryland in Nashville; one of the things that to me makes John Doe the presence that he is in American music is the way he can use the same outstanding voice in so many musical idioms, and with outlaw country he fares nearly as well as any of the Highwaymen.  After he finished, the rest of the band took the stage and belted out Knitters tunes old and new.  What was fun about the performance was that John and Exene, who’ve probably been through a fair amount of drama over the years, dropped any pretense of doing a serious show and basically did like this live, on-stage reenactment of an Opryland parody, I think there were even poster board cut-outs of corn stalks, maybe a cow or two, behind the band although almost a decade on the details are kind of sketchy.  And of course the rest of the band was dressed like Ma and Pa Kettle – it was like an episode of ‘Hee-Haw!’ with punk rock credentials.

            For my part, I stood on the side of the stage by this wooden post, near one of the PA speakers.  Standing next to me was this attractive woman with long brown chestnut hair that kind of cascaded down her back, really nice-looking lady.  Naturally I struck up a conversation and had a hard time placing her accent until she told me she was from upstate New York or someplace but had lived in New Zealand for like the previous four years.  Her husband was still down there in Auckland or Wellington or one of those other towns, attending to selling their home there while they completed the transition to A-town.  “I’m a huge Dave Alvin fan,” she told me into my ear between loud blasts of guitars and hokey, cornpone dialogue on the stage.  “I’d really like to get his autograph after the show!” she continued, perhaps thinking that I had some pull with the band, which I obviously didn’t, due to the familiarity I had with the subject of my All-Time Fave musical outfit.  Neither of us had a backstage pass but it occurred to me, being pretty savvy on the nature of those alleyways they put behind all the bars on 6th St., that there might be another option.  “I got an idea,” I told her while the Knitters belted out the strangest version of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ I think I’ve ever heard, towards the end of the performance. “Let’s hang out backstage after the show ends, and we’ll just ask Mr. Alvin to put his John Hancock on your t-shirt there.” 

“Yes!  Let’s do that!” she exclaimed, and before you could shake a lamb’s tail I found myself with this New Zealand transplant lady outside in the mid-summer Austin heat in this alley next to a foul dumpster, right within striking distance of the lonesome backstage door that I was sure was the one attached to the bar we were just in.  We waited for Dave Alvin, his signature balding head and blonde goatee, to pop through that door.  He didn’t show.  A few other people not in the band came out into the night and disappeared off to the hotel or the tour bus or wherever they were staying, but still no Alvin. After the better part of 20 minutes someone walking through that exit way my new pal and I were watching with  anticipation mentioned that the mighty Blasters man was already gone but, as luck would have it, mere seconds later a familiar, weather-lined face and rose-colored shirt appeared, looking all kinds of tired and with probably a beer and a shot or two swimming through his system, accompanied by a small entourage of a couple of people.  Sometimes in the glamorous world of rock-n-roll you have to assess a situation, helping somebody get a prized moment with a sort-of famous person versus taking up said person’s time and need for very valuable sleep, and once you do the weighing of that, which in a case like this can only take a split-second of fevered concentration, you have to act.  This was one of those times.

“Mr Doe!” I belted out at the bedraggled figure in front of me. “This lady traveled all the way from New Zealand, and she would really like your autograph!”

John Doe looked up at me for a second, shrugged his shoulders, and took the time to chat with us briefly and sign the woman’s shirt.

That’s just the kind of guy he is, Mr. John Doe, and if you meet him, I’ll bet he’ll treat you...

Exactly the same.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

One Night at The Drafthouse: An Almost-Review of the Venture Bros. Season VI Opener

            I haven’t owned a television since Poppy Bush was president.  No, really, I don’t own one of those things and don’t see a great need to.  So when something comes on that I want to watch, but don’t have the device and/or internet hook-up at home (yes, call me a Luddite but I as of the present am not online in my humble abode) to indulge in said bit of entertainment, well naturally there’s the imperative to get creative.  There is, in fact, only one show that’s out there that I really, really enjoy: Venture Bros.  I first got into this particular program a few years ago from reading about it on various blogs and seeing clips on Youtube, and after I caught an episode I think on Adult Swim’s website I decided I had to have the whole thing.  So, I went on the prowl to every Hastings and Barnes & Noble in town until I’d cobbled together  a DVD collection what has been up to this point five glorious seasons of what some call the best cartoon made in the free world (since we don’t know exactly what goes on in North Korea and other remote pockets of humanity, the possibility however remote exists that Kim Jong Un or some other elegantly-coiffed despot has greenlit a more compelling saga of animated fiction in their bailiwick, although I wouldn’t bet on it).

            Pure pleasure, all 60 some-odd installments documenting the exploits of Dr. Thaddeus ‘Rusty’ Venture and the incredibly naïve clones of his sons, their various bodyguards, fellow ‘super-scientists’, butterfly-themed costumed antagonists and all the rest.  If the show had a new season every fall I would probably break down and get one of those Orwellian big-screen devices from Target just so I could watch this one program, but as it is Venture Bros. is an intermittently produced creature of the fervently creative brain trust of its authors/artists/voice actors Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, who keep the working schedule of, say, late-70s Led Zeppelin in terms of the timeliness of releasing new seasons.  You get what you pay for, though, and while it takes these guys a good while to churn out another 8-13 half-hour snapshots in Rusty Venture’s life it’s always worth the wait.  I caught the bug again over the last four months or so from clips released by Adult Swim on various comic book websites (yes, I do still access the internet at coffee shops and the proof of that is, if I didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this right now, would you?) and so was stoked when the word went out that fresh Venture product would soon hit the airwaves.

            Problem is, if you don’t have a TV, and you don’t have the internet at home do you really want to wait until the DVD comes out to get to the latest slice of the narrative?  Sure, I could download the new episodes of I-Tunes whilst waiting for my peppermint hot tea from the pick-up counter at Starbucks, but why go to all that trouble when there are cinematic options available?  Thank God and the people at the Alamo Drafthouse, but I sure didn’t have to sink so low!  As it turned out, even here in the relatively disconnected milieu of Lubbock, Texas the hipster theater chain, for the uninitiated basically the Starbucks of high-priced film emporiums, was showing the season opener of Venture Bros. on the big screen.  Goodie for me!  After perusing my collection of the previous five seasons on my tiny laptop I was going to a real theater to sit in a spacious Alamo Drafthouse seat with a bunch of fellow would-be smug aficionados of the delectable animated confection, watching with rapt attention every nook and cranny of this production on a giant movie screen, in the same place where I saw the new Star Wars just before Christmas.  This was worth staying up on a Sunday night past my usual bedtime (it’s my experience that the pain of Monday is always muted somewhat by a good night’s sleep the night before).  So, I got my ticket online ahead of the big weekend rush and got to the theater an hour before the show was to start.

Now, I lived in Austin for the better part of seven years, and those who’ve read my writing on this topic know my feelings on the bipolar nature of that town.  If you have money and/or are a student at one of A-Town’s pristine academic institutions such as the burnt orange-tinged octopus on Guadalupe Ave. that is the University of Texas, you can have a wonderful time in that city.  If you’re not in such circumstances, the way can be quite the opposite, and the meaner side of that experience, the telemarketing rooms, faceless apartment complexes and strip clubs, was the part that, sadly, I was more familiar with. The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain that was spawned from the sunny, SXSW-and-‘Live Music Capitol of the World’ touristy side is a perfect A-Town product.  What’s amazing about the Lubbock location, which I’m sure is consistent with similar such franchises that have sprouted up around the country in the last decade or so, is that it manages to capture the snobbish feel of the original only bottled up amidst shiny surfaces and tastefully understated lighting with a bar, like an airport watering hole, adjacent to the ticket counter.  Unlike hitting a Tinseltown or some other mega-screens galore movie complex at the mall, the Alamo experience is calculated to make you feel as though seeing even something as trivial as the new Pixar kid’s feature or another godawful reel of corporate comedian’s shtick (Ben Stiller, Amy Schumer, take your pick of whomever the Hollywood flavor of the month is) can be placed on equal terms with a retrospective of Quentin Tarantino’s catalogue, which isn’t that much of a stretch given that at any given time both ends of the spectrum are routinely available on its upcoming schedule.  Best of all, and this must be where they really make their money, the Alamo Drafthouse has a menu of hipster-ish items for the delectation of the film patron that, at least from the descriptions on the bill of sale, rival the culinary delights of some legendary Sixth Street locale like Casino El Camino, although I can tell you nothing beats the burgers and the humongous orders of cheese fries from that place, but I digress.      

Given that I was going to what constituted one of the relatively hipper things to do in one of the closest places there was to a hip place to view it, I wasn’t surprised that the line to get into the Venture Bros. premier was rife with what in the Hub City passed for actual hipsters.  In a town crawling with stegosaurus-sized Ford F-150s and gun stores where you can buy Barrett .50 cal. bolt-action sniper rifles like the ones JSOC probably uses to kill Mujahedin up in the mountains of Afghanistan the sight of a salt-and-pepper goateed white dude sporting a black t-shirt with Something Cool (a graphic of an album cover by an obscure British Goth band or perhaps the iconic shot from the DVD jacket of The Devil’s Rejects) on the front is actually pretty rare.  Tonight, this strangely balmy late January Sunday night that it was, had likely all two-or-three dozen of said-such Lubbock-dwelling individuals all packed into the relatively cozy lobby of the Drafthouse like so many extras seeking a spot in the crowd scenes of a new Kevin Smith project, along with their equally-hipsterish girlfriends, some of whom seemed to know as much about what we were about to see as their self-absorbed significant others.  A few patrons even went as characters from the show, including the obligatory Dr. Mrs. the Monarch (in this case, a short, somewhat pudgy woman with an ample chest that strained, appropriately for the character, against the black spandex of her costume), a stereotypical Monarch henchman (complete with bright orange non-functional wings), and even a Sergeant Hatred-and-Princess Tiny Feet worshipping couple (and, if you aren’t familiar with the references watch the show, for Pete’s sake – I can’t do all the work here, now can I?). 

I think the highlight of standing in line for the show was the oversized cardboard standee for the upcoming Deadpool movie, on which I used as a backdrop while I clipped off a few selfies with my flip phone, which I’ll post with this should I ever figure out how to get the photos off said device without having to pay for the web browser that comes with the thing.  Now there’s a comic that’ll never see the light of day, but should: Craig Higgins and Deadpool.  If only I had the money, and could pay Rob Liefield or Jim Lee to render the tale of me in four colors as this squinting, three-days stubble bristling, overly-muscled tough guy sporting multiple leather-pouches on his pants and way-big-sizes-too-many handguns leering like cobras from either of his meaty paws, with the Merc with a Mouth riding shotgun, then I could truly die in peace, or at least utter embarrassment!

But I’m mixing my adolescent power fantasy metaphors here, or something.  Let’s get back to the Land of Venture.  So, the hour in the line with all the pseudo-hipsters wound down, the imaginary velvet rope was lifted, and the throng of the faithful was allowed into the hallowed hall of Theater Eight, where my pre-selected seat beckoned for me.  As we were led into the darkened room a couple of people were handing out free stuff in honor of the event – I got a white t-shirt that said ‘I Venture-Bros.-logo VB’ on the front in black letters (I’m guessing this was a play on the old ‘I Heart NY’ promotional put out by some enterprising Big Apple tourist commission flunky several decades ago) and this poster featuring a Wonder Woman-sort of tough lady glowering over longtime Venture stalwart Brock Samson dressed like a Roman gladiator in pitched combat with a Medusa who resembled the late Shelly Winters, only if Shelly Winters was a Medusa.  Not a bad haul considering the price, a token $5 snack fee for snacks that were never forthcoming, although in fairness I’ve been to the Alamo on more than a few occasions and wondered exactly why I put out almost ten bucks plus eight more for a commemorative glass just to say I watched Crimson Peak, so I can hardly call this particular event a rip-off by any means.

Inside the theater, there was a loop of appropriately Alamo Drafthouse ‘hipster-goofy’ alternating clips of a bunch of clowns from a Cleveland suburb dressing up as thrift store versions of ‘The Avengers’ and what, as far as I could tell, were highlights from some South Asian children’s superhero action feature, with a square-jawed fellow sporting a burgundy spandex suit locking horns in the sky with a bearded, pot-bellied vampire who had to lift his facial locks to fire a crude laser effect from some clunky gold-plated hubcap suspended over his chest, all to the tune of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’.  The soundtrack was entirely appropriate, and poignant given that Venture creators Publick and Hammer are huge Bowie fans and spent the first few seasons of the show dropping references to the late, great Thin White Duke wherever and whenever they could fit them in.  Whether it was the man himself as an unauthorized character on the show for many years, as the crime boss-of-bosses, the Sovereign, the time Pete White appeared on the Halloween special dressed up as Ziggy Stardust or any of a number of supporting characters (the Action Man, a reference to ‘Ashes to Ashes’, from Bowie’s Scary Monsters album), figures briefly seen in crowd shots, and other obscure references, if there is one place where David Bowie will always get the street cred most people seemingly forgot he had decades previous, his work and spirit will forever be immortalized in Venture Bros. And rightfully so – great art and it artists deserve to be intertwined with their best imitators, and lifelong, truly appreciative fans.

One thing that didn’t work all that well was, the announcer for the event was exactly what you’d call a devoted follower like the audience in front of whom he had to speak.  This is probably one of the few features of the original, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse they couldn’t Starbucks into existence.  I recall in the mid-2000s, before the theater chain began its franchise push in earnest, going to see this independent adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu there, and the Emcee seemed to be at least as familiar with the subject material as the throng of Lovecraftians in the audience all chanting ‘Ee-yah!  Ee-yah!’ like the devotees of Dagon in the author’s short story The Ipswich Horror.  Not so the bearded non-entity who was attempting with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm the pumped-up Venture fans this Sunday night of 2016.  He got the names of the episodes wrong (somehow ‘Bot Seeks Bot’ became ‘Bot Seeking Bot’, a miscue not perhaps noticeable to fans of the latest Seth MacFarlane parody but way out of place in a gathering of anal-retentive geeks and fanboys in the assembly that evening) on multiple occasions, and to top it off didn’t even seem to have a clue as to who the characters were portrayed by the few people who did show up in costume for the pre-cartoon costume contest that was specified as part of the festivities for the program.  That’s the thing about geek culture, something even the show’s creators rightfully lament from time to time: if you don’t get the little details right somebody, somewhere out there in the ether of the outer limits of social media is going to notice it, and is going to complain. As it was, the costume contest went off as reasonable success, and just about everybody who dressed up (by my count, I think only five people actually showed up in Ventures’ drag, and there were only five prizes) got something for their efforts.  I strained at the leash to refrain from heading up there myself only to grab the microphone and display my adept imitation of Dr. Mrs. the Monarch’s voice for the adoring crowd, but since I wasn’t in costume it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do; in hindsight, I should’ve cut a deal with the woman who dressed up as Dr. the Mrs. to work up a duo act.

Finally, after all the hoopla and with a delectable hot chocolate as my beverage of choice, I and the rest of the patrons sat back and indulged in ‘Bot Seeks Bot’, the most recent hour-long special ‘All This and Gargantua 2’ (which the hack announcer from the Lubbock Alamo kept insisting was titled ‘All This and Galactica 2’) and then, finally and after a wait of more than two years, the opening stanza in the sixth season of the Saga of Venture. There was Rusty clutching his dead dwarf brother’s will in his hands, the document which placed the pill-popping titular protagonist in charge of a multi-billion dollar corporation.  There was the fallout of the shake-up of the leadership of the Guild of Calamitous Intent in the aftermath of the crack-up and death of the Sovereign (a bitter, coincidental, and wholly unintentional bit of foreshadowing of the passing of the real David Bowie), with Dr. Mrs. the Monarch having to cope with a new, corpulent pinstripe suit-wearing villain called Wide Whale pawing her while attempting to talk her into an offer she evidently couldn’t refuse.  There was a giant giraffe and a team of superheroes that included the Amazon caricature from my poster along with yet another white guy who wore a lot of purple and sported trick bow-and-arrows, with the arrow tips shaped like feet (watch the episode, and it’ll all make sense, believe me), and another guy who, basically, looked like the unnatural love child of Captain America and Dr. Frankenfurter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  There was indestructible bodyguard Brock Samson, ably voiced as always by the incomparable Patrick Warburton, reporting for duty in his old post while the previous bodyguard Sergeant Hatred scowled in the shadows, still looking out for Rusty and his progeny.

And, there was the Night Dick.

Don’t worry. He was just a guy dressed like the Spirit,

and he rode this motorcycle that could climb walls.
            And so it went, for a gloriously short 30 minutes until the credits ran, the house lights came up and it was time to go home.  When I sat down to write this, I thought back to all the other Ventures-related stuff I’d read recently and decided that, in terms of reviews, I couldn’t top what most of these people were doing. Although, to be honest sometimes if I have a gripe with some of my fellow devotees to the program it’s their insistence in taking this epic saga of a cartoon that parodies nearly every cliché from comic books, kid’s action/adventure shows, and any and all other celebrity culture that can be skewered in the course of the series, and just taking it way too seriously.  Get the DVD copies of Venture Bros. and put on the creators’ commentary as the backing track to the episodes, and you can hear it very plainly: Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer are really, really funny guys and their goal, first, foremost, and last, is to have a good time with this and make you laugh, too.  It’s a cartoon, you people! It’s a funny book made into an amazingly well-crafted television series, nothing more and nothing less.  Spoilsports who complain about how there aren’t enough female characters (which is silly, given that by and large the most competent, level-headed characters in the Venture universe are female, even when they’re voiced by Hammer) or have some other diversity-related gripe should check their egos in at the door and make their own gosh-darned animated series, if that’s what it takes to get the sticks out of their collective posteriors. 

Now, if you want to take a shot or three at the Hollywood machine that refuses to nominate people of color for the Oscars, be my guest; when you’re talking Publick and Hammer, two guys that have featured any of a number of genre-busting characters like the flamboyantly gay super-spy Shore Leave, or the diminutive-but-dashing Jonas Venture Jr. or the strong-willed, self-assured Triana Orpheus, to be honest I think the wrong people are being picked on. As far as I can tell, the reason there are so many male characters on Venture Bros. is not that they don’t want to give female cosplayers more options come Dragon Con – rather, it’s because they do nearly all of the voices on the show and, yes, they are both male humans.  I would submit that the next time someone out there on Twitter or Instagram wants to complain to the diversity police about this show they should first set up a crowd-sharing account, and then pony up some money themselves to give to show’s masterminds to fatten their operating budget so they can get a sufficiently large multi-gendered, multi-ethnic cast of actors available to play any of the dozens of new figures who would have to populate the show to satisfy these PC concerns. This may come as a news flash to some, but performers like James Urbaniak and Warburton do not exactly show up in the studio to play Rusty Venture or Brock Samson out of the goodness of their hearts – these guys are working actors, professionals who could just as easily do a rental car commercial as help Jackson and Doc personalize the myriad personalities in their tree fort.

Again, if you don’t like the cartoon the way it is, please go make your own.  And, for the rest of you, just enjoy the thing while it lasts, won’t you?  For all we know, this sixth season could be the final rodeo for this, arguably the best and most comprehensively brilliant, long-running piece of American animation since Warners put out all those Bugs Bunny shorts in the 1940s.

Great art sometimes doesn’t even come along in a lifetime.

Why make a fuss over silly stuff?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What Faith Would Be Like If Faith Were Real

            Growing up Catholic, church was never exciting, and if you’ve ever been to a Catholic mass you know what I’m talking about.  It’s a place where you keep your faith hidden by design.  First of all, the décor is dark and somber, and nobody talks to each other.  There are few of any hymns, and the limits of audience participation are these bits in the monthly program where the people in the pews mumble out some monotone rendition of some obscure Bible passage.  The parish priest of course is the master of ceremonies.  If you’ve ever hung out with Catholic religious, and I did a fair amount of that my first 14 years, these guys are usually not the life of the party.  Like football coaches or jazz musicians, priests are this secretive bunch with their special seminary training who perform the anodyne rituals, and hear your confession from behind a screen in a booth, like a telephone operator from a half century ago putting in your long distance apology call to Jesus because, you know, for some reason you can’t just pick up the phone and call Him yourself.  But the thing is, and this is important, you almost never get to know the priest as a person – there’s this invisible wall separating God’s representatives from the body public.  This isn’t faith – it’s is a spectator sport and not much of anything else.

‘So then,’ you say, ‘what do you think would be an improvement?’

Good question.

I think the answer may lie in the chapels of the Mormon faith.

            Now, granted I’m new to the team and still finding my way, and when it’s your rookie season in a religion you tend to be a little starry-eyed.  But, I’ve spent as I said a fair amount of time in Christian churches and seen the inside of everything from synagogues to mosques to Zen temples, so I think I’ve been around the block. And I’ve never seen anything at all like the Mormon service.  What’s the special ingredient?  This is going to sound funny, but I think what makes going to church with the Latter Day Saints an experience that reaches out, that can speak to even the outsider, is a very simple concept: democracy in belief.  Mormonism is like your idea of faith if faith were real, if it were kind of cool. And the reason is you get to take part in it.

            For the uninitiated, and that’s who this piece is directed at, this is more or less your Mormon experience as seen by somebody about to take the plunge.  First of all, the chapel is well-lit with plenty of space between the pews – it’s an inviting atmosphere.  The fan of old Hammer Gothic movies in me could do with a stained glass or two, but that’s a minor pet peeve.  The front of the chapel has, facing forward, a small organ for accompaniment, a podium that has this wicked propelling lectern thing on it, and some seats for various people such as the bishop, various speakers of the day, and so on.  Lastly, on the opposite edge of the stage there is this spot where they put out the sacraments which are basically the same as in any Christian service, bread and water to represent Jesus’ body and blood.  So, the layout is pretty standard, but where Mormonism takes off as a fully participatory democracy in action is in the application. 

There are a lot of hymns in LDS service; I mean, compared to say a Catholic mass where nobody gets to do much singing, there’s a lot of hymns going on.  Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing.  Hymns that come off like standard Christian hymns, and other stuff about how families go on forever, ideas unique to the Mormon faith that I don’t fully understand at this point, although I’m working on it. What’s really amazing is, like a bunch of surprisingly skilled karaoke singers in a row at some sports bar that doesn’t serve any drinks (thanks to the Word of Wisdom, a topic for another time), not only do most of the congregation know the words but they’re actually pretty good at singing the songs themselves, as if they’d put some actual practice into these things.  Even taking into account various members having grown up in the church it’s still to my mind an impressive display even for what I’m sure is a relatively small congregation like what we have in Lubbock.

The testimonies are also inspiring, not simply in terms of content but also in the sense that they exist at all.  In all my years growing up Catholic I can’t ever recall a church service such as the one I saw one Sunday, where congregation member after the next went up to that fancy telescopic lectern and told stories, or said nice things about Jesus and the church, or just went into how blown away they were by having traveled in from Salt Lake City to see a town in the middle of nowhere in the Panhandle sporting so many cars in the parking lot outside the chapel the first weekend of August.  This isn’t a priest or a minister in some fancy white vestments trying to find some esoteric meaning out of a Bible passage.  But, Mormon faith is faith in action in a way that George Carlin’s Cardinal in the film Dogma could never have achieved with Buddy Christ and those catchy marketing slogans like Catholicism-Wow! The people that got up on that stage today didn’t need a cartoon Jesus giving them a thumbs-up to make them feel like they were doing something that had relevance.

After testimony of course there’s more of that pretty singing, and then after the service closes out there are classes.  And, yeah, on the surface that sounds pretty boring, too.  But, in the topsy-turvy reality of Latter Day Saint services on Sunday afternoons even class has relevance.  Every little detail of the Sabbath has meaning, and you feel out of place if you don’t do like everybody else and contribute.  Somebody is in the front of the room moderating a discussion out of the book on putting the Gospel into practice, but my point is you feel like you have a place at the table in the discussion, something literally true as you are seated at a table with all the other people who happen to be in that day, kind of a spiritual jam session that’s focused not on abstract ideas of faith but rather on how faith can be put into concrete action.

And, isn’t that the point of religions?  Some of religion is how we deal with questions we can’t answer, but isn’t the useful part of it a guide to how we can live, today, right now?  And, what’s wrong in having a hands-on faith where you feel like you can dialogue and discuss the parameters of belief with like-minded people who are supportive and inquisitive, full of purpose?

This is really what it’s like to spend time with Mormons on Sunday.

It’s what faith would be like if faith were real.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Requiem for The American Dream: Dusty Rhodes, RIP

As I write this, I’ve only just found out about the death of Virgil Runnels, aka the professional wrestler they called Dusty Rhodes, as of around 1AM this morning, several weeks after his passing.  I was in line at the grocery store getting some water, and that’s when I saw it, the headline on the front of one of those tabloids they put in the rack next to the register when you’re checking out.  Rhodes, overweight, bleach-blond warrior off the turnbuckle for decades, had headed off into that big No Holds Barred Cage Match in the Sky.  I have to believe that’s what happened.  Really, that’s kind of the only place a guy like that could go.  Someplace fantastic, and someplace beyond the ken of mortals who looked up at his place in the grappling firmament with great reverence.  He was a popular guy back in the day, the ultimate stereotypical fat man in tights (in the days before WWE impresario Vince McMahon’s steroid casualties) with the strangely engaging smile and not-so-gifted way with a poetic phrase. 

Lots of people around the world who followed the idiom saw Dusty Rhodes, rightly, as one of the greats and in my early teens I was in that number.  Rhodes wasn’t my favorite (that would be the incomparable Sylvester ‘The Junkyard Dog’ Ritter), but like the Beatles or Joe Montana he was, in his own sphere, one of those guys you respected regardless of personal loyalties.  I mean, the man billed himself as ‘The American Dream’.  That, no question about it, is an appellation uttered either by a man possessed by a profound ego or one with a profound sense of irony; I like to think Rhodes was in the latter category.  To understand this commitment towards pro wrestlers you have to understand the era, what it was like and what was going on in America.  The 1970s are often looked upon as this halcyon period of relative economic good times (compared to today, at least), leisure suits, the Bee Gees and disco balls.  But, the reality was actually very different.  More than anything, the 70s were America’s hangover period after the Vietnam War.  Americans had gone off to the jungles of Southeast Asia to fight some allegedly noble crusade against communism and instead had come back beaten and humiliated, like a Roman Legion broken after a setback in Gaul.  For a country that prided itself on its own infatuation with kicking other people’s asses getting its ass kicked by basically a peasant army in a jungle halfway across the world was very difficult to accept.  That sense of, ‘Oh crap, maybe we aren’t what we thought we were’, permeated the culture; everything was covered with its stink, and for several years it seemed like it would never wash off.

Personally, I miss that America.  But, I do remember what replaced it.  And, what replaced it was the era of Ronald Reagan.  Reagan in a lot of ways personified the great American retreat back into denial in the 1980s, into movie stars with windblown hair and perfect chins who flew Tomcat fighter jets for the Navy, or pop singers who kept on smilin’ through videos on MTV, leading pyramids of faceless backup dancers in one three minute pantomime of teenage angst after another.  Browns and plaids as a general color scheme for clothing were out; pastels were in (only in the 1980s could your aunt buy you a loud yellow or teal fuzzy sweater and, as a boy, you could wear it and no-one would look at you funny).  And, at the center of it, was the old cowboy actor who once made a movie with a chimp: the Gipper, the Great Communicator, the Teflon President.  You had Reagan, who often seemed perfectly clueless and who presided over a country that wanted desperately to believe that it was still Number One, never mind what that actually was supposed to even mean.  In the early 1980s you could watch television, the bellwether of the society, and so much of what was there, both local and cable programming, seemed as calculated and robotic as a drum machine on a Casio keyboard synthesizer.  These were the last days before the internet and the consolidation of corporate media on a vast scale, but they were also the days when a lot of Americans seemed to very much want that kind of subjugation.

Culturally, this was a wasteland time.

Pro wrestling, if you can believe it, was kind of an exception.

            Didn’t stay that way, of course.  Even in the early part of the decade  McMahon’s WWF promotion, one of the ‘Big Three’ of the period, was getting heavy into cable and laying the foundation for the domination of sports entertainment and the bulky action-figure grapplers, the mass merchandizing and the rest.  But, this process took a few years.  Around 1981 I was a pubescent who spent a lot of time watching TV, and for me one of the things I looked forward to was ‘Mid-South Wrestling’.  This was a pro wrestling show put out by Bill Watts’ old Mid-South promotion, one of the second tier circuits that existed at the time.  As a kid, I never could quite grasp who it was that put this fabulous production on the air, but I ate it up as did many youths of my age bracket.  At the time superheroes stayed strictly in the comic books, the occasional television series notwithstanding, so if you wanted somebody to look up to the only options out there were the stars of actual sports like the NFL or NBA, or the grapplers. 

For a time, I longed to be one of them, this elite fraternity of burly men who wore loud tights underneath prodigious beer guts (there were muscular wrestlers at the time, like Tony Atlas or Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat, but these were by and large the exception) and shiny, sequin-covered boots and who, to a man, mostly came off as having at best high school educations.  Some wore creepy-looking bondage masks and hailed from some magical place called ‘Parts Unknown’, which was even cooler.  Being a little over five-and-a-half feet tall on my tallest day, of average physical build and eventually headed off to college I was never going to fulfill this dream, but didn’t know that then.  But that’s the whole point to hero worship, isn’t it?  I mean, especially at a time and place where everything else from the LA hair metal bands to Rambo’s revenge fantasies in Vietnam were effigies so calculated and triumphal, who wouldn’t want to be a genuine blue collar roughneck with big arms, a big mouth and a patented finishing move?  It may be that the action in the ring was staged, with a fixed outcome designed to generate an emotional response out of the dedicated fan base, but guys like Dusty Rhodes and the Junkyard Dog seemed real.  What difference did it make if some of them were washouts from NFL training camps who’d found a new racket?  These guys were like my stevedore uncle, or the Vietnam veteran who stayed on the neighbor’s couch for a few months in the late 1970s.  Just from hearing him talk, you could tell nobody put a silver spoon in Dusty Rhodes’ mouth when he was born.

That’s what made him the American Dream.

            In a lot of ways Rhodes was everything the 80s didn’t stand for, even though he enjoyed some of his greatest success then.  The man was, frankly, kind of rotund, proudly strutting around wrestling rings all across the world with his massive gut, man boobs and stretch marks for all the world to see.  His curly locks were bleached and usually cropped short, sometimes in a post-mod afro thing, sometimes in a proto-mullet.  When he opened his mouth before a match, or during one of the interviews/trash-talk sessions in the booth that were a staple of wrestling programs, Rhodes spoke with almost a speech impediment, as though he’d had a cleft pallet at birth that had been rudely stitched together by his dad in the cab of a beaten-down pick-up truck on the way back from the hospital.  His overall impression was of a guy who’d maybe once been a real asshole (which was his deal in the early days of his career when he partnered up with the legendary Dick ‘Captain Redneck’ Murdoch, another personal favorite from the Mid-South days, as one half of the ‘Texas Outlaws’ tag team) but who at some point had gotten wise to the evils of being what was then known as a ‘rulebreaker’ and decided to fly the straight and narrow for a change.

I think that’s what made him so hugely popular.

Who can’t relate to the fuck-up who makes good, kicks some ass and takes names?

Isn’t that really all of us, deep down?

            I don’t have any particular memories of a match Dusty Rhodes participated in either on Mid-South, where he was only an occasional presence, or the Von Erichs’ brilliant ‘World Championship Wrestling’ show but I do recall one thing about he was fond of doing in those days.  The regional Mid-South promotion didn’t have the best production values and it didn’t have a cable deal.  But, it had one thing going for it, a home-field advantage that Vince McMahon with all his millions never could manufacture with steroids or face paint: Boyd Pierce.  Pierce was the guy in the booth who sat or stood passively to the side with his microphone in hand while somebody like the Super-Destroyer or Ted DiBiase (this being back in his pre-WWF, clean-shaven, mostly good-guy formative period) would yell at whomever it was they had a blood feud with at the time, promising retribution in the form of a good ass-kicking the next time the pair would square off in the ring.  And here was this little old guy who was very quiet, like the world’s oldest water boy for a football team from the post-WWII era, back when they didn’t bother with wussy stuff like face masks.  Greying, pot-bellied, and anodyne, Boyd Pierce made his mark in my 10-year old’s mind with his loud (and I do mean loud), rainbow-hued selection of outdated polyester suits and his utter unflappable mien regardless of who was spitting or strutting around in his general personal space.  You got the impression that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (then in America considered a big-time 80s-era supervillain world leader, the Kim Jong Un of his day) could’ve shown up in full dress uniform with a pistol with a big silencer on the barrel to threaten him with on camera, and Pierce wouldn’t have blinked an eye.  Surrounded by roughnecks and literal giants and men who allegedly kept ‘foreign objects’ in their boots or armbands, nothing fazed this man.  To this day, there are few figures in my memory of American popular history that I hold in more esteem than Boyd Pierce; like the wrestlers he helped to promote, he was in his own strange way a breed apart.  Pierce was the flavor of that blue-collar grappling racket, unrehearsed and utterly sincere.

            So, to me, one of the great ongoing routines in the Mid-South booth, and I’m sure he repeated it in just about every other grappling precinct where he picked up a check to perform, was when Dusty Rhodes, flanked by straight-man Boyd Pierce in a raspberry hounds-toothed leisure ensemble with matching, impossibly wide tie, would recite one of his little poems to let the audience know how much of a bad-ass he was.  Rhodes would get up there, sometimes shirtless with a wrestling title belt, shiny and tacky and ridiculously huge, slung underneath his belly and sometimes in a denim shirt and jeans with a baseball cap cocked off to the side, and borrow the words of the late Jim Croce’s ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’ to make this, one of his most definitive statements:

RHODES:  ‘Yeah, thass’ right Ric Flair (or the Grappler, or ‘Bruiser’ Brody or whomever the feud was with at the time), you think you the cock o’ the walk walkin’ aroun’ Mid-South Wrestling right now! But, I got somethin’ to tell you, Brothah!

‘You doan’ tug on Supahman’s Cape!’
‘You doan’ spit in the Wind!’
‘You doan’ pull that mask off dat ol’ Lone Ranguh,
and you doan’ mess aroun’ wit’ da Amekun’ Dreem, Dusty Rhodes!

            Those were magical words to me, when I was in my early teens.  The fact that the man could pull off such a performance looking like he’d just gotten back from mowing his lawn, sweaty and somewhat pissed and with the speech impediment to boot, is part of what made it so believable.  This was a guy I could relate to, not like President Reagan or the cast of ‘Family Ties’.  Dusty Rhodes was proud of being a plumber’s son, proud of taking a gig that most would’ve regarded as beneath them, as a joke, and turning it into a cottage industry.  And, maybe the best thing about Dusty Rhodes was that it never seemed to be just about the star.  Look around the internet since his passing and you’ll find one testimony after another and you’ll see it: the tremendous respect from the peers, the people who came after the American Dream and others like him paved their way to success, who recognize his generosity and fearless example.  Pro wrestling has come a long way as a commercially viable form of sports entertainment, and perhaps in its own way helped to provide a fertile ground for things like the public acceptance of Ultimate Fighting, but as an art form and as a place for us regular folks to find heroes to believe in, to live through, I don’t think it was ever better served than it was in the days of the smaller promotions and the fat guys screaming at each other on small sound stages and dilapidated sporting rings in places like Shreveport or Tulsa.

            Dusty Rhodes was a product of that world, a distant place that was cruel and brutal in some ways, but maybe more honest and understandable in others. He was a real American hero up from the bottom, the guys who built the railroads, worked in the coal mines or fixed your faucet. And, for a time, he was one of the most recognizable figures in the business, rotund and love handles and frosted hair in tow.

He was the American Dream.

I miss him already.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A Big Fat Nothing About Nothing In Particular: Netanyahu's Speech Before Congress

            Don’t look now, but here comes the master orator: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is going to speak in front of both houses of the US Congress.  This isn’t the first instance of the blowhard Israeli leader getting up in front of the assemblage of America’s highest legislative branch, but now there’s a fair bit of controversy over how this deal came together.  Netanyahu, Netanyahu, Netanyahu; you get tired of hearing about this guy.  The prime minister of England and the president of France lead populations and economies that are far larger, and the Russian leader could well be our adversary in a future world war, but America’s cable news outlets and right-wing blog-a-sphere can’t stop talking about ol’ Bibi (and, incidentally, I’ve largely gotten away from using that epithet to describe Netanyahu; it familiarizes him, and puts a little polish on the turd that just killed over 2,000 people in Gaza last year).  It’s as if CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all showed up at this big dinner party, forgot the names of the host and all the other guests and just spent a lot of time paying attention to the angry drunk who spills the punchbowl.  Even when he’s not crashing Congress this a-hole gets too much press in the States.

            So let’s get then to the meat of the latest court intrigue in the Beltway then, shall we?  The Obama administration has for the last several years been patiently trying to forge a deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran on regulating the latter’s nuclear energy, some would say covert nuclear weapons, program.  Nobody has any documented proof that the Iranians are working on the bomb, and the Iranians themselves swear they are innocent, but that hasn’t stopped Israel from conducting a not-so-clandestine series of bombings, assassinations, and cyberwarfare attacks on that country’s instillations and scientists, actions that were the roles reversed would almost certainly have resulted in Israel having sent in its air force to deal out a vicious retribution.  Iran knows it can wait out the Israelis and Americans and there’s no practical way either can attack without basically kicking off World War III, but nonetheless the Iranian leadership wants to make nice and cut an accord. Iran lost somewhere around a million people in the Iran-Iraq War so they want to avoid something like that again if they can.  Barack Obama wants a notch on his foreign policy credentials legacy as he rides out the last year-and-a-half of his presidency, so he and his administration also have an interest in getting a deal done.  On paper at least, seems like a win-win all around.

Ah, but that doesn’t work for Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends in the Republican Party.

            There’s a couple of things going on here as we approach the Big Speech, actually the third that the prime minister has made to the august personages of the House and Senate (whose number since the 2014 elections includes a lady who made a commercial where she talked about castrating pigs on the family farm in Iowa).  This compares favorably, frequency-wise, with the late Winston Churchill, and in American conservative circles there’s the implication that Netanyahu, too, merits similar adulation.  It’s a load of crap, of course.  Netanyahu was a failure in his late 90s stint as Israel’s top man and a back-bencher up until American billionaire casino operator Sheldon Adelson started up his own Israeli tabloid rag, Israel Hayom, distributed it for free around the country and essentially began running a pro-Netanyahu propaganda shop 24-7, distorting the historical diversity of that country’s print media in the process.  In Israel critics derisively call Israel Hayom ‘Bibiton’, or ‘Bibi’s newspaper’; care to take a guess as to why?

            But, Adelson has his hand in several pots, not all of them in Israel.  Having pulled off the trick of buying his own Israeli prime minister the diminutive billionaire seems to think he can move any mountain politically through the force of his personality and prodigious bank account.  Sheldon Adelson made waves in the 2012 American presidential election cycle by first putting his own horse, has-been former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, into the thick of the early Republican primaries and when that didn’t work shifted his support to the eventual nominee Mitt Romney.  Around this same time Romney held a fundraiser for his campaign attended by a number of American ex-pats in Jerusalem.  Thanks to Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that effectively ended restrictions on private- and corporate political donations, nobody knows just how much money Adelson dumped into the ’12 contest, but a conservative estimate would be somewhere in the tens of millions of dollars.  By all indications, this boss of bosses intends to throw more of his filthy lucre around in 2016 and while Adelson may not be able to pick out his own personal president it’s safe to say that his input on the GOP nominating process is going to be considerable, indeed.

            So, two of the main players are lined up, and only a few remain to be considered.  When current House Speaker John Boehner (R) announced he’d set up a speech in front of Congress for Netanyahu the goat’s horns were affixed squarely on his forehead.  To be honest, I don’t think it’s reasonable for the Ohio Republican hack to get the blame.  Like the guy who takes your payment over the phone for your credit card bill Boehner is just a stooge who, like all other major American politicians in our modern era, knows that his principal job is to make the money boys, the ‘donor class’ of billionaires both inherited and self-made, happy. That’s why he has the gig.  This is just speculation, but I believe the furthest extent of John Boehner’s culpability was picking up the phone shortly after the Republican sweep of the 2014 mid-terms and answering a call from Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, a guy some feel as having a role in Benjamin Netanyahu’s orbit as that of Karl Rove’s to George W. Bush. Dermer of course is seen by some observers as being the mastermind behind his boss’ latest desperate bid for attention, but how many diplomats have the power to override the instincts and common sense of their superiors and talk them into doing something that has been regarded by many in the rival Democratic Party, including the Obama administration, as being a massive breach of protocol?  It may be that the ambassador brainstormed the idea on his own and got Netanyahu’s approval to put the deal together but this mess, and a mess is exactly what it is, should be laid at the feet of the prime minister and his ultimate enabler, Sheldon Adelson.  I find it impossible to believe that the biggest money player in Israeli politics, and one of the biggest in the US, doesn’t find all this terribly amusing.

            So, as Benjamin Netanyahu raises his considerable paunch to the podium to lecture American legislators about how they are about to bend over and take one from the Ayatollah, it’s important to consider the following question: who’s going to benefit from this piece of dinner theater?  Well, the prime minister himself is going to get a boost on several levels, or at least he thinks he’s going to, prior to the Israeli elections on March 17th. As Jonathan Cook pointed out in a recent piece Netanyahu gets a significant amount of mileage off of playing the part of ‘Mr. Security’, or in this particular instance a variation on that role, ‘Mr. Iran’.  Listen to him talk of late and everything, everything, is about Iran.  The prime minister and his staff must’ve worn black armbands the day that firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finished out his Iranian presidency and was replaced by the affable and polite Hassan Rouhani.  Rouhani’s ascension ushered in a period where Iran and the US actually began to get serious about some kind of accord on the nuclear issue, and that’s death for a fear-mongering politician like Benjamin Netanyahu.  His lifeblood is basically scaring the shit out of the home crowd and then playing himself up as the knight-in-shining armor who will come to rescue them, something he’s been doing since his first run for the top job in the mid-1990s.  Going to DC to deliver his diatribe on the P5+1 accord with Iran may or may not have much impact on the success of the talks but it will provide Netanyahu and his staff with some nice photo-op material for some last-minute campaign ads showing the pompous oaf in his element, presumptuously wagging his finger at a world who just doesn’t really seem to give a damn about his country; it’ll make for some nice theatrics, even if none of it is sincere.

And, again, since we’re also talking about American politics here we’ve got to talk about the single-most important element of the political process, that five-letter word for love spelled, ‘M-O-N-E-Y’. Which brings us back to Mr. Sheldon Adelson. Among his other philanthropic and financial interests Adelson is a big-time player in the Republican Jewish Coalition, the primary GOP fund-raising and policy arm that focuses on American Jews.  One big interest of the RJC is in getting more Jews, traditionally liberal and supportive of the Democrats, to cross over to the other side of the aisle, something else that was on Adelson’s agenda in 2012.  Now, getting Jews in the US to vote Republican en masse is a trick that no politician among the conservatives has ever been able to master, but this time out the casino boss and some of the more reactionary members of that community think they have an ace up their sleeve: their affinity for Israel.  One major by-product of Netanyahu’s and Boehner’s not-so-secret deal to coordinate the speech while keeping Barack Obama’s administration out of the loop is that a number of Democrats (and we’re up to a few dozen now) are going to boycott the event outright, with quite a few others non-committal as to whether they will make it. 

Certainly, no fault can be placed with the president on this one.  In the time that he and Benjamin Netanyahu have shared the same breathing space (his entire presidency) Obama has gone out of his way to placate, please and work around the condescending lectures, intransigence, and outright dickish-ness of his Israeli counterpart. This latest trick was nothing more than a slap across the face to the president and he and Vice President Joe Biden are in no mood to bear any further humiliations from the blowhard Netanyahu.  They are sitting this farce out, and to add insult to injury the Israeli in turn told a bunch of high-ranking Democratic Senators that he has no time for a private meeting with them as, get this, “I believe that doing so could compound the misperception of partisanship regarding my upcoming visit.”

Oh yeah. Not a teensy bit of this has been partisan, has it?

            Partisanship has been the watchword for this episode from the moment it was announced.  American elections are about money and if you can get the other team to lose its financial contributors you’ve won. By directly insulting the American president Netanyahu and his Republican enablers have backed the Democrats into a corner whereby they can either play along and look like idiots, or show a little backbone and run the risk of creating a public perception in the minds of some pro-Israel Democratic donors that they aren’t concerned about threats to America’s BFF on the world stage. For the larger Republican Party this idea of turning Israel into a political football also has the potential to motivate Evangelical Christians to get out to the polls and more importantly take time out to organize and push their neighbors to vote. It all adds up in terms of dollars and foot traffic, and also scares some in the traditional Israel lobby in America, the guys who’ve always known that the US/Israel relationship is a strange one, and want to keep it above the fray.

No less an authority on the subject than ADL head Abe Foxman has warned the prime minister that his speech could be counter-productive and potentially damaging.  Foxman is an old-school guy, a genuine Holocaust survivor, and so he’s cautious about upsetting the apple cart.  He likes the way business has been done over the last few decades: AIPAC cowers Congress into supporting Israel’s military/industrial complex, the presidential administrations conduct the ‘peace process’ and Israel gobbles up more land in the West Bank.  I’m sure that Abe Foxman and some of the other pro-Israel critics of the speech (taking place, it should be noted, the same week as the big AIPAC gathering in DC) think they are doing the right thing, but they ignore the political realities of contemporary American politics and, by extension, their own inevitable irrelevance.

Here’s the truth.  America’s left, or what passes for a left in this country, is no longer a reliable bastion of support for the state of Israel.  In article after article, SJP protest after SJP protest on American college campuses, everywhere, there is mounting evidence of a severe generation gap among those, particularly in the Jewish community, who blindly support Israeli policy and those who don’t. Norman Finkelstein has referred to “the coming breakup in American Zionism” in his speeches, and by this point in 2015 it’s obvious that the once-curious phenomenon of otherwise liberal- and progressive Americans pulling for Israel is ceasing to be. That just leaves the right wing, the bomb-throwers like ZOA’s Morton Klein in the Jewish community, and Christian Zionists of the John Hagee stripe.  Their support is always going to be of the rabidly loyal variety, with prayer breakfasts and trips to the Holy Land. With such an obvious schism coming down the pike in the discourse on the US/Israel relationship doesn’t it make sense that for the right that there is no longer any profit in maintaining the façade of bi-partisanship over this now-volatile topic?  And, for the right-wingers, why bother with being above the fray on Israel when it looks like their party, the GOP, is set to recapture the presidency to go along with their dominance of the state- and federal legislative houses, to say nothing of their control of the Supreme Court?  With all of the power in Republican hands, perhaps for a decade or more, who cares what the liberals think about Israel?

This is the ugly reality that the Democrats and some of the old-guard Israel lobby crowd don’t want to face. If AIPAC and the attendant arms of the lobby go the route of the NRA and become more closely associated with conservative politics the Dems will still have to go hat-in-hand to get the bread crumbs that are tossed their way.  By making Israel a partisan issue the Republicans not only cut the legs out from under the opposition in terms of financial support they also get to keep the policy discussions out of the realm of debate in the left as to whether it’s right to unquestioningly support a murderous, colonial country like Israel.  Netanyahu’s speech, in other words, doesn’t in fact mark the end, or even the beginning of the end, of the so-called ‘special relationship’; what’s happening here is an attempt by the pro-Israel crowd to change the way the money is moved around, pure and simple.

So Netanayahu’s speech then itself is inconsequential, a big fat nothing about nothing in particular, is what it is.  The money moves around, and the players play, but beyond that what we have here is a bunch of court intrigue that won’t even bear any mention or significance as events unfold down the line.

I kind of hope this bastard loses his election, though.

I’m sick of writing about him.