a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Issue #13 (September 30, 2009)

Chicago Skyline, Through the Remnant of Chicago Stadium; April 1995

Photo by Joe Carducci

by Chris Collins

Presentiment of an end is the root of all meaning.

Fall is the coming of overhanging clouds, dark and full of definite shape and distance, not the impalpable gray of LA's June overcast. Autumn in California feels like someone ripped the color out of your movie. Or like God hit the dimmer switch. The sky is determinative again.

But the coming doesn't feel like a death, only an intermission, and the relative austerity of winter has its merits. Acquisition of experience slows, the time for turning it over arrives.

Dam up the damned river of the present moment. Write because it's all you'll have left.

[Photos: LACMA, September 18, 2009]

Drawings by James Fotopoulos

From the midwestern desk of Carducci...

I don't like to play CDs in the car unless there's truly nothing on the radio. My drive to Illinois from Wyoming was the first time since my car had a CD player that I didn't give up on Nebraska radio somewhere east of Sidney because there's a new rock station in Cozad and as soon as Rush started taking phone calls I found it. I listen to Country radio too but not for the whole four hundred miles between Cheyenne metal and The River at Western Iowa. My favorite songs this trip were the new Alice in Chains microtonal drone-trudge during which they sing "California's alright / Somebody check my brain", and George Strait's low-key depressoid ode, "I'm Living for the Night".

AiC has a new album out today with their new singer William DuVall. I saw him at my bookstore event in L.A. last year. He did this interview with Greg Ginn last November. And you can see him and the others in this promotional interview feature for AiC.

I thought George Strait was drifting off the C&W charts so I was glad to hear his tune repeatedly on the drive. In fact, these tunes were the ones I most wanted to hear and they seemed to be number ones -- meaning right up there with Nickelback and Tim McGraw (whose "It's a Business Doing Pleasure with You" is also a great C&W radio hit of the moment). Here's a short George Strait interview.

Another thing about Iowa and eastern Nebraska is that they see alot of sub-Classic Rock like Head East, UFO, Blackhawk, etc., and so you hear them on the radio there too. Heard a real nice old Head East tune, "One Against the Other", from their debut album, Flatter Than a Pancake, which they put out themselves in 1974 and was picked up by A&M. The Classic Rock format could be alot richer than it is. Also heard a new Tesla song somewhere along in there that I couldn't ID by ear. Improved, I'd say, but no "Modern Day Cowboy". Now that I'm in range of Chicago I can listen to sophisticated stuff like Wilco, and Sea and Cake. Or maybe not.


FT letter re Banksy's defensive bravado.


A couple of interesting pieces ask questions about the strangely self-serving humors about today. The New School's Marshall Blonsky focuses on three ad campaigns, the most familiar being the Progressive Insurance campaign, although the professor doesn't seem up to speed... I'm often caused to remark: "Watching television is not as easy as it looks." The spot he's referencing ends in the fist-bump, not the salute. It's dumber and more smug than he seems to realize -- or could be his editor is a Christian Scientist. The campaign he should get aload of is thetruth.com's endless ouroboros over on Fuse TV. The tobacco tax has funded a bonanza of cheap unfunny stunt-based autophagia, though what may be funny is the pride of these bootlicking children as they stick it to the baffled Man in the street. The Atlantic's Christopher Hitchens sticks mostly to the insta-books produced by Al Franken, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert. He isn't merciless exactly but then it's too easy. But neither Blonsky nor Hitchens grounds his complaint by underlining what is the best comedic strategy -- the offering of oneself as the butt of a joke that portrays human fallibility. It's a simple matter of performer's generosity, observed today mostly in its absence. However it's how comedy reaches art through schtick. It never reaches art when the comic's joke is merely that it's that guy over there that is a doofus, because that's not disinterested general, human-condition humor. That is vain bullying.


There are crosscurrents in every election, but in Europe I'm wondering if there isn't a major barometric effect caused by the ongoing centralization involved in the E.U. project. If voters across Europe worry about their political class graduating into the superstate's superstructure where it can escape en masse the voters' veto, one might anticipate a new right in Europe that is, in a sum of nationalisms, a continental check on the semi-democratic Brussels regime. Another contributing factor might easily be the immigration issue, especially the challenge posed by muslim immigrants, where Brussels and the left parties are often completely voiceless.


Brave New Brasilia at 50.


Reddish China at 60.


This William Chace piece is a good rundown of what the vulnerabilities were that allowed for the collapse of the Humanities, if not of the culprits themselves. TAS seems unsure of the title of the piece as if the creeping People mag-style of headline writing and the news-you-can-use of local news television has infected academe on top of all else. The cover is better than inside, oddly, where "Where Have All the Students Gone? -- The demise of the English department" transforms into the less grim "The Decline of the English Department -- How it happened and what could be done to reverse it". Next we may find ourselves addressed as the informal non-royal We that weekly coos at us from the covers of Newsweek and Time as in "The End is Near -- and what every American can do to procrastinate". The Atlantic's cover story titling has the New York Times' disease; it reads "Dear Mr. Bush, You Approved Torture. Only You can fix the damage. Here's How. By Andrew Sullivan" Sounds like he wants Bush to try to trump Jimmy Carter as our finest ex-President. Luckily I don't have time to read that either.


Back in Greater Chicagoland where you get to read Rev. Jackson's Sun-Times column at least as long as the paper lasts. Today's comes maybe a year after the news broke that the subprime lenders and lendees were all broke, but Rev. had alot to think about before his staff lent his pen to paper for him. Here's the relevant sentence:

"Mortgage brokers and banks such as Countrywide, Washington Mutual and Wells Fargo allegedly went from redlining minority areas(*) to targeting them -- intensely marketing exotic mortgages in the name of extending home ownership -- and then often systematically steering borrowers into subprime mortgages that they could not afford."

Where I stuck the asterisk a book ought to be written about the old community organizers of the seventies as they bilked and shamed these banks who being businessmen cut deals that after the riots yielded non-redlined neighborhoods, some quite improved it's true, but let's have the famously shy Reverend take credit for his share of the cost as well. The Rev. only recently discovered the word "allegedly" because he's as guilty as they are.


Amy Annelle has a nice photo essay on her site.

Photo by Amy Annelle

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Issue #12 (September 23, 2009)

"Tree of Life," Above the San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles

Photo by Chris Collins

Drinking, Smoking and Smuggling in the Land of Sunflowers, Babes and Babushkas
By Jordan N. Mamone

According to the World Health Organization, the average Ukrainian woman lives to be 73 while her male counterpart only holds on until 61. Say what you will about socialized medicine, but these figures have fallen considerably since the end of the state-controlled Soviet system. Of course, a collapsing infrastructure and free-market growing pains aren’t the sole factors contributing to this decline: Daily consumption of smokes and horilka (you call it vodka, comrade), the yardstick by which true Slavs are measured, plays its part, as well. Although Ukrainian girls are capable of tippling and dragging like champs, their dads, brothers and grandfathers are predisposed to ingesting an alarmingly steadier supply of booze and cigs. Fraternal and professional affairs almost always demand several hundred grams of hard liquor and a kiss from Philip Morris. Both are essential accompaniments to meeting friends, making deals, settling disputes or appreciating a decent meal. Never mind how conveniently these vices can erase the stress of being the breadwinner in such a precarious country.

As for beer, it is, not surprisingly, viewed as a soft drink. Pedestrians may purchase and chug it openly, at all hours, in parks, on sidewalks, and on the way to work. It’s cheaper than bottled water and gentler on the guts than the stinking toxicity that drips out of faucets from Lviv to Kharkiv. An array of commercial Ukrainian brews verge on Czech standards of quality: crisp, occasionally creamy pilsners with the stealthy oomph of four-to-eight percent alcohol. Impressive suds for this corner of the globe, even if a Brit or Bavarian connoisseur might deem them underwhelming. Still, the fussiest of epicureans will concur that the local cuisine—say, a bunch of tiny dried fish or a salty, grilled pork shashlyk—excels with a pint of indigenous malted refreshment. (Alas, the muddy and indistinctive brand Obolon, a rather poor representative, is what usually finds its way onto American shelves. If you’re lucky, a smart importer will flood the U.S. with Lvivske Premium or unfiltered Chernihivske, thus sending Stella Artois scurrying home to Leuven, Belgium—where the native barflies sagely opt for Jupiler.)

Uh, where were we? Oh yeah: death. Thanks to the gender discrepancy in Ukrainian life expectancy, the place is overflowing with more than libations; it’s also brimming with females. Forget the criminal fringe of mail-order brides and human trafficking (which, by the way, caters to foreign clientele) and instead note that famous teetotaler Joe Biden made the following remark to President Viktor Yushchenko during a diplomatic visit in July: “[Ukraine has] the most beautiful women in the world. That’s my observation.” For once, a politician is telling the truth. Flocks of lithe young things stroll arm-in-arm, sashaying up Khreshchatyk, Kiev’s major pedestrian artery, or gossiping down Deribasovskaya, the equivalent boulevard in Odessa. They bask in their own fabulousness, blind to the clichés of Slavic pathos and immune to the stares of the few business travelers and even fewer tourists who venture to this unfairly neglected region. These leggy throngs—comprised of ordinary lasses who, at worst, resemble Lolitaesque catalog models or, at best, a platoon of would-be Milla Jovovichs—are difficult to avoid. Across the Atlantic, their vast numbers would attract flashbulbs, especially when the weather becomes warm and the garments become sheer. But here in Ukraine, they’re like sunflowers—another detail of the landscape, really.

This surplus of dames, however, isn’t all short skirts and great cheekbones. The flipside is the demographic of pleasantly round grandmothers and deceptively frail-looking widows who arguably fulfill a more crucial role in society. They’re as ubiquitous as the gamine teens and, despite their headscarves, welcoming smiles and kindly exteriors, they’re often tougher than the mutton-necked bouncers who roam the nightclubs along the Black Sea shore. Ukraine’s tragic past has dramatically shaped its matriarchs’ mentality: In the ’30s and ’40s, entire generations lost their mates to Stalin’s systematic starvation of up to 10 million (a genocide wholly ignored by the West) and to the atrocities of World War II. As the century progressed, the blunders of the USSR and the irresponsible oligarch-capitalism of the ’90s added insult to injury, leaving many families’ pensions either worthless or nonexistent. And so, Ukrainian crones learned to make do, often unable to utter the word “retirement.”

In the provinces, they tend plots with hoes and scythes. In large metropolises, they sell herbs, rhubarb, and the savory pastries dubbed pirozhki. A minority resort to begging, but if they’re able-bodied and sane, most babushkas get by via clever forms of marginal employment. Compared to their American analogues, these industrious elderly women come across as astonishingly robust and self-reliant. Instead of greeting patrons at Wal-Mart or slinging gruel in high-school lunchrooms, they till their fields or hustle their wares on the streets, rain or shine, because their very survival depends on it. They command your respect and they don’t need your pity.

Outside of Lviv, an elegant, Viennese-influenced city that escaped the wars with its baroque and classical architecture intact, this entrepreneurial contingent has found a particularly ingenious way to earn a little extra cash. Watching the gals in action was the unanticipated cultural highlight of our Eastern European vacation. The episode afforded us a unique glance at the resilient national character and furnished us with an experience that seemed more authentically Ukrainian than any museum or Orthodox church.

We had just crammed ourselves into a battered minibus bound for Zamość, Poland, an unblemished Renaissance town located about 75 miles away. The vehicle was actually going from Lviv to Lublin, but the driver had tentatively agreed to drop us off en route. For the cost of a ticket plus an insignificant bribe of five hryvnia (about 65 cents), we arranged for an unscheduled stop a few kilometers from our destination—inexplicably, Zamość itself isn’t a proper terminus for public transportation even though all Lublin-bound traffic must pass through its outskirts. As if that weren’t absurd enough, bus-station employees in Ukraine and Poland will blatantly deny that it’s possible to journey there. In truth, almost anything is possible if you possess a sliver of determination, a sense of humor, and a pocketful of chump change.

The driver repeatedly told us that he was “worried about police,” whatever that meant. Probably to guarantee his baksheesh, we thought. We had heard about the cigarette smuggling that persists between western Ukraine and eastern Poland, where tobacco prices are substantially higher because of a sounder economy and EU-imposed taxes. Spot-checks and searches result in an eternity of delays at the border. Our guidebook omitted this colorful information but we had stumbled upon Websites and savvy Lviv residents that mentioned the phenomenon. A Polish redhead on our minibus remembered that her Ukrainian husband once waited for nine hours at the crossing; this was perfectly normal, she assured us. We envisioned patrolmen being verbally abused and/or greased by leather-clad, bulldog-faced mafiosi, their Benzs with tinted windows stalled from the customs post to the horizon. Or maybe we’d encounter a convoy of tractor-trailers bearing cartons of Marlboros concealed inside pickle barrels or hidden in the plush torsos of stuffed animals. The reality was, in fact, a lot stranger.

Fleets of rickety minibuses, known colloquially as marshrutki (singular: marshrutka), ply sanctioned and unsanctioned routes around Ukraine. The tattered interior of our specific gas-guzzler—a jungle gym of torn upholstery and missing bolts—appeared to have been chronically trashed and refurbished. The constipated motor sputtered and shook, rarely permitting for speeds in excess of 30 mph on the pockmarked two-lane highway. Rolling, verdant pastures dotted with cows and poor but peaceful hamlets undulated beyond the tree-flanked thoroughfare. The terrain evoked the Amish expanses of Pennsylvania. A stone’s throw from the Polish front, close to the dumpy village Rava-Ruska, a grubby kid, a geriatric scamp, and a half-dozen jolly babushkas clad in their fanciest Sunday polyester boarded our ride. Most of the women were in their fifties and sixties, and their shoulders slumped from the weight of the shopping bags they carried. The chief crone offered a fistful of money to our gruff, nicotine-addled driver. His voice rasped like pure emphysema, which should have tipped us off to the scheme that was about to unfold. When the gang took its seats, the sedate mood of the quasi-deserted minibus erupted into a storm of frenzied activity and cackling.

As the marshrutka kicked into gear, the babushkas opened their sacks with gusto. Each repository contained a heap of cut-rate Ukrainian cigarettes, poised for the stores and black markets of Poland. With assembly-line precision, two biddies began wrapping multiple packs in either white or dark paper, then taping them together into compact bricks. A slightly spryer woman twirled a screwdriver and systematically removed the screens covering the minibus’ heating and cooling vents. She politely asked her fellow passengers to step aside so she could detach every single fixture. A fourth harpy brandished a crowbar and, standing on her seat, began dismantling the sunroof. When the cavities of the vehicle were fully exposed, the ladies slid their cigarette-bricks into the various grooves, ducts and ventilation shafts. The ripping of fabric joined a chorus of shuffling stationary, popping screws, stretching tape and barked orders. As we reclined and surveyed the insane scene, a set of fingers poked at our spines: A babushka was methodically slitting our seat-backs with a razor blade, then shoving the smokes into the hollow chambers. Her meaty hands blurred as she furiously repaired the cushions with a needle and thread.

These were practiced, career smugglers on a mission. Within 20 minutes they had stashed thousands of cigarettes in the bowels of our marshrutka. Despite executing a tight operation, they labored noisily and festively, turning their crooked enterprise into a convivial ritual that masked any hint of despair. We could decipher the crones making frequent, amused references to us, the amerikanski whose exotic passports would distract the Polish authorities and ensure a relatively swift passage across the border. The word “contraband” recurred in their rapid-fire sentences.

Meanwhile, a well-dressed matron locked eyes with us and frowned with embarrassment, as if we had unwittingly glimpsed the dregs of her kingdom. We graciously shrugged and grinned to convince her that we were not so easily offended. The rest of the passengers nonchalantly disregarded the commotion and kept to themselves, leading us to believe that the smugglers’ ball was a routine occurrence.

As the marshrutka idled at the Ukrainian exit post, the babushkas advanced to the neighboring duty-free shop, where they bought a final bale of tobacco and as many bottles of horilka as they could camouflage. They suited up in the superfluous layers of worn clothing that they had yanked from their suitcases. As quickly as it had been acquired, the new contraband vanished beneath bulky skirts and inside padded vests, jackets and bras. We arrived at the checkpoint as the last of goods were being stowed. A guard sauntered in and, while stamping our passports, said something that made the entire minibus rock with laughter. We couldn’t understand a word, but his wagging finger and smirking expression communicated the gist of his comment: “Now you ladies wouldn’t happen to have any cigarettes in there, would you?” we imaged him joking.

With our documents in order, the marshrutka traversed no man’s land and halted at the entry post for Poland. A customs official instructed us to file out and to deposit our accoutrements atop a long bench. As she descended from the vehicle, a babushka pseudo-casually jettisoned a plastic bag next to a wastebin. The civil servant took his time combing through everyone’s luggage for potentially illicit merchandise. A college-age guy, who was obviously not associated with the smugglers, happened to have a lone pack of cigs in his satchel—undoubtedly legal and for his own enjoyment. Upon discovering this, our tormentor muttered something in Polish, which, again, provoked mass hilarity. “You mean to tell me that you’re the only person on this bus who smokes?” we mentally translated his wisecrack. Satisfied with his inspection of our paraphernalia, the customs man fetched a two-foot metal rod and climbed into the marshrutka with the driver. A 45-minute examination of the coach ensued, accompanied by much clanking, rustling, and prodding at crevices. When the coast was clear, the babushka loitering near the wastebin slyly retrieved her discarded mock-garbage. The bag was, naturally, teeming with cigarettes, which she and the others hurriedly thrust into their already-searched purses. Reaching underneath the wheelbase, they fetched supplementary packs, having covertly planted them there at the start of our detention.

The women nervously munched on unshelled sunflower seeds while the agent rummaged and scrutinized. They spat the chaff, machine gun-style, as they discussed the situation in hushed tones, pupils darting frantically, sweat beading on their wrinkled brows. Tension cast its shadow. When the official eventually emerged, waves of shredded white and dark wrapping paper caught the breeze and orbited his boots, drifting onto the Polish plains. Judging from his bulging duffel, he had confiscated an abundant quantity of tobacco, though it was a mere fraction of what lay buried in the depths of the vehicle. As we returned to our seats, we wondered: Was the inspector genuinely probing or was it all for show? Was this some planned ruse? Did his findings equal the army’s allotted percentage of the babushkas’ cargo? Was there an unspoken treaty? If he failed to impede the smugglers but made it look legit, would he and his military buddies be entitled to as many complimentary smokes as they could handle? Was he hip to the scam? These were logical conjectures since nobody was arrested and no fines were issued. Then again, would the brass actually condone apprehending a herd of chattering grandmothers?

Onboard and safely within Polish territory, the crones began yelling and crawling around to retrieve their precious commodities. The razor blades, sewing kit, screwdriver and crowbar all reappeared, allowing the babushkas to quickly recover their stockpile. Based on their reaction, it must have been a successful run. The atmosphere regained its jubilance; at least 75 percent of the contraband was intact. After haphazardly patching up the marshrutka, the babushkas disembarked with their cargo, in the middle of nowhere or in the sleepy municipality of Tomaszow Lubelski, not far from the border. We surmised that they would unload their product, hitchhike or catch a minibus to Ukraine, and repeat the cycle ASAP.

A half hour after the smugglers had dispersed, the driver delivered us to the turnoff for Zamość. Hungry, weary, and dumbfounded by what had transpired, we walked the remaining kilometers to the city center. The ground floor of our hotel boasted a reputable outdoor pierogi restaurant, so we dined there, beneath a canopy, adjacent to the storybook main square. A music festival was underway: A full orchestra, complete with opera singers, crowded onto a raised stage shielded by a tent. They proceeded to perform The Barber of Seville. Lightning scampered above the pastel town hall, vying for attention with the red and yellow Kliegs that illuminated the dusk. Umbrellas sprouted like mushrooms in the assembled crowd as wind-propelled rain soaked the entertainers’ sleeves. At the table in front of us, a patrician Pole struck a match and lazily relished the taste of his cigarette.

[Travel photos by Jordan N. Mamone and Laura Vickery]

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

A Wyoming Photo-Essay
by Joe Carducci

This was taken on my way into Laramie on Sunday, September 13, 2009. It was about 7:15pm; I had a few things to do before hitting Lightbourne’s set at the Buckhorn Bar. I was heading east but pulled over and took this facing west. I moved to Laramie from Chicago in December 1995. After I got my building liveable, I started driving out once a week to hike around the Medicine Bow areas to the east and west of Laramie. I learned not to let the look of weather conditions dissuade me from driving out. There is no telling what conditions might be like around the Happy Jack/Vedauwoo pass east of Laramie or the Snowy Range west, because the peaks make the weather. Since moving to Centennial I've been able to go out hiking three or four times a week at different points along the twenty or so miles of Hwy 130 as it cuts through the mountains. I'll miss that; I don't think I'll be posting as many photographs from Illinois.

An array of snow-fences help keep Big Hollow Road clear in the winter. The road runs down the west side of the Big Hollow which drops off south of Hwy 130 toward the Colorado border twenty miles south.

Facing north from my house earlier this month. At the bottom is a marshy drainage that is ranchland, though pronghorn are on it more often than cattle. There is also a 1960s-era tanker truck down there for unknown reasons. Over the near hill are a scattering of trailers and cabins around the North Fork of the Little Laramie River. Beyond them are Corner Mountain, Middle Mountain and Bald Mountain, and beyond them thirty miles of hills and forest roads and deer trails before you cut I-80, but don't try it.

This is from the walkway along Lake Marie a month ago -- it's wheelchair accessible. This string of peaks -- the Snowy Range -- tops off at 12,000 feet and marked trails circle them -- those aren't. Up behind and between two of these peaks is an old stone fire spotters station from which one might spot a fire clear to Laramie.

Southwest of the Snowy Range peaks, a snowmelt pond just beneath Hwy 130. The bark beetles are killing the pine trees; there'll be a hell of a forest fire soon. It's been a cold, wet year so far but we'll need a couple of thirty-below nights to stop the bugs.

There are some big critters in and around the trees and this one's a baby, maybe a two-year old. The parents were just down the creek so I didn't wait for a better shot. They were near the highway west of the Snowy Range near the west-face winter closure gate.

My neice Maya and her family come out often from Nevada. This drawing is a couple years old and based on a roundup they came across along Hwy 130. In late summer the herds are moved closer to the highway. Most of the ranches still work from horseback augmented with pickups and ATVs. Last summer I and some others had to wait as a nearby ranch closed off the highway as they drove cattle from one side to the other -- they have certain privileges.

This just in: Winter crashed Fall Sunday evening, this from Monday along Hwy 130 about one-third the way up from Centennial.

Also from Monday, this is just past the east-face winter closure gate but before the Snowy Range Lodge which is open all year if you want to rough it within reason.

From the desk of Joe Carducci...

Byron Coley and Andy Schwartz are doing readings Friday in Brooklyn.


Rhino's LA compilation, Where the Action Is, is just out.


Rango, a Sudanese cotton-slave music is disappearing from Cairo due to recorded music and Islam, but is appearing in London at the Barbican Transcender Weekender festival September 30.


The weekend Financial Times had a news story, "Workplace suicides spark French outcry" and a Christopher Caldwell column which are about France Telecom's apparent wave of employee suicides. Caldwell pretty much blows a hole in the story as there are less suicides at France Telecom than there are generally in France itself. But the political interpretation has it that the slow push to bring the state owned behemoth up to private telecom productivity standards since 1996 is driving employees to hang up the phone. Actually, reading any of Michel Houellebecq's novels will tell you why the French generally are killing themselves half again as often as Americans and double the Brits. The novels are funny and bleak; Houellebecq was a civil service apparat and so his "hero" -- usually named Michel -- is at the center of France's lost ambition.


Uruguayan Senator Jose Mujica on his Tupamaro past and what he's learned.


James Ledbetter comes a cropper. I guess he doesn't listen to NPR or watch PBS where they now regularly use Brit pronunciations: primmer, progrumm, et. al. The BBC and the Economist are better than NPR and Time/Newsweek though they have veddy British blindspots. But the sophistos at NPR and PBS will never pronounce schedule shedyule, however, because their nemesis Rush Limbaugh has been teasing that one as part of his wordplay-hobbyhorse for decades.


Normally the word "corporate" is intoned as if everyone knows what the word means. This NYTimes editorial is progress, but as Judge Sotomayor is not mentioned in this editorial, and neither is any television program nor pop culture figure, we can guess this is a "personal" instruction to her because, wouldn't you know, the NYTimes has its own policy prescriptions on most matters. The editorial doesn't mention this WSJ Law column either. She is being advised to decide to accept this mission.


Mike Seeger performance film dates, availability. (check Lightbourne's Seeger piece in Vulgate 6)


Jake Austen on the lost first Jackson 5 recording.


Bia Hoi - A beer worth re-fighting the Vietnam War over? Or French colonial swill?


ONO performing Sept. 5, 2009, Viaduct Theater, Chicago.

To receive a weekly update notice for the NV, send an email to newvulgate[at]sbcglobal.net with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line. To stop receiving notices, do the same with the word UNSUBSCRIBE.

• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Issue #11 (September 16, 2009)

57th & 2nd, New York City

Foto-Kollazh by Valbona Shujaku

Experience from the Experiment: “Mad Men” (AMC), Part I
(Continued here)

by Janet Lynn

I’m glad that “Mad Men” is back -- the series and its portrait of the era: the early 1960’s in mainstream urban America. Things looked pretty cozy in the man/woman area; the edginess we do see between the sexes may or may not be typical of any generation. But then the Draper marriage will never settle down because their lives were set at the dawn of the sexual revolution….

In the new season it’s now 1962 and the women are beginning to show faint signs of the changes going on. But by setting us in Manhattan the producers will cushion the blow of the violence that will unfold. There will surely be the sound of breaking glass, certainly of the glass ceiling, but will the writers avert our eyes from the other glass-shattering -- the clocks thrown against the walls, and all the small splinters women endured quietly, internally.

The biological clock went off-rhythm in 1960. If you were there then you felt it, as a female of any age. Even though the FDA at first granted very limited approval for distribution of the pill, its very existence had an effect felt by all women. By 1962 all but eight states had authorized the pill’s distribution and contraception, supposedly reversible, was on its way.

In “Mad Men” two of the main female characters have recently had their first one-night-stands: Betty Draper who is married with children, and Peggy who gave up a child for adoption and is advancing in her career. Neither woman is concerned directly with the ticking of her biological clock. Although what these characters do in 1962 is rare, we know that by the 1970s it becomes the rule.

It is significant that these acts are out of time because when the psychology is wrong as it is in this telling, the true story of the era is lost to the political correctness of the modern day. It took many years past the introduction of the pill to get to the point that the one-night-stand could be accepted, let alone understood as an act of “integrity” as its modern writers have it according to the Wall Street Journal:

Over homemade guacamole and a pitcher of mojitos, they debated whether Betty Draper, the fictional 1960s housewife of advertising executive Don Draper, should have a one-night-stand in a smoky Manhattan bar. The men were against it. Betty would never compromise her integrity like that, consulting producer André Jacquemetton recalls saying. Most of the female writers disagreed. After all her husband’s infidelities, ‘how the hell is she going to take Don back if she doesn’t do this?’ executive story editor Robin Veith argued. Mr. Jacquemetton was outnumbered. From this discussion came a pivotal scene in the final episode of season two: Betty sleeps with the stranger.

To perform the act of the one-night-stand with such equanimity and guiltlessness, as presented in “Mad Men” actually took many more changes and at least another decade. The female psyche had to evolve en masse. But we make allowances for our heroines because we know there is action somewhere out there that the characters are picking up on and representing.

What is out there is a different female demographic – one where this experiment began at the inception of their nominal child-bearing years, in particular at college. But even for them in 1962 it was also just beginning. The pill had not yet been approved in all states for unmarried (later called single) women. Most obtaining the pill from their doctors embellished their embarrassed request with stories of love and their future marriage and children. They, like most women at that time, were essentially apolitical until of course they found a husband and would fit into his life-style and politics.

But life in the student world suddenly became political for everyone -- assassinations, civil rights, Viet-nam, anti-capitalism, and by the late sixties, the concept of finding a husband became itself the central political issue ("The Personal is Political", Carol Hanisch, 1969). The middle-class nuclear family was seen as a power structure that was blamed for oppressing women. Feminist ideology was evolving and the major message was that life could be lived without a man. With the introduction of the pill for girls at first winding of the biological clock, the rejection of marriage seemed easy and was a sudden relief from the traditional pressures.

Women’s lib and the consciousness-raising groups were not only natural for women, but were strong organizing tools that changed women’s minds and spread the word. All ages were partaking in the free love spirit, and the pill became not only acceptable but absolutely assumed.

Later, television portrayed the happy female careerist with Mary Tyler Moore’s show (1970-77) which was set in Minneapolis. Her friend Rhoda, who spun off into her own show in 1974 really did want a marriage and moved back to New York only to amicably divorce a few years into the sit-com. The writers of “Mad Men” are so young they probably saw these MTM series in rerun in the 1980s and 90s; what they know of 1962 is tipped off by the use of Bob Dylan over the credits of the first season’s end. That is they know it dimly only as a dark age of hippie legend. We can guess what will happen to these two women characters as “Mad Men” continues through the sixties. Betty is headed for a divorce and single motherhood, and Peggy will become a great success in advertising and may, if they get to 1970, come out as gay.

Men and women had agreed on the same language, Ms, not Mrs., no judgment, one-night-stands…. The “straight” single men adopted the third date as their polite equivalent of the one-night-stand. Everything was acceptable to everyone. John Lennon was having love-ins openly with Yoko Ono on magazine covers 1968; Jane Fonda ‘67 to’71 was having threesomes and other forms of group sex; in 1973’s “Fear of Flying” Erica Jong describes the “zipless fuck,” and by the mid-seventies there was much talk of fantasies.

But the hard left was lurking behind and setting policy. Marriage and babies were gradually banned. The women of the left of that era became equal, but equal only to their radical Marxist brethren. The war between the sexes had intense ideological roots as well as it was fought between these men and women.

From the mid-sixties into the seventies the counter-culture spawned organizations such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This New Left and the semi-allied arts bohemia seemed at first to run on misogyny and the radical feminist organizations emerged as a reaction from within. In such contexts there was no fighting for the integrity of the woman’s biological clock since society no longer regarded the child-bearing female as vulnerable and needing protection.

If you were trying to fight for your biological destiny, political correctness was claiming every step of the way that you didn’t have one. The experiment was taking a strange twist as sexual freedom spread to all classes, races and ages and any arguments to the contrary were ascribed exclusively to religious right straw-men. Birth control was not only assumed but a girl not on it triggered contempt. Hesitation was not acceptable without an ideology. And instinct was not your own but defined for you.

This turnaround in feminism was the separatist phase, whether it was the lesbian separatist or the other radical feminists who saw intrinsic male domination as the root of the evil. The radical feminist embraced separatism, at least as a strategy. The one-night-stand became their solution -- ending in a draw -- and was a last nihilistic reaction at the end of their biological clock. This failure coincided with the waves of acceptance shared by mainstream of all ages, marital status and genders, for all variety of reasons. Ideological success; personal failures. The personal was not political after all.

Everyone was liberated. You could all meet at the same bar, divorced, married, single, the woman who has three children, it could be Betty Draper, or it could be Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda, students, Maoists, homosexuals, all sharing one mind one body. That is why, by end of the seventies, it all ended in an orgy sharing happily in the same pool. Exemplary was Plato’s Retreat, the club that opened in 1977 in the Ansonia hotel in NYC. It was visited by pop stars such as Bette Midler and Barry Manilow and was famous for its many rooms filled with bodies engaged in all varieties of sexual activities, including the nude swimming pool where groups of men stood on the side synchronizing ejaculation as the music played on.

Plato's Retreat was eventually closed down in the early 80s as the Aids epidemic began. The sexual revolution was over in the middle of the orgy. But the break-up of the family succeeded. Murphy Brown was the new TV heroine who by 1992 showed that politics had come full circle when Vice President Quayle criticized her character as "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice." And she mocked him back on her show.

Post-feminism gives us more characters in "Sex and the City" that claim to be liberated and enjoying their sexuality no matter how indiscriminate. But they have accepted that it’s alright as well to look for a man to make things work out by the last tick of the clock.

But the instinct is now so lost that reigning post-feminism has calibrated attraction to be three dates past the one-night-stand. This was illustrated in the Washington Post advice column recently:

Downtown D.C.: Carolyn-- So, I met a man at a bar, and had a good old-fashioned one-night-stand. Or so I thought. Postcoital, we chatted and chatted and realized we had so much in common (same interests in books, independent films, cooking). Exchanged phone numbers and he called for a proper date… And things fell flat. I have completely lost any attraction I had for him that first night, and can't figure out why… What to do?

The advice given to “Downtown D.C.” was to follow her instinct and to politely tell the poor guy she’s not interested in a romantic relationship.

“So did you watch the latest “Mad Men”? I said to the woman with whom I was sharing a cab, as the preview for it was flashing on the cab’s TV screen. “Even back then,” she answered, “a good man was hard to find.” We had both been to the same doctor, a gynecologist, I for postmenopausal problems, and she for reasons which I couldn't quite discern. She looked about 40. “Thanks for sharing the cab,” she said, “I have to take care of this.” She was carrying a package about the size of a birdcage, holding it carefully with one hand on the handle and another arm surrounding it. “This precious commodity,” she explained was being transferred to another incubator at another office, -- her egg being fertilized outside of her body. "You know,” she said, "things started going wrong. It took me that long to find Mr. Right, but by then it was too late." She was happy she claimed and said she thought now she had it all.

“Where have we come, and how did we get here?” I asked getting out of the cab, and imagined the cabbie’s answer, “You went where you wanted to go.”

Perhaps…. Maybe there will be clues in the next episode of "Mad Men".

[Photograph: January Jones as Betty Draper (AMC); Three Collages by Rosetta; NYC Collage by Steve Harlow]

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

Notes from an Ongoing Study
by Chris Collins

• Politics is war by other means. The atomic unit of politics is the faction, and each faction is at odds with every other faction. An alliance between two or more of these groups is a ceasefire of mutual advantage.

• Subcultures trend toward homogenization by enforcement of consensus and the ease with which the noncommittal are driven out. By this process they produce less variation than an overculture, which is shaped more by geographical/racial happenstance and so, until its dotage, is less ideological. As a traditional or national culture is preserved by language and natural barriers, so a subculture is preserved by doctrine, and as such has more in common with religion. The line between subculture and ideology (secular religion) blurs. If America no longer has a culture, but rather a constellation of subcultures (mainly partisan, some racial, some religious), it might explain why American minds have concomitantly become calcified and thought-averse. In the collapse of national identity, identity becomes bound up in subcultures and their tyrannies of consensus.

• Silent majorities: For every one person engaged with (phenomenon x), ten people are disengaged. The invisibility of the disengaged, and the psychological desperation of the engaged, conceals this fact. (Those who seek engagement cannot comprehend those who do not seek it. People tend to project their worst traits onto everyone else; those under a psychological compulsion assume such compulsion is universal.)

The Framers vs. The Farmers -- Free Our Food! Bust the Corn Trust!
by Joe Carducci

Last Thursday an op-ed in the NY Times by Michael Pollan spun through the likely scenario that follows any new health-care bill. Pollan writes, “even if we get a health care bill that does little more than require insurers to cover everyone on the same basis, it could put us on that course.” Writing as the author of a book called, “In Defense of Food,” this course he celebrates is the enlistment of Big Insurance in campaigns against soda pop and “America’s fast-food diet.”

As Pollan sees it “Agribusiness” is producing cheap food and charging social and environmental costs to the future. What he’s trying to do is “bell the cat” for the NY Times. Unfortunately, this anticipated enlisting of the Insurance industry in the social engineering to follow from President Obama’s health-care reforms is one of the main threads of opposition to it. The resistance understands that the text of any legislation is only the beginning and what then follows from the changes merely point toward an end no-one can see -- they probably appreciate this confirmation, a reversal of weeks of news analyses and fact-checks pretending otherwise. Pollan thinks we can’t afford the Man’s corporate death-burger, but can we afford the New Man’s Sustainability, is the question before us.

Young Americans -- new to their political ideas -- are the first to wonder why we can’t have national health-care and, as I wrote in NV #6, they will be among the first to find out what behavioral autonomy they will surrender to make it achievable. The behavior of the young and the care for the elderly are the only savings-give in these brave new proposals. It is also likely that cost pressures due to the advances of medicine will lessen as state-control slows down research and medical progress.

I lived on First Street in Laramie overlooking the main Union Pacific east-west rail-line for a decade. It was an interesting perspective on world activity to look out the window, with the Snowy Range forty miles beyond (where I now live), and see the relative strengths of the coal industry, the auto industry, the military, construction, and agriculture. In the build-up for the Iraq war there was a blip of heavy traffic of tanks and military vehicles on flatbeds heading east. Most of them were already painted for the desert but every once in awhile there’d be a green vehicle painted for cold war-era locales. Otherwise the winner by my eyeball study of UP train traffic in those years was surely agriculture, specifically Cargill and ADM, most specifically: High Fructose Corn Syrup. Tanker train after tanker train of the goop.

But what Pollan calls Agribusiness is really the kind of state-directed enterprise he favors -- he simply wants his agenda served rather than somebody else’s. Or as with this new NYC health campaign he may actually favor state-prompted mayhem so that the state has a more ready rationale for doubling down on its involvement. The Corn Trust is the product of yeoman farmers seeking stability ever since the Panic of 1857. This they sought through grange socialism, new deal nationalism, cold-war internationalism, and anything else they could wield against the serendipity of weather and grain prices. The futures markets in Chicago were the laboratories for new securities and investment tools and hedges, and these were first designed to ward off the chronic boom-and-bust cycle of farming on the American scale in a roiling economy laying railroad track in all directions.

The farm states are not so powerful in the House of Representatives, but in the Senate, North Dakota’s two votes are the equal of California’s. And since Jimmy Carter used the Iowa Caucuses to upset the 1976 Democratic primaries and win the nomination and White House this corn-belt contest has become a Corn Trust veto on all such issues. There was talk in a number of states of jumping ahead of Iowa but when they wimped out the chance to stop burning 150 BTUs of energy to create 100 BTUs of Corn-Ethanol ended.

We got High Fructose Corn Syrup in about all of our processed food. Why? To engineer a guaranteed price for too much product. The Federal government continues to fund research at farm-belt ag schools to find new applications for corn product. The Sugar Trust was too successful in keeping the price of cane sugar up and this opened the door to corn syrup mayhem. It isn’t just the Cuban-Americans in Florida that keep America anti-Castro, it’s also the Sugar Trust’s fear of Cuban cane sugar driving down prices.

Wal-Mart recently began importing Coca-Cola from Mexico where it’s still bottled in the original formula using cane sugar rather than corn syrup. Can you imagine the expansion of the bottling plant capacity in Mexico necessary to fill the order from Wal-Mart? Can you imagine the palm-greasing it took in Atlanta, and Washington, and Arkansas, and Mexico to effect this sale?

Pollan is only a UC Berkeley Professor of Journalism so one can hardly be surprised to hear him relish the day soon-come when the health insurance industry begins “buying seats on those agriculture committees and demanding that the next bill be written with the interests of the public health more firmly in mind.” The left loves social engineering so much they favor the prerogatives of public corruption over private freedom and the probity it asks of them. One hopes the counter to this would have the new localist small-scale organic-or-merely-healthy agriculture out there demanding equal consideration if not actually a level, free market playing field as they compete with state-favored behemoths. Pollan will by then represent his own problem and free-market cranks at the WSJ, the IBD and Reason will become the health-food producers best editorial allies.

Pollan might read Sunday’s NYT cautionary dissent by Tyler Cowen, “Where Politics Don’t Belong”, which is a quick run-through of how Washington exacerbated the banking-financial-mortgage crises, with an eye toward warning off what he sees as the final crisis resulting when Obama uses the same deal-making m.o. on health care reform which will break the government itself:

We have made a grave mistake in politicizing the economy so deeply, and should back away now. In health care, the Obama administration should drop its medical sector deals and try to sell a reform plan -- in whatever form Mr. Obama chooses -- on its own merits. That’s not only good for health care, but also good for the American polity. And in the longer run, that will be good for banking, too.

Cowen -- a Professor of Economics and the author of some of the more disinterested and therefore stirring books and essays on globalization and what follows from it -- is a bit cavalier about whatever an Obama might propose outside of his deal-making pol guise, because frankly there’s nothing but this guise. Like Pollan the President recognizes nothing “on merit”, just the game of the deal. As with JFK, Obama considers ideological sedition the mark of a grown-up. Only the Supreme Court might have stopped this politicization of the economy but as long as we officially celebrate an expansive reading of the Commerce Clause, which is what opened the door for petty constituent service/favor-dealing to metastasize beyond the productive economy’s ability to pay the cost, we will never walk back this cat whether its bell tolls flat, sharp or true.

[Window photograph: Joe Carducci]


"Package Dramas in a Theatre of Despair" by Ajai Sahni reviews one of the more forlorn corners of the world, Gilgit-Baltistan, which because it's occupied by Pakistan we're probably going to be hearing alot about it sooner or later.


Will this be a popular history, or for the specialist do you think?


Jacques Delacroix in Santa Cruz: "It takes really intelligent people to see honesty as deceit and conformity as freedom."


Jim Blanchard's seventies portraits preview


Plastic People of the Universe - Prague was a cultural second city to Vienna during the Austro-Hungarian empire, a multi-national state kept together by the threat from Ottoman Turkey; there is something a little too eastern and perverse in the PPU sound for most who come to their music all jazzed by their their crazy story.


Musician-writer Alan Licht interview

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Issue #10 (September 9, 2009)

In the Snowy Range of Wyoming

Photo by Joe Carducci

Elvis Presley up North
by David Lightbourne

Elvis made his Chicago debut on Thursday March 28 1957, kicking off a 10-date North American tour -- his first outside short runs down south.

The whole previous year I had witnessed a string of his national television triumphs, first curious, then with real interest, finally pure excitement. The exotic figure with the indelible name began appearing in mainstream print beyond monthly music pulps. Explosive 1956 - the one true “Year of Elvis” -- saw him move like a cat from the Dorsey Stage Show to Milton Berle to Steve Allen to powerful Ed Sullivan, the mere threat of an incendiary performance delivering ratings skyrockets.

“Hound Dog” confirmed everything. Elvis Presley ruled America.

Between trips from Memphis to New York and L.A. for the very lucrative television gigs, Elvis sandwiched short, regional southern tours, plus a bad week in stone-age Vegas. Press appearances found him declaring, assuring, pledging, that fame, celebrity, and northern acceptance would never compromise, corrupt, or turn him into anything but the modest, religious, good old boy his first audiences identified with, adored, and emulated. Meanwhile, his singles and albums would not stop selling.

To accommodate this astonishing arc of success, Chicago chose the huge, old, International Amphitheatre, the city’s largest indoor venue, its strategic location the entrance to mammoth Union Stockyards, meat-slaughterer for the nation. Stone, steel, concrete, and brick, the cavernous innards usually saw all its action on its vast floor. Boat shows, fall model auto previews, similar trade conclaves, took dates with no cattle-congress scheduled. The Amphitheatre also hosted both parties’ presidential nominating conventions regularly, right up to the 1968 Chicago “Police Riots.”

The cops came out for Elvis in force, as did twelve thousand shrieking girls of all ages. From our folding metal seats, six rows back stage left, all the hall looked like a sea of young women. A high, box-like, unpainted temporary stage projected out from the wall at our end, maybe seven feet above the floor and fifteen-feet square. A cordon of police, arms locked, ringed the three exposed sides, hats well below stage level, with very little to worry about, on generous overtime.

As our family entourage of six waited for the hall to totally fill and house lights go down, I scanned the stage and had a true shock of recognition. The microphone stand at center stage, a pro Atlas with the large, heavy base, rose only chest-high, where a horizontal extension rod held, side by side, a pair of large microphones, one at each end on stubs, about four feet apart.

I knew those mikes well. Five years earlier an identical one had occupied the center of the table during our family’s daily breakfast radio show. A prized possession actually resting in my socks drawer, those big Altec omni-directional ribbon mikes, the size of a small melon, weighed a ton and had unbelievable sensitivity at any gain at all. Elvis not only had the best, but with unbelievable style and total class, a freaking pair of Altecs where only one had ever gone before.

This unprecedented, downright radical arrangement made nothing but simply brilliant sense. During the entire second half of 1956, television camera had famously, notoriously, avoided any shots showing Elvis the Pelvis below the waist. The hyper-efficient Altecs guaranteed that Elvis would not move off-mike no matter what manner of extreme sports his performance explored. Wild hair on the tiny tube only went so far. Tonight the main man came on a mission to move, shake, rock, roll, wiggle, gyrate, cavort, and do the funky monkey, with every lateral lurch in perfect technical proximity.

Dimming house lights brought the loud, expectant crowd to a hush, followed by a tide of excited screaming as the show’s master of ceremonies took the stage. Waiting for his disproportionate welcome to subside -- it did quickly -- he welcomed the throng, then introduced an unexpected surprise opening act, emphasizing that the unknown comic was a close personal friend of the King and Elvis wanted us to welcome him with open arms. The poor fellow needed more help than anyone’s endorsement could possibly offer: semi-professional, if that, dressed for amateur night in a small Ozark bar, corny beyond all expectations, with even the lame slapstick failing him, he had enough sense to bail before the voluble crowd actually lost patience with this surreal blend of courage and suicide.

Elvis and the three Blue Moon Boys took the stage within the first minutes of a ten minute-long mass tonsillectomy, with bits of young tissue flying like projectiles. The collective power of that many young, healthy adolescent American lungs gained sufficient synergy to dislodge trachea and inflict permanent internal damage on every fourth female esophagus, merely temporary pathologies otherwise. My younger brother and I, now standing in his royal presence, tried our best to mount complimentary obligatory screams, but with instantly pathetic results, utterly insufficient in volume, hopelessly low-pitched.

Later accounts would record that this Chicago show saw the first appearance of the spectacular completely singular, all-gold suit, a tuxedo-length coat and matching trousers, yards of shining gold-lamé from über-tailor-to-showbiz, Nudie of Hollywood. The gold material, glittering brightly under the stage spots, gained almost blinding brilliance as every available flashbulb in Chicago detonated as one. A money shot for the ages, his Highness in the flesh, this stunning fashion-statement overdue acknowledgement -- also the penultimate touch for an immediately iconic, definitive portrait -- of dazzling superstardom.

The suit signaled unparalleled apotheosis; a private reminder of his childhood Hollywood dreams; and a butterfly-like transformation from his former attire and very appearance. Until Nudie concocted this statuesque, gold God, Elvis had improvised an inspired, idiosyncratic mix of country music, biker, and ghetto street threads, eclectic parts juxtaposed in a fertile, marvelously resonant personal style. All traces of this Elvis had vanished.

He looked cleaner. Hollywood had given him a makeup makeover, echoes of Little Richard mascara and androgynous eye-treatments banished. A California super-barber had sculpted a sleeker cut, streamlined by expert thinning, especially along the sides. The hair lay near the core of the E.P. mystique. Big magazine spreads found him in a local Memphis barber’s chair, his hair so thick that, combed back in a ducktail, it formed rich, curving fenders above the ears. Formerly, when the pompadour flipped forward across his face, only both hands could collect it back up into place. No longer, and it made him look younger, fresher, and kind of perfect.

Indeed, Elvis looked great, in a clear line-of-sight just yards away: healthy, athletic -- maybe into touch football -- brimming with energy, eager to rock. Moving with easy confidence, with the surfeit of ego-magic crucial to managing and proceeding along this existential cusp, he started acknowledging widely scattered sections of the vast seating, causing full thirds of the place to go either nuclear, postal, or plain apeshit. Small females now began the sporadic business of hurling themselves at officers and stage, one girl managing to cling by her fingers seven feet up. The cops now got busy as this mandatory ritual accelerated. Emotional little girls, burning pure adrenaline, in a variety of delusional states, kept needing sorting out.

With Scotty, Bill, and D.J., wearing white shirts and blazers, well-settled behind their instruments, Elvis began his familiar initial, disingenuous gestures, shaking his head in wonder, appealing for a reduction of the bedlam to ordinary mass hysteria. He flashed his shy grin, a broad smile, hands up briefly now and then for quiet, his body language conveying only half-hearted impatience. His overall demeanor spoke a silent, genuinely deferential, expression of pure gratitude.

When, finally, Elvis spoke -- probably something like “Thank you very much,” -- still further eruptions. Inevitably, the need to cling to every word gained a marginal edge over the cacophony of countless one-on-one intense personal conversations, oblivious in the urgency of opportunity. Sporadic meltdowns still sounded from far regions, according to some school of chaos theory -- suddenly joined by every throat when the gist of a brief remark sank in for everyone.

With his smallest gesture a pretext for whole cohorts to go bananas, Elvis began indulging along an irresistible detour, teasing these reactions, milking them, both with apparent good humor and an oddly amoral, gratuitous self-satisfaction. Nobody minded and nobody could get enough.

Elvis had enough first. Smoothly steering this stage business around a broad curve, he began the pitcher’s windup and abrupt, bellow-like first links of “Heartbreak Hotel.” The song, his first national hit, had given him real cred as a singer before most of America knew who he was, what he looked like -- or cared. A widespread belief that rock vocalists could never realize the professional skills of crooning ballad-singers took time to discredit. Naysayers, older music buffs confronted with this early Presley performance, grudgingly accepted the quality in his voice, usually weaseling-out with, “But I still don’t like his movements.”

Until its reprise in the lead-off slot, “Heartbreak Hotel” was all but ancient history, Plymouth Rock on the way to the Gold Rush. Only a year old, I remember feeling startled that night by its familiar quality. Elvis sang the lyric with real strength, power when required, with a richness in his voice a listener could not ignore. Probably the musical high-point of the night, I still wondered why he chose it to open with under these wild, Dionysian circumstances.

A recording of the 45-minute set -- sixteen songs according to the Tribune’s next edition -- would reveal other moments when the music rose to the truly inspired. D.J. Fontana no doubt rocked out on drums; Bill Black’s upright-bass playing had to have served Elvis well, and Scotty’s Gibson electric -- the only amplified instrument on stage -- must have reflected confidence and license to play that record sales alone now granted him/them. Proud parents -- Scotty and Bill had invented this experimental sound for Elvis in 1953.

I only remember the medley-like blur of hits flying by -- each one forgettable as quickly as the next release took its place -- the set-list distinguished only by the introduction (in release Monday) of his next gold single (a million already pre-sold), “All Shook Up.” An Otis Blackwell composition, feeling back to the R&B lexicon, “All Shook Up” noticeably rocked to a superior beat and Elvis danced his way through it. On first hearing, “I’m itching like a man on a fuzzy tree,” the second line, sounded odd and gross. It sounded better later, without the bright lights and the all-gold victim of distress.

The descending pattern of fluff over the previous six months -- owing largely to Col. Parker’s resentment of Elvis jamming with Leiber and Stoller -- almost defined the creative vacuum forever plaguing disposable music. “(Won’t You Be My) Teddy Bear”, “Wear My Ring (Around Your Neck)” and the like would soon portend even bleaker prospects for a man of such huge talent and unknown potential. I don’t remember “Hound Dog” or “Don’t Be Cruel” in any detail, but they were the ones I wanted to hear. Both could have gone far past the three-minute-plus template in a less stopwatch-driven situation. Songs like “Love Me Tender” gave Elvis a chance to catch his breath if, indeed, he ever needed to.

As for Scotty, Bill, and D.J., a decade later they'd stage a jam session with Elvis on his big 1968 NBC Come-Back Special trying to recapture the sound (already past) when Scotty and Bill taught Elvis his first guitar chords in Scotty's house. No sound since truly recaptured the low-rent grace and slap-back echo of the old Sun Studio, or their cobbled scrabble of country & western, country blues, rhythm & blues, and forties jazz. Already out of their Memphis depth here in Chicago, riding a rocket moving too fast to hold onto, the trio played with the Hillbilly Cat outside the studio for their final year. With Elvis Army-bound, by mid-1958 the three would all be on their own. For the moment, though, a key part in the sound of elemental rock and roll still held the stage.

They actually said it. A disembodied voice, in a tone of authority and knowledge heard through ranks of stranded fans suddenly left in the lurch, their eyes blinking under the now somehow brighter house lights, “Elvis has left the Building.”

They believed it.

No need to storm the dressing room. No use setting fires to smoke him out. No hope he’ll wander out the wrong door or get in a limo and have the engine stall. Elvis had left the building. We believed it if we believed he’d ever been in the building in the first place. Anticipation had consumed 95% of the experience, the 45 minutes of rock and roll all a blur. We alone seemed to avoid the stampede out of the building to the car lot. As I stood under the big work-lights surveying a now-empty battlefield, I understood in my still innocent but expanding grasp of affairs that Elvis was over. He was Elvis 2.0 now.

The next day my classmates barely shrugged when I confessed where I had been the night before. Mid-50s 8th graders lived in a pre-adolescent space far younger than epicenters of serious -- older -- Elvis freaks. But the Colonel, RCA, Hal Wallis, and the best industry hustlers with expense accounts would see to it that my classmates got their Elvis soon enough.

[Drawing of Elvis by James Fotopoulos; WTAQ advertisement for the Lightbourne family radio program, 1951-52; Painting by Travis]

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

Breakdown Lowdown: Upland Breakdown 10
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Centennial, WY

by Joe Carducci

Made the mistake of trying to pull a special attraction out of a hat for our tenth annual. That delayed getting the line-up finalized but since everyone who plays the Breakdown wants to come back we got our trademark non-bluegrass non-jazz acoustic blues microfest booked in no time around David Lightbourne who has been the blues constant around whom all variants revolve all this breakdown decade. Face it, after ten years the Upland Breakdown is an institution, it’s bulletproof, it’s too big to fail!

Birgit Burke was back a third time with a four piece she cobbled together from bits of folk and bluegr*ss combos around Laramie, including Ticia Shelton, Kelli Trujillo and Brian Eberhard. Birgit christened them Black Crow/White Crow and they were good so they will live on. Instruments: Vcl., Gtr., Vln., Mdn., Bs.

Al Rivers returned from Eugene, Oregon for his second appearance. He played a great set of his smooth-rough suede-like blues, this time accompanied by Trip Henderson on harmonica. Trip flew in from New York and took to Wyoming mountain trails such that we were lucky he remembered his set times. Instruments: Vcl., Gtr., Hmca.

Michael Hurwitz returned for his fifth appearance if memory serves. Michael lives in Alta Wyoming now and has to take the Idaho backdoor to get to his house up behind the Tetons. There’s a j*zz balladeer inside Michael and that puts a nice smooth spin on he & his Aimless Drifters’ prairie blues. Instruments: Vcl., Gtr., Pd. Stl., Bs.

David Lightbourne drew the focus down from his Buckhorn Sunday Nights repertoire to late twenties/early thirties blues and ballads and an original after-the-style. Trip found work here too and they put on a clinic. I normally see Dave and Trip work their magic in Jane’s apartment in NYC; good to see Trip out here where things’re happening. Birgit returned to harmonize on her and Dave’s Sunday standard “Hello Stranger” by the Carter Family. Instruments: Vcl., Gtr., Jzhrn., Hmca.

Spot returned for his seventh time and his blues gumbo seems to have fully dissolved the formerly discrete Celtic chunks within it. He began with some astounding instrumentals where you swear he’s splitting the atom with a flat pick, and then he switched to banjo to deal with the fallout. Instruments: Vcl., Gtr., Bjo.

Hurwitz & co. quickly drifted across the highway to the Trading Post for a late night set, and when I left there I heard Lightbourne, Rivers, Trip and friends working through tunes over on the Mountain View porch. The tequila looked like a bad idea, and this surmise was confirmed a couple hours later when the telephone woke me up and I had to drive to Laramie to get Dave home and away from a friendly teenage-looking Sheriff’s deputy. He ran both our licenses through headquarters, so evidently skynet was down and he let us go. Finally, the Buckhorn Sunday night was a loose last runthrough of more of the American songbook with Dave, Birgit, Al, Trip, and Spot. And then things calmed back down to the rhythm of late summer in the mountains.

Thanks go to Jill and her staff at the Beartree (love the new stage), Justin Cooper, Grady Kirkpatrick and Tom Wilhelm at KUWR, Mike Vann Gray at Snowy Range Graphics, Mike Safran, and Jane Schuman. The Boomerang took the year off, well-deserved no doubt.

[Illustrations by Maya Carducci]

The FYF Fest
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Los Angeles, CA

by Chris Collins

The New Vulgate has gone green. In the effort to conserve precious blog space, this concert review will be presented in the form of raw, handwritten notes composed mostly at the event itself. We trust that they are only indecipherable to the degree that the day itself was. Photographic documentation is included as well, all by your intrepid reporter, all in antiquated black and white.

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The Program

Notes Page 1

Notes Page 2

Darker My Love:

Lightning Bolt:

The Crowd:

Greg Ginn and SST update

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
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