29 July 2017

Church of Fred

I was barely 20, just back from a summer in France, madly in love with a musician, and toying with the idea of becoming a journalist. Neither my boyfriend nor I had a car – so it’s fuzzy how we actually got to the service at the Assembly Center on the campus of Louisiana Tech. The main act was Drivin’ N’ Cryin’, poised to become the greatest southern rock band since Skynard – if they could just catch a break with Fly Me Courageous. Anyway – I loved Honeysuckle Blue and had a friend at Tech so it seemed like an opportunity to interview an actual rock band, maybe get a piece in the venerable Pow Wow the next week, and catch up with Nancy.

The name of the opening band was Cowboy Mouth.

Yeah. That Cowboy Mouth.

Assembled by Fred LeBlanc, former drummer of Dash Rip Rock, (I witnessed some of that break up from a darkened corner of the old Enoch’s/Pierce’s on DeSaird the year before… but that’s another story.) the band boasted some of the best rock players from NOLA: John Thomas Griffith of the Red Rockers and Paul Sanchez on guitar with Paul Clement on bass.  I knew it would be good. I mean. It was Fred. I’d witnessed Dash Rip Rock. I knew. Or, I thought I knew. But this was not Dash. There was no Bill to restrain him. This was Fred unleashed.

And it was a revelation. The Church of Fred: Jimmy Swaggart AND Jerry Lee, if he played drums rather than piano. We screamed, we danced, we writhed on the floor in ecstasy. We never wanted it to end.

And then Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ came on. And they were great. But they weren’t Cowboy Mouth.

I can’t count the number of times I saw Cowboy Mouth in the 90s and early 2000s. I danced on bars, I fell off tables, I writhed on the floor in pools of stale beer with 400 of my closest friends, I danced at tailgates, I screamed at amphitheatres. Monroe, Chapel Hill, St. Louis, Memphis, even NOLA. Every show was as frenetic and magical as the one before. I left feeling part of something bigger than myself, invincible, alive. It was as close as I got to church.

Then, for whatever reason – we stopped attending services. We knew when the band was in town, but never managed to go. The kids had soccer, we had to get up early; Fred was such an ass that time in St. Louis; The crowd was TOO rowdy, not like when they played Enoch’s; Paul left – it isn’t the same. Always a reason, until….

Twenty-seven years, three college degrees, and two kids later I returned to the Church of Fred. We almost balked at the ticket price – but decided – hey. It’s Cowboy Mouth. We haven’t seen them in years. They always put on a hell of show. So we went. And it was a hell of a show. But….

there was something I couldn’t put my finger on, something that didn’t quite sit well with me. It wasn’t that it was essentially the same amazing show I first saw in Ruston twenty-seven years ago. More than my pity for such a talented musician to have squandered so many chances at the notoriety and commercial success he’s chased all these years. More than the melancholia that sets in when you realize you are middle-aged, that your summer is fading into autumn. It took me a few songs of watching Fred play that crowd.

Fred’s performance was masterful from a professional point of view. He complimented, he cajoled, he pleaded, he demanded, he placated, he rewarded, he punished. All with a driving backbeat that’s easy to dance to.  And they obeyed his every word. He told them to cheer, they cheered. He insinuated he didn’t like Iowa, they booed. He told them to get on the floor, and they did. Those that didn’t, he shamed.  And the crowd loved him for it. Adulation. Worship. It was a symbiotic relationship. They craved his authority. And he definitely needed their love.

He’s music’s Donald Trump.

Don’t get me wrong - I can’t remember a time he ever brought politics into the show. And I’ve only ever seen Fred use his powers for good. He once stopped a show mid-song and forced a pair of frat boys to literally kiss and make up rather than fight in the mosh pit. He refuses to allow negativity and violence at the shows – he demands everyone turn and meet someone they don’t know at the beginning of every show so the audience are friends, like the sign of peace at mass. Every audience member is expected to be an active participant in the joint effort to have a good time and feel alive.

But understanding Fred, having been part of that congregation for so long, I finally understand Trump supporters in an uncomfortably real way. I’ve struggled over the last two years to understand why otherwise rational people support him. What do they see in him? How can he command such total allegiance when it is obvious to everyone else he is a megalomaniacal con-man, a grifter completely lacking in morality and void of anything of worth and consequence?

Trump’s not as good of a showman as Fred, but they aren’t so very different in technique. Trump compliments, he cajoles, he pleads, he demands, he placates, he rewards, he punishes. His supporters, too, want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want that energy, that high that only being part of the anointed, the initiated, can bring. They want to feel alive.

But where Fred brings pounding rhythms of positivity, Trump brings division. Rather than being united through music, his supporters seek power. They suspend reality so that high lasts, so they aren’t ordinary, mundane. That innate need for belonging supersedes reason. They excuse the lies, the collusion, the corruption.  He is theirs and they are his. They need each other.

I’m not the first to come to this realization. About Fred or Trump. But last night, as I thought about almost three decades of choices and regrets, as I watched aging frat boys and sorority sisters cling to the joy of a fading summer sunset alongside townies and former club kids wishing their knees could withstand a good pogo in the pit, I understand some friends and families a little better than I did Friday morning. I’ll never agree with them. Trump is dangerous. He is a traitor pushing our democracy to a breaking point.  But I do understand why they cling to him.

And it’s because of Fred and Cowboy Mouth.

22 August 2013

"We need in every community a group of angelic troublemakers."

Today is the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington - a seminal moment in not just the civil rights movement, but modern American history. Its images and soaring oratory, seared into the American consciousness and consciences, are synonymous with the movement. King's speech that day is justifiably lauded as magisterial, the cadence of his delivery building to an emotional breaking point that changed the course of history. But there was so much more to that march; so many others who made the march "a moment."

A. Phillip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, arguably the most well financed and well connected of all African American organizations active in the movement, the man who confronted and shamed FDR into addressing racism in the armed services at the height of WWII - spoke that day. Labor leaders, politicians, entertainers - all took their turn at the podium. The official program is a running list of the nation's most prominent leaders and activists. But one name is missing.

He spoke that day - introducing King by reading the demands of the marchers which were to be given to President Kennedy later that day, at a meeting to which he was not welcome. He organized the march, orchestrating buses, lunches, latrines, first aid. Served as a mediator between rival factions within the movement, ensured nothing was left to chance, literally writing a how-to manual for marchers pouring in from around the country. The March on Washington, perhaps America's defining moment of the 20th century, would not have happened without him - his skill, his passion, his intellect. But ask an average american who was responsible for for the march and they say, with certainty, Martin Luther King. Few would say Bayard Rustin. Which is a shame.

There are many reasons Rustin was pushed to the shadows - his atheism, his Communist ties, his sexuality - all inconvenient truths to the movement and the society it was attempting to transform. So Rustin remained behind the scenes, making phone calls, counting heads, coordinating delivery of Port-A-Potties - while King, Parks, Carmichal, Lewis became the faces of the movement.

As I read and researched the movement in grad school, I was immediately drawn to Rustin, humbled by his humility, inspired by his tenacity. I wonder if I would have been selfless enough to allow others to take credit for my work, to sublimate the very essence of my self for the greater goal. I like to think I would.

I also saw in Rustin a bit of a man I knew well. My father was not in Washington fifty years ago today. No, he was in Monroe, Louisiana, sweating his way to another tuition payment, bagging groceries and mowing lawns. He was idealistic - a Kennedy man through and through - ready to embrace the challenge laid out in 1961, to give to his country, to be the change he sought. He was handsome and strong, one of those liberal intellectuals the Delta spits out under the noses of the John Birchers and Klansmen. But he didn't seek the stage, the movement writ large. He chose another path - local action in an unassuming, non-threatening, charmingly rogue package. He found a kindred spirit in a feisty, petite brunette and together they would change their world, their small corner of north Louisiana, one student at a time.

They tried. But life is funny - it rarely unfolds the way you imagine. The dreams of 23 fade into mortgage payments, car notes, shoes for the children, and swing shifts at the MoPac. Regrets subsumed into a fog of Pall Malls and Benson and Hedges, paths diverging in a forest of fig trees and pines.

Today, on the anniversary of the march, I'll be thinking of my dad, the lessons his patient life-time commitment to education and equality taught me, and how he would agree that the job is unfinished; the work must continue to achieve the America he and my mother believed was possible in August, 1963. And I'll also be thinking of Bayard Rustin, the architect of those iconic moments, and remind myself to be an angelic troublemaker. It's what they both would want.

25 June 2009

I Tremble with Shame in the Face of Their Bravery

I see the moment we are witnessing as a civil rights movement rather than a push to topple the regime. If Rosa Park was the American "mother of the civil rights movement," the young woman who was killed point blank in the course of a demonstration, Neda Agha-Soltan, might very well emerge as its Iranian granddaughter.

If I am correct in this reading, we should not expect an imminent collapse of the regime. These young Iranians are not out in the streets seeking to topple the regime for they lack any military wherewithal to do so, and they are alien to any militant ideology that may push them in that direction.

It seems to me that these brave young men and women have picked up their hand-held cameras to shoot those shaky shots, looking in their streets and alleys for their Martin Luther King. They are well aware of Mir Hossein Moussavi's flaws, past and present. But like the color of green, the very figure of Moussavi has become, it seems to me, a collective construction of their desires for a peaceful, nonviolent attainment of civil and women's rights. They are facing an army of firearms and fanaticism with chanting poetry and waving their green bandannas. I thought my generation had courage to take up arms against tyranny. Now I tremble with shame in the face of their bravery.

From "Looking for Their Martin Luther King Jr." by Hamid Dabashi

26 December 2008

Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus

and this is his work:
Blog 'miracle' saves Christmas for hard-luck family

and this:
Shuttered bakery reopens, rehires workers

To me Christmas is not just about Jesus, it's about all of us - finding, and embracing, in ourselves that innate desire to help others, to live in peace with each other, and to make this world a better place one small gift or gesture at a time.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

09 December 2008

Caroline Kennedy: "No Drama" Before "No Drama" Was Cool

I relish the idea of Caroline in the Senate. This guy really sums up the rationale behind it. (hat tip to Dangerblond) I particularly like this bit about the differences between the Kennedy and Clinton camps of the party.

I'm not saying that these superficial contradictions make for anything hypocritical: to the contrary, the critics of a possible appointment of Attorney Kennedy to the US Senate are essentially correct in perceiving that something much bigger than symbolism would occur through it. The Kennedy and Clinton tendencies in the Democratic Party have embodied two distinct magnetic poles each trying to pull the party in different directions for the past 16 years, and before that between Kennedy and Carter tendencies.

This was very much at play with Senator and Attorney Kennedy's endorsement of Obama early in the primaries, and intentionally signaled as such. The Kennedy organization was not happy - many of us were not - with the change in direction that the Clinton administration brought to the party, toward a blatant acquiescence to corporate interests, away from the New Deal and the Great Society. And while both families have had their share of public personal scandal, for the Kennedys that hasn't bled much at all into the political or policy realms: we just have never seen Ted Kennedy, for example, go to Malaysia and collect $200,000 for a speech from a corporate power broker, lavishing his benefactor's company with praise, as occurred yesterday with Bill Clinton, now getting a few last international paydays in before his ethics agreement with the Obama administration kicks in to prevent future such embarrassments.

Now, don't get me wrong, I love me some Brother Bill, but Tio Teddy has always been a political hero of mine. His very subtle, quiet, unobtrusive way of pushing progressive causes for the last 46 years is what I think public service is about. Don't worry about getting credit, worry about getting it passed. Results rather than personal aggrandizement, country before self, just like his brother asked. I'm positive the daughter will continue the brothers' work.

08 December 2008

You Can't Always Get What You Want

awwww - the poor pitiful private school parents are gonna' have to slum.

The upshot is - with those white (let's be honest now) students back in the system, standardized test score averages for the respective schools will rise dramatically. The b/w ratio will be more in balance and the security issues will lessen. But that's more class related than anything else, really. The idea that the public schools are struggling to meet standards is related to race is asinine. It's completely linked to flight of middle class families from the system(s), of all races. Economically disadvantaged families (aka "poor") generally do not have the means or wherewithal to support their children with homework and projects, much less the greater school community.

Along that line, I've really been frustrated with Snowden recently - My gripe is this - how is a child whose parents work the 3rd shift at Kellogg's or FedEx for $8/hr supposed to compete with the children of architects and professors? I'm not talking innate intellectual ability, I'm talking stuff wise. Not everyone has a computer at home with on demand Internet access. We have the means to do research at home on say, the Aztecs. (Seriously, Liz had a project on the Aztecs. It was so unfair to the rest of the 4th grade - her partner, yeah, well, her mother is an artist. Who do you think had the most well-researched, historically accurate, aesthetically pleasing triorama?) Anywhoo, back to the middle class guilt - We also can go to the craft store at will and pick up tubes of native American figures, fast-drying clay and glitter. We have color copier/printers at home. The students were supposed to "work on the project at school" in an effort to even this out, but seriously - that's unrealistic as well. So the kids of middle class parents bring their superior supplies to school. How does that make it more equitable?

Now I know some will say nothing will ever be completely equal; inequality is built into nature. There are some that are smarter, stronger, faster. True. (One of my favorite short stories is Harrison Bergeron by Vonnegut.) But that doesn't mean the system should be stacked to favor those already gifted/privileged. And that's what I think many of these projects do - favor those who already have the tools to succeed and further penalize those who do not. I go to awards ceremonies and hear the same names called time after time* and look at the faces of those kids that work their butts off, making do with piecemeal supplies and government cheese, and my heart shatters into a million Catholic, middle-class guilt ridden pieces. Those kids' names will never be called, not because they haven't tried, not because they aren't good enough, but because they're poor.

So, I'm really having trouble finding any sympathy for the whiney-ass SUV-driving, bleach blonde entitled soccer moms and their spawn. Let me try again . . . . nope. Nothin'

*Yes yes, the names are those my children and their friends and I'm proud of their accomplishments but still . . .