Monday, April 23, 2018

Show Biz Confessions

Several months ago, The Memphis Flyer featured a cover story about local musicians recounting their "Worst Gigs Ever." I wish somebody would have asked me. I have so many horror stories, they have to be categorized by decade. I've been in other bands and played as an acoustic soloist, but most of my performing career has been with the Radiants, a "rock n' soul" group that lasted from my teen years in the sixties until our final show two years ago at Lafayette's. In a 2011 Flyer issue, I wrote about being punched out by the bouncers at Club Clearpool, only to be vindicated by Sputnik Monroe. You could look that one up if you're curious, but first let me tell you about a gig that still gives me the creeps. I was in a band out of Knoxville called Rich Mountain Tower. We had a production deal and were on a mini-tour opening for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Our bass player, we'll call him Todd, was going through some serious psychological problems resulting from an LSD-fried brain. He had that thousand yard stare without ever going to war. When we played Charleston, West Virginia, Todd paused and spoke to the audience. Backstage, I asked what he had said and he told me that he "asked the audience's forgiveness for being a coward all my life." The next night's gig was at the Mid-South Coliseum in Memphis. We set up shop at the old Downtowner Motel, across from the Peabody, where we returned after the concert. I was chatting with friends when I heard shouting and screams for help coming from the next room. I ran next-door to witness Todd, standing on the edge of an open window on the fifteenth floor, with our guitarist sitting opposite on the window sill, bear-hugging Todd's mid-section to prevent him from jumping. We succeeded in pulling Todd back into the room, but he was on a bus at the crack of dawn, leaving for his home-town and psychiatric help.

I had been playing at various joints around Knoxville when an agent booked me and my singing partner, Bob Simon, for a show in Middlesboro, Kentucky at an Elk's Club gathering. Or it could have been the Lions Club, I forget. I was dressed in my hippie finery- bell bottoms, flowered shirt, boots, peace sign, and long hair- while we waited in the kitchen for their program to end. Bob looked  at the crowd of rural, middle-aged men in coats and ties and refused to go out there. I was in the middle of berating him when we were introduced. He agreed to come out, only after I had sung the first song. When I entered with my guitar, the room exploded with laughter. I don't mean snickers or giggles, these were howls and belly laughs at my appearance. I stood in front of the microphone, but the laughter went on and on. As I looked out at the rowdy crowd, waiting for their derision to subside, I felt like Edwin Booth taking the stage just months after his brother had killed Lincoln. I sang one, introduced Bob, and the room erupted again. Bob's face turned beet red. We changed our entire set and sang one country song after the next until they finally gave us some begrudging applause. We cursed our agent all the way back to Knoxville and learned the benefits of knowing your audience in advance.

Many years ago, there was a motorbike dirt track, out near Lakeland on I-40. They occasionally staged races and competitions or whatever the hell dirt-bikers do, and I was booked to play an outdoor concert with a crack, four-piece band cleverly named The Hired Hands. We assumed that we would play in a break in the action or after the race. I never imagined they wanted us to play while the race was taking place. We'd start a song and every thirty seconds the whine of a dirt bike would drown us out. It was not only a ridiculous situation, the bikes were kicking up so much dust that I was literally eating dirt while trying to sing. We were coughing and sneezing on our flatbed truck, parked hard against the track while the motorcycles whizzed by, covering the sky in particles of soot. While wiping my tears when the gig was mercifully over, the track's owner gave me a check. It bounced. The owner assured me the account was solvent and wrote me a second check. It also bounced. When I drove out to the track, it had closed. It was the only time, in a lifetime of performing, that anyone ever stiffed me with a bad check.

The Radiants were playing a gig at an after-hours nightclub in North Little Rock  called The Apartment Club. It was a seedy place filled with drunks with nowhere else to go. A scuffle broke out in the crowd and the band went on break. I've seen a lot of fistfights. I've seen brawls roil from one side of the room to the other while the band continued to play, but this felt different, maybe more menacing considering the clientele. I was standing outside with the bass player when the front doors flew open and a gangly, drunken redneck tumbled onto the ground followed by two huge bouncers. The drunk staggered to his feet, lunged at the bouncers and threw a punch. Suddenly, a handgun appeared and we dove for cover. While one bouncer held the gun in the air, the other pulled out a blackjack and started pounding this guy in the head shouting, "You done fucked up now Bobby Gene." The intoxicated Bobby Gene refused to go down and received a Rodney King-like beating until he finally succumbed to the blows to his head and slumped to the sidewalk. He laid there bleeding for a while but made it back to his feet. He stumbled towards a pickup truck, but for good measure, received one last sweeping kick to his ribs that dropped him to the gravel. The band had to regroup while the crowd was visibly shaken by the episode. Things seemed to be calming down a bit when someone ran in screaming, "Bobby Gene's back with a shotgun." Everyone froze. We were instructed to continue playing while somewhere in the parking-lot, an armed Bobby Gene was fighting with the police. He lost, but all we heard was "Keep playing boys, that's what we pay you for."

I could tell you more- a lot more- because I sometimes wonder if all those awful gigs I endured were worth it just for the anecdotes. Show Biz ain't for sissies, folks. If you're unable to tolerate a constant barrage of bullshit and humiliation, there's probably too many singing guitar players out there anyway.
 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Forward March

Before what Life Magazine called, "the largest expression of public dissent ever seen in this country," President Richard Nixon said, "As far as this activity is concerned, we expect it, but under no circumstances will I be affected whatever by it." The delusional traitor Nixon had previously referred to anti-war protesters as "bums," but half a million people were about to descend on Nixon's front yard in a massive march called "The Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam." On November 15, 1969, hundreds of thousands of anti-war protesters began marching down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument. The morning was damn cold. I know because I was there. We listened to speeches by Senator George McGovern and Dr. Benjamin Spock and joined in with Pete Seeger singing John Lennon's tune, "All we are saying is give peace a chance." Nixon spent the day secluded in the White House watching college football but his venal Vice President, Spiro "Ted" Agnew, called the protesters "an effete corps of impudent snobs." The work of several anti-war organizations, plus two hundred-fifty student government officers and student newspaper editors were necessary to draw the massive number of people to Washington. What these young adults from Parkland High School managed to put together last week was nothing short of miraculous.

We are in the midst of an historic moment "and a little child shall lead them." These committed students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are an inspiration, and if you're too old, or too cynical, or too oblivious to grasp the significance of the "March For Our Lives" against gun violence, you fall in the same category as the cadre of dead-enders that sat on their couches and cheered on the Vietnam War- on the wrong side of history. These survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, were poised and eloquent beyond their years. There were a few celebrities in attendance, but the march and the program were organized by the students who witnessed this horror. Their impassioned and heartbreaking testimonies brought on more than a few tears in our house. When Jennifer Hudson, who lost her mother, brother, and nephew to gun violence, sang "The Times They Are a-Changin'," that did it for me. That brought me full circle. Back when I heard Bob Dylan sing it, I didn't have to go through half a box of Kleenex. 

These high school kids have started a wave of indignation about this country's gun violence that appears unstoppable. I don't know what the popular term is for this generation, whether its Millennials or Gen Z, or whatever the hell it is, but they are about to affect some real change. Politicians purchased by the NRA have been put on notice by this generation, larger than the Baby-Boomers, and they will vote. The National Rifle Association's venomous response was predictable: "Gun-hating billionaires and Hollywood elites are manipulating and exploiting children," while referring to the event as the "March for Their Lies."  Videos of their well-paid lackeys Dana Loesh and Wayne LaPierre, contempt and vitriol dripping from their lips, were regrettably televised. Hatemongers called them "crisis actors." The students were not intimidated. Gun laws will change the moment politicians realize they must face their voting-age children's scorn. Enormous marches were held in hundreds of cities in solidarity with the students from Parkland, including Memphis.

If I were a football game, I'd be in the fourth quarter. I haven't hit the two minute warning yet, but I can see it out there on the horizon. I figured I had one more march left in me, so (wife) Melody and I headed downtown. We gathered at the Clayborn Temple and marched the short distance to the Civil Rights Museum. I'm not good at estimates so I'll just say the crowd was enormous. Young students gave testimonies about their first-hand experiences with gun violence that were both emotional and wrenchingly personal, since Memphis is no stranger to firearm violence. The encouraging takeaway was the determination of these young people to affect change. I did notice a whole lot of gray hair in the crowd and was pleased and proud that everyone's knees still worked. Old hippies never die, they just march on. The Memphis march was great. What was hard was the walk back, trying to find where we parked the car. We marched about four blocks longer than we had to. My calves are sore and my back hurts, but I'm happy we attended. As for policy, I agree that the Assault Weapons Ban should be reinstated. The opposing argument is there would still be millions in circulation. Maybe so, but there wouldn't be any new ones for sale so some vengeful teenager with a chip on his shoulder could legally buy and shoot up his school. If you believe that the Second Amendment entitles you to own a battlefield weapon, where does the right to your firepower end? Grenade launchers? Mortar cannons? Nobody's coming for your guns. Keep your handguns and your long-guns. Go have fun at the range and protect your home. Just spare the life of my child.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

NRA'int

For most of my adult life I have been a staunch and passionate supporter of the 3rd Amendment. If I'm a single issue voter, I'm a 3rd Amendment guy. No matter what else congress or the courts say, I refuse to allow anyone or anything to trample upon my 3rd Amendment rights. So, the next time the government tries to force me to quarter a soldier in my home during peacetime, they can pry the front door keys from my cold, dead hands. The feds don't provide rent or board, nor bath supplies, or uniform cleaning services, not to mention how those troops scruff up your rugs with their boots and cigarettes. I don't care what the dad-blamed gub'ment says, I ain't quartering no damn soldiers in my house. I am protected by the 3rd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which states, "No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner (sic), nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law." My mother used to invite a couple of sailors from Millington over for Passover every few years, but that was a far cry from quartering. In fact, after my mother's Passover meal, the sailors probably would have preferred to have been quartered, at least for the night. And due to the density of the matzo balls, when they awoke the next day, they may have felt like being drawn and quartered.

If this all sounds ridiculous, it is. The Supreme Court has never decided a case on the basis of the 3rd Amendment. Since Congress passed the amendment in 1789, constitutional scholars and politicians alike have conceded that the law is too antiquated to be applicable today. For a bit of history, however, we have to crack open our American History textbooks to Chapter One and check out the French and Indian War of 1754. When the Brits, with the help of their colonial musketeers, finally kicked out the French in 1760, they decided they needed to stick around for awhile to police the new territories. Americans chafed at having to billet the Redcoats. They preferred local militias for their protection rather than professional soldiers. To further incite the colonists, the British Parliament passed the Quartering Act of 1765, which not only required the settlers to provide housing, but also "provisions, firewood, bedding, and beer." The resulting rebellion against the presence of British troops and the high taxes imposed by the Crown to pay for the war, culminated in the Boston Massacre of 1770 and led to the American Revolution. Before the Bill of Rights was ever written, the state of Virginia passed their own Declaration of Rights in 1776, declaring, "That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state." The Founding Fathers trimmed it down for the 2nd Amendment, passed in 1789, which said, "A Well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

Do you see what's happening here? The 2nd Amendment is merely a watered down version of the Virginia Declaration which dealt with the regulation of militias and never once mentioned a Constitutional protection for firearms. The colonists believed that full-time, payed soldiers were only necessary to fight foreign enemies. For other emergencies, a militia of ordinary citizens who supplied their own weapons and received part-time training, could be depended upon. Even then, there were laws for the registration of civilian-owned guns deemed appropriate for the militia, sometimes with inspectors going door-to-door. Because of the fear of standing armies living among them, there were even certain laws requiring firearm ownership. The kicker is that the antiquated and forgotten 3rd Amendment was passed by Congress, and then ratified by the states, on the exact same two dates as the 2nd Amendment. So, if we're to apply the same logic to the 2nd Amendment that the founders used for the 3rd, everyone is required to purchase a musket, which must be properly cleaned and registered with the Federal Government. The owners of same weapon must periodically assemble for inspection and military training. In time of war, the government has the power to press them into service and regulate the militias. I didn't say that- the Constitutional Convention did.
  
So the entire NRA argument about the absolute American right to own any type of firearm is bullshit. The gun cultists conveniently forget the "well-regulated militia" part, ignore the context of the times, and revere the "shall not be infringed" phrase. Even with all the Founders' brilliance, none could have envisioned modern military-style weapons or allowed them to fall into the hands of the untrained and unregulated. Since the most recent slaughter in Parkland, Florida, a new consciousness has arisen. Young people are rightly appalled at the ease that any social misfit can acquire a killing machine. After each mass shooting, gun sales go up, weapons manufacturers' profits rise, shareholders reap financial rewards, and the NRA is handsomely funded by the all-American gun cartels. It's really not about the 2nd Amendment at all. It's about profit margin. The NRA is now merely a lobbying group for American arms dealers. The "most popular rifle in America," according to the NRA, is the Colt AR-15, with over eight million sold. This semi-automatic rifle, and other brands similarly designed, were prohibited by the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, along with large capacity magazines. Since the ban was allowed to expire in 2004, mass shootings have spiked. Of the most recent stomach-churning massacres: twenty-six babies at Sandy Hook; fourteen murdered at an office Christmas party in San Bernardino; forty-nine killed at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, fifty-eight slaughtered at a Las Vegas music festival; twenty-six gunned down in a church in Sutherland, Texas; and now, seventeen children murdered in their school, they all share something in common. Each heartless killer used an AR-15 styled rifle as the weapon of choice. Yet the NRA rolls out the same tired defenses to protect gun makers and their profits. The 2nd Amendment is as primitive as the 3rd when it comes to guns, but this is the year the NRA may finally have met their match. Who could have believed it would arrive in the form of a children's crusade? Go ahead and keep your long gun or handgun. But if nothing is done to re-instate the Assault Weapons Ban, you're children are coming to bust up the NRA and send their paid congressional lackeys packing.

Monday, January 29, 2018

McMeditation

In these trying times, when half the nation seems to have gone insane, everyone not in a coma seems to be searching for a way to relax. Some choose vigorous exercise which can end in pain and regret. Others might enjoy listening to soothing music, if any exists, or keeping a journal, which is like seeing a shrink without the appointment, bill or condescension. So rather than elevate my blood pressure by discussing the idiots and assholes that populate our current administration, I thought I might offer a balm for the troubled mind and discuss my experience with meditation. All I knew about the subject was that the Beatles had become interested in Transcendental Meditation (registered copyright, but since I don't have that symbol on my keyboard, I'll use an asterisk), or TM*,  from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in 1967. The Maharishi, know at the time as the "giggling guru" for his numerous television appearances, developed TM* in India in 1956, but after meeting the Beatles in London, he began making an enterprise of it. When the Beatles and their wives, along with the Farrow sisters (for whom John Lennon wrote "Dear Prudence"),  visited the Maharishi in his ashram in India, the mystical glow faded after the Holy Man hit on Mia Farrow and the band walked away disillusioned. Although the discipline of meditation dates back five thousand years, the Maharishi's TM* technique caught fire in those halcyon days of spiritual discovery, guaranteeing effortless inner peace, at a price. In 1968, the Maharishi began training TM* teachers from his new global headquarters in Seelisberg, Switzerland, and sent them forth to pacify the world.

When I was in the midst of my tortuous decade trying to write Country songs in Nashville, I reached the point that if I heard one more song celebrating poverty and ignorance, I was going to lose it. I was in desperate need of stress relief and TM* was literally the only game in town. Encouraged by a friend who had even moved his family up to Boone, N.C. to live in a TM* community, I signed up for a course. I knew nothing of meditation or its Eastern origins, and unlike the wizened sage you now witness before you, I had everything to learn. I don't think I'd even had dinner in an Indian restaurant. My particular impression of Hinduism was a religion with multitudes of goofy looking gods and goddesses with animal characteristics standing in awkward positions. And because of cow worship, the faithful went hungry while cattle roamed the streets. Since TM* is rooted in the Hindu faith, I approached my lessons with some apprehension. The six-day course cost $250 at the time and could only be taught by a certified TM* instructor, in my case a soft-spoken young man lousy with serenity.

The meditation classes were easy enough, based on a repetitive phrase that centered the mind. Practicing for twenty minutes, twice a day, was prescribed to ease stress and anxiety. The big payoff, or mystic goody, was the mantra, a sacred incantation chosen exclusively for you based on your personal interview with the teacher. For initiation day, I was instructed to bring a clean handkerchief, flowers, some fruit, and naturally, the course fee. A makeshift alter was erected with a peach crate and a bedsheet. On the wall above was a creepy photo of an old, white-bearded man, who was the Maharishi's guru. I was admonished to never utter my mantra aloud, lest I tarnish it and strip it of its power. The Maharishi said, "Using just any mantra can be dangerous. Mantras commonly found in books can cause a person to withdraw from life." When the big finally moment came, I was asked to bow before the guru's photo and receive my mantra. I immediately balked at bowing before anybody but I figured I'd come this far, so I lowered my head. I was hoping for something cool, like "Shanti," but the teacher leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Hrring." Since it was chosen especially for me, who was I to disagree? I chose a comfortable chair in my bedroom and began to practice. Focusing squarely on the third eye, I began to silently recite, "Hrring,  Hering, Herring." I just spent two-hundred and fifty bucks so I could recite a word that sounded like Jewish smoked fish. I told my teacher that my mantra was making me laugh and could I please have another but I was assured that this was mine and to work with it. Sometime later, I received a call from my old friend Mac, who said, "I heard you took TM*, what's your mantra?" I was appalled, "I can't tell you my mantra. I was sworn to secrecy." Mac said, "If you tell me yours, I'll tell you mine." I reluctanty agreed saying, "Mine's Hrring." Mac burst into laughter. "What's so funny?" I asked. He replied, "Mine is Shrring."

I came to realize that there are a multitude of ways to meditate and the Maharishi had turned TM* into a for-profit, international franchise, much like Weight-Watchers, or psychiatry. TM* was quick to reassure its customers that their fees covered not only the initial training, but a lifetime follow-up, like a Kenmore warranty. Even financing is available. In 1984, Omni Magazine published an article by "disaffected TM* teachers" listing sixteen mantras used by the organization, contradicting the fable that the result was dependent on a trained teacher's choice. A 2007 study found that details of training and knowledge for TM* teachers are kept private and potential franchisees are required to sign a "loyalty-oath employment contract." Fortunately, effective meditation doesn't require the $960 dollars currently being charged for TM* classes. By the time of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's death in 2008, TM* had become an empire worth an estimated four billion dollars, including the Maharishi International University, now The Maharishi University of Management on three-hundred eighty-one acres in Fairfield, Iowa. The compound in North Carolina called "Heavenly Mountain" unfortunately went bust. Built as a TM* community in 1998 for forty million dollars, the site sold at auction in 2012 for $3.9 million and is now the Art of Living Retreat Center, offering weight loss, detox, yoga, and meditation for an all-inclusive fee. Just YouTube "meditation," and you don't have to pay for it. Meditation really works, but it takes the sort of consistent self-discipline that I utterly lack. Which reminds me, there's a Xanax prescription that I need to refill.