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by Gary Gordon
(a slightly edited version of this was published in the Santa Monica Mirror, Sept. 2000)
Two years ago I was in Chicago, a guest on a friend's radio talkshow on WLS, on the very night Clinton admitted the truth about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Several callers declared they were disappointed, some were gleeful, and one fourteen year old kid said he was so disappointed he didn't know how he could trust a president again.
I said, "Kid, when I was your age my president was sending young men off to kill women and children and to die in an illegal war and was lying about that."
It was an attempt at context, and an attempt at swimming through insanity.
We all experience a moment when we recognize insanity for what it is: a truth that cannot be argued with. My moment came years ago when I learned in the flash of a news report about Napalm. I realized we had invented a gelatin that would burn the flesh of women and children, not to kill them, but to make them flee.
Napalm no longer makes headlines.
Instead, headlines are made by those who insist that images on film and videotape lack a correct moral caliber and are therefore immoral.
I have never seen anything-anything-- produced by "Hollywood" that approaches the immorality of Napalm. And the fact that we can calmly, passively, view Napalm as a tool of modern warfare and at the same time thunder and declaim the immorality of certain movies and TV shows strikes me as insane.
It is through this lens, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, that I viewed some of the events of the past few weeks in Philadelphia and in L.A. It is with this renewed, acute sense of what is insanity that I heard thousands of words about protests and moving to the center and spin, that I heard metaphor upon metaphor ("Gore's got to hit a home run tonight") and ultimatum upon ultimatum ("Bush has to act Presidential").
All this as I read Joe Eszterhas's American Rhapsody, watch VH-1's Top 100 Rock N Roll acts, attend the Retrofest in Santa Monica, watch A&E's Biographies of Dylan, David Crosby, Joplin, Hendrix, and Jagger, and, in my mind, drink countless bottles of Wild Turkey.
And let me tell you, even imaginary Wild Turkey can give you some messed up dreams. I dreamt I saw Carol Browner of the EPA respond to a CNN reporter's question about Nader and the environment, saying "If you look at the record, Nader has no record. Al Gore is the one..."
No, that was real.
Okay. Here's one. I dreamt that on the eve of Gore's big acceptance speech, someone in the special prosecutor's office (remember them?) leaked news that another Grand Jury had been convened to further investigate Clinton-Lewinsky-
No, that was real, too.
Wait. This one: That Gore picked Lieberman because Bill Bennett wasn't available. Okay wasn't a dream; that's a joke we made when we were hanging out at our Algonquin West table on Sunday at the Santa Monica Main Street Farmer's Market.
Actually, I think the most insane comment I heard at and around these conventions, and I heard it over and over again from a multitude of people, was that "the old labels of liberal and conservative just don't apply."
This, of course, is a myth, and if you're one of the perpetrators, it's a great myth to perpetuate. Because if you can get rid of historical labels and the fact they still do have tremendous meaning, then you can negate and revise history at will and you can mush distinctions and ultimately discourage and eliminate language and the ability to think critically, the result of which is the ability to say, with complete impunity, hey, all of us were always for civil rights and all of us were always for the working person and occupational safety and clean water and-you get the idea.
"We can no longer look to the Federal Government to do what it ought to. Now we must look to the States to not do that."
I think I read that on the back of a bottle of Wild Turkey, just before I escaped to the Retrofest, a celebration of previous eras, with emphasis on the 70s, at the Santa Monica Civic.
There were TV stars from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, like Paul Petersen and Billy Gray, Robert Fuller and Deborah Walley, Martha Kristen and Barry Livingston, and more. Fuller, to me, had represented the upstart cowboy (on Laramie and Wagon Train), the person I wanted to be until I discovered Dylan and Abbie Hoffman. Everyone, including me, was older.
I talked with Michael Callan who had been in Cat Ballou, telling him it was the first feminist, revolutionary, American picture, but that nobody, not even Jane, ever recognized it as such. He mumbled something.
I said, "See, she's rejecting marriage and leading an outlaw gang against a corrupt sheriff and the corrupt corporate railroad owner to avenge her father, in 1965, way before this kind of plot-line was fashionable." He mumbled some more.
And there were Playmates. Cynthia Myers, December 1968 was there, buxom as ever, in a half-open blouse and black lace bra, a flesh & blood being who had inspired countless fantasies decades ago. I told her a friend of mine had stolen the foldout of her from my copy. She told me she had four left, and suggested I go to her website. (www.cynthiamyers.com)
Then she introduced me to the other Playmates. Everyone, including me, was older.
And there was music. One-hit wonders like Ron Dante (he has a website), Andy Kim, and Al Wilson-a very fine entertainer; all of them were fun, entertaining, and everyone, including me, was older.
But the first thing I noticed about the Retrofest was there were no drugs. None. Nada. Zippo. The subliminal suggestion was that there were no drugs in the 70s. It was as if the culture existed on Top-40 radio and Playboy fantasy sex. It was as if whatever the government did to fight drugs in the 70s worked such that you wonder why they aren't doing that now instead of destroying Columbia-- of course, this presumes the government really wants to fight drugs and not just use it as a cover to expand the Prison Industrial Complex-- woah! Hand me some more imaginary Wild Turkey!
The second thing I noticed was there was no politics. Nonenadazippo.
Well, hold up.
I found two instances of politics: one of the memorabilia dealers (not paraphernalia) had some early National Lampoons including one from December '72 with a photo of Nixon and Texas Governor Benedict Arnold Connally laughing under the headline Dems Nominate McGovern; the other instance was Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods singing their hit "Billy, Don't Be A Hero."
Now some of you may remember this as a stupid bubble-gummy type song about a young girl who sings to her boyfriend as he enlists to go fight in Vietnam. But you probably forgot the third verse, where she tears up the letter the Army sends her that notifies her of his death, really pissed that he went, totally rejecting the notion that he was a hero just because he died there. This is in fairly marked contrast to the Dems at their convention celebrating the Vietnam Veterans in their never-ending effort to move to the center and the national embrace of John McCain who didn't just end up in a North Vietnamese prison for no reason-he was dropping bombs on them before he was shot down.
But if you missed the National Lampoons and the Heywoods, you'd think there was no politics in the 70s.
On the other hand, if you watched any of the VH-1 and A&E shows, you might've seen more politics than if you watched either convention. But that may be an exaggerated, glib, inaccurate, pundit-like remark, the kind of remark I'm inclined to make in my effort to score Jeff Greenfield's job. Or not. After all, Dylan has had more to say than Gore, both directly and convolutedly (re-read Desolation Row), and has certainly been as inconsistent. And pound for pound, Texan for Texan, Joplin sure partied better than Bush. And why did the Dems leave out Lieberman's work as a Freedom Rider when they showed his bio-Isn't that his only redeeming quality?
Which leads me to Joe Eszterhas's book. It's been a long time since I read anything true about the 60s and early 70s, about the peace & love and sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll generation, about the anti-war generation, about the Movement generation. And this book is fun and true. It's Al Goldstein meets John Dos Passos. It's profane, profound, scatalogical, aggravating, provocative, over-the-top, below-the-belt-
"We were a counterculture, an America within Amerika, arrogant, self-righteous, even jingoistic about our values, heroes and music. 'I Can't Get No Satisfaction' was our 'Battle Hymn of the Republic'; 'Sympathy for the Devil' our 'Star-Spangled Banner'; Woodstock our D day; Altamont our Pearl Harbor; Dylan our Elvis; Tim Leary our Einstein; Che Guevara our Patrick Henry.
"We did not have 'our' Richard Nixon. It was a shared faith among us that our generation, committed to letting at all hang out, to the truth setting us free, would never produce a Richard Nixon, a president who would look us in the eye, jab his finger in our faces, and lie."
Eszterhas has written an in-your-face guitar lead that does not try to separate the politics from the sex from the drugs from the actions and reactions from segregation from D.C. from Cleveland from Da Nang from Selma from Hollywood from Elvis from Little Richard and so on as if they were all separate, unrelated events; he does not mush distinctions in an anti-Quixote-like search for the Center, he does not pretend rebellion was just a phase, he does not ignore the bad and the ugly, and he does a frighteningly good job of placing Clinton in context. You can read and reject this book as an egocentric masturbation or you can read it as an attempt at a wake-up call to rekindle all that was good about the ideals and hormones of the 60s, and as an acid-headed Tom Paine-like pamphlet outlining the nature of the culture war we're in.
Because, in part, his book argues what I believe was argued back in the 60s and should still be argued: yes, there is a culture war in America, and it's high time we stop letting the Bill Bennetts and Joe Liebermans and Pat Buchanans define it.
It's time there was a forceful reminder to those narrow-minded "value"-peddlers and "one-way-ers" that there is not only one set of values, not only one way to live a life, have a relationship, be married, have a family, raise a kid, serve a country, be American, have a vision, have a dream, and celebrate life. It's time to remember that positive social change has never come from Conservatives, that George Bush and Joe Lieberman are the kind of folks who would've sided with the British in 1776, that Dick Cheney was AWOL in the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s along with most of the Republicans and Southern Democrats, and that Al Gore is such a toss-up Tennesseean that he very well could have chosen, like Robert E. Lee, to side with the Slave States in the Civil War. And this forceful reminder, that there are many ways, needs to be continually expressed through art, music, literature, politics and lifestyle. And it is expressed through all these mediums and
actions, and more, only you really wouldn't know it by watching these conventions and who's been chosen to lead us.
It's as if the great rock n roll generation now had its hand on the switch, and was choosing, like their parents, to show Elvis from just the waist up. Man, where are the political leaders who are proud they opposed the war, marched for Civil Rights, smoked dope (and more), dug Elvis and the Beatles and Stones and the Airplane, co-habitated, assembled peaceably, and never killed anyone, never executed anyone, never claimed alumni legacy privilege (the elite form of affirmative action), never ran a phony S&L--? Jeez, Tom Hayden can't be the only one.
Gore and Bush? We'd be better off if Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot were fighting in the Captain's tower.
A friend of mine accuses me of still fighting the Vietnam War. And I honestly try not to. But after watching both conventions blather on about the veterans of what was actually a failed, genocidal quasi-police action, and after watching all the counter-programming (Dylan singing Masters of War, Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled Banner), I don't think I'm the only one. As long as the effort is made to celebrate or legitimize the tragedy of the Vietnam War and our dominant role in that tragedy and to repudiate the civil rights and anti-war generation, the more we will continue to march, in the words of Firesign Theatre, "forward, into the past."
Is the retro-future at hand? Will insanity be our way of life? Will we build SDI as we condemn full frontal nudity?
Yeah, I hate multiple choice questions, too.
So if you see Joe Lieberman, tell him about Napalm, then ask if he thinks "Friends" is still so damn immoral.
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