June 21, 2004
(Swans - June 21, 2004) Talk about sheer luck: I missed the panegyrical pandemonium, the official week of mourning, the encomia, the fables and other myth-making tales surrounding the decease of the "greatest US president since god created the United States of America." It must have been another weekly news cycle rat-a-tat-tat, for all I know.
Well now wait a minute...
We'd put the June 7 issue of Swans to bed early enough the previous day that by 15:00 Priam, the king of the house, and I hopped in our 1987 Toyota pickup truck (144,000 miles and going), loaded with boxes of books, a brand new 28-foot Louisville extension ladder, a bunch of salvaged redwood boards, my external hard drive containing the entire Swans Web site, my e-mails and other necessary files (just plug it in a USB port and you're back in business!), and whatever food co-editor, partner in crime, and sunshine Jan Baughman, relieved to get rid of her Martian for a few days, had benevolently thrown in a cooler. Three and one half hour and 145 miles later, driving through San Francisco, the Golden Gate, the dreaded and ignominious Santa Rosa, which is neither saint nor rose, and the treacherously winding Route 128, the king and I were in Boonville -- or more exactly, three miles past Boonville, up a dirt road, in the hills...
I hum Boonville on my mind... "peaceful dreams... the road leads back to you... oh sweet song, oh, ohhh, oh... on my miiiiiiind."
Beside the quietness and the breathtaking views of the Anderson Valley, beside the Columbian deer and does, the boars, wild turkeys, sparrows by the dozens and countless other birds, mountain lions and even occasional rattlesnakes, there is no TV there! No TV, no newspaper delivery, and the local radio station with its mix of NPR news and lib-lab feel-gooders is not worth tuning in to much... But then, with access to the Internet (slooow connection, mind you), a couple of thousand books and a battalion of CDs...life's good.
Among the many tender gifts my mother bestowed upon me, in addition to the ingrained advice to brush my teeth twice a day, were the love of books and music, of which she had many and much. Her musical taste was mostly classical with one exception: She loved American music, Jazz, Soul, Gospel (what we called then "Negro Spirituals"), Blues, Country, you name it, all kind of American music. She did not like Elvis, however, and, to this day neither do I. She'd say, "why Elvis when you can listen to the original? Don't waste your ears and emotions with copycats, listen to Ray Charles!" I know, I know, I'm going to get flamed by the Elvis fan club, but she was right. Ray Charles once reflected:
Basically, rock 'n' roll came into being when white artists and white bands started covering black music. That seems like a blunt way of putting it, and it may sound like I'm a racist, but I'm not; that's just the best way to explain it.... It started in the 50s, when you had popular singers like Pat Boone and Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins covering black music. They were doing songs first recorded by people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. They just took rhythm-and-blues songs and did their own versions of them. And that sound became known as rock 'n' roll. I don't know exactly who came up with that name, but that's pretty much the way it went down.... When Elvis came along, he not only covered the music, but he was...well, he was moving his body on stage just like a black artist would. Now, in those days a black artist couldn't get away with doing that on stage for the teenagers of America, but Elvis got away with it. He was criticized at first, but he got away with it. He was just doing what he saw people doing down on Beale Street. (1)Yesterdayyyyyy, back in the Sixties, my mom's big LP collection -- how big? I don't know, she would not say -- included many giants: Mahalia Jackson, the Queen of Gospel, whose voice Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "comes, not once in a century, but once in a millennium." Satchmo the Great (Louis Armstrong) and his diamond of a trumpet, singing Down by the Riverside, Wild Man Blues, Hello Dolly...and just imagine the first time I heard Mack the Knife! And the Duke; and Ella; and Billie; and Aretha; and Miles; and Marian Anderson singing the "language of all humanity." But, perhaps, the greatest of all, a giant of a giant, of Mount Rushmore proportion, with her shouting, moaning, whispering, modulating voice -- and her silences, oh...her silences... -- the "High Priestess of Soul," was the one and only Eunice Waymon, known as Nina Simone, Dr. Nina Simone. She too died recently, in April 2003. There was no week of mourning for her, just a one-day obituary in the papers and a couple of TV clips, yet she was and remains a thousand times worthier of the $10 bill than Mr. Reagan will ever be. Just her rendering of Jacques Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas brings tears to this 53-year old kid. Dr. Simone, like Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson, was deeply involved in the Civil Rights movement and affected to her core by the abject violence against her people. (Today, the sons and daughters of the perpetrators are honing their skills at Abu Ghraib and other secret locations. Did you notice the skin color of today's torturers? No worry, the racist beast is alive and well in America!) I wish I could have watched Nina Simone live in 1964, in New York, singing Mississippi Goddam, Old Jim Crow, and I loves you Porgy...
What's so strange is that I did not understand most of the lyrics at the time. Yet I would listen to Just In Time, or When I Was A Young Girl, Black Swan, Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair, Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood, and I Put A Spell On You, and it reverberated so intensely, so emotionally that when the time came and I was told to Hit the Road Jack, don't you come back no more, no more, no more no more, Hit the Road Jack, going to America was sort of a natural dream (guess Hollywood depictions helped too...stupid me...).
I landed at Kennedy Airport with two suitcases some 16 years later, Xmas 1982, and have "yet to recover from having been initiated during the Reagan Era." (2)
Ah, Ronald Reagan...
When in Boonville, don't you come to suddenly believe that I just read and listen to music. I need to earn my food too, you know -- and the boss (Jan) fully expects me to use the Stihl FS 250 trimmer to cut the tall California grass around the house as a precaution against fire. That week also, I sadly had to take down a valley oak and a madrone that were threatening the water tank (old-growth redwood), which was done with the help of Francisco and his crew. (More about trees in a moment...)
On Friday morning, June 11, I eased my way down to town with Priam and ordered breakfast at the Drive-In -- ham and jack omelet, potatoes, fruit and sourdough toast. As I was awaiting my order, I grabbed a copy of The Press Democrat, a bland among the bland, a nothingness of nothing paper published in Santa Rosa (it figures) and owned by The New York Times (all the dailies in Mendocino County are owned by corporate America), filled with ads to the brim and Associated Press reports and dispatches. "Ronald Reagan 1911-2004," I read on the top front page, left column. "Gorbachev, Thatcher pay tribute." "Tens of thousands wait in line for hours to view Reagan's casket in Capitol -- national funeral this morning." Followed the schedule:
"7:30 a.m. PDT: Coffin moves to Washington National Cathedral
"8:30 a.m.: Funeral Service.
"10:15 a.m.: Coffin leaves cathedral.
"11:45 a.m.: Departure from An-drews [sic] Air Force Base.
"4:45 p.m.: Arrival at Naval Air Station, Point Magu.
"6 p.m.: Arrival at Ronald Presidential Library in Simi Valley.
"Sunset: Private burial at library, at spot overlooking Pacific Ocean.
"TV networks and cable news channels plan live coverage throughout the day."
Almost 22 years now, and I still do not fathom Americana. Not that I haven't tried to learn and understand. For most of my first decade here, I refused to read or speak in French and immersed myself in American English -- New York Times every morning, TV in the evening, history books, a weekly novel and a page of the dictionary daily, Central Park, Fisher Hall, Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, Broadway... Then came Los Angeles where I got so lost Jan had to come to the rescue and bring me to the Bay Area, whose populace talks about consciousness, new worldview, sustainability, conflict resolution, new age religions, in the nonsensical language so wonderfully perfected by the lib-labs, and utterly co-opted by the elite. To keep a modicum of sanity, one must be armed with a fair dose of humor.
The country was grieving. Live coverage was provided, I suppose, interspaced with commercials for Viagra and other "health" products, beer ("A Bud for the Gipper!"), Target, Costco and Wal*Mart, cars and SUVs, NASCAR, and financial services for your hard-earned riches -- the American Dream in all its splendor. (I read a recent survey in which more than one half of college students' dream was to become a millionaire...) Eternal optimism...new beginnings..."Coffin moves to Washington National Cathedral," said the AP. "Coffin leaves cathedral..." Miracle! Soon Congress will put to vote the sanctification of Mr. Reagan...Miracle-Grow America, time to have our own Saint!
Meanwhile, the North-Eastern part of the U.S. and Northern Europe are facing the very potential disappearance of the Gulf Stream, thus threatening a new Ice Age; over 3,000 species per year become extinct; half of Africa is dying; water resources are going the way of the Black Gold; global warming is an actuality; pollution is killing the oceans' flora and fauna; natural fisheries are 80 percent depleted; rain forests are shrinking year after year; here in the U.S., the infrastructure of the country is decaying at an alarming rate, public health is history -- between 1980, when Mr. Reagan was speaking of a "shinning city on the hill," and 2000, when Mr. Bush was advocating his compassionate conservatism, 1,000 hospitals have been closed; influenza kills 36,000 people every year (that's 12 times 9/11); (3) public schools are in total disrepair; the country has more inmates per capita and killings by handguns than...
The list is so long, it could easily fill a book. But the lib-labs continue to talk about consciousness and all the malarkey they were talking about 22 years ago. "Hey, it did not work last year; so let's do it again this year... Not working still? No problem, there is next year, and next and next. And there is rapture anyway, for we are the chosen people, aren't we?" I love the lib-labs!
I also love the "intellectuals" who prosaically discourse on the permissibility of torture and offer a moral basis to torture the "enemy."
A moral basis for torture? Which "Evil Empire," Mr. Reagan?
Breakfast was ready. It was such a sunny morning. I wanted peace of mind. I stopped reflecting on Mr. Reagan's American legacy...
The omelet was fair. Priam wanted his share. I can't stop loving you, his eyes were telling me. Hold on, a dog does not sing, you'll say. Hold on yourselves, I'll retort, Priam understands French and English; and he speaks dog. And even The Press Democrat had an article on a German study of a border collie who understands some 200 words. So why wouldn't Priam sing Ray?
I'm eating... The paper is laying next to me, neatly folded -- that is, I had only read the top half of the front page. Okay, Priam has his potatoes and fruit, a bit of omelet, time to move on and look at what's new in the "news." I unfold the rag. Oh, no -- right there, below the BIG headline for His Sainthood, is a smaller one announcing Ray's death. Sure enough, it was not main news, top-page material. I'm certain The New York Times also had the heartbreaking report down on its front page and the Reagan story all over the top. The paper of record, reflecting America, knows its priorities.
Sadness seeped in, dooming the day...
That very night, at 2:15, I woke up with the picture of the valley oak above our water tank that we had to fell. Not the tree altogether but its remaining hollow trunk. Suddenly, in the heat of the night, this poor rotten stem aptly depicted and reflected, albeit metaphorically, Reagan and the USA I have experienced and observed for over two decades -- a hollowed façade, glittering with pride and optimism, in an advanced putrefying stage.
I had a smoke (a Camel, no filter, which is incrementally killing me... Jan, sue the hell out of them upon my demise...) and went back to bed. Later on, I took the picture and listened to Mr. Charles.
What would one say about a country, in its majority, entranced into a worshipping frenzy of a cold and fake man overlooking the Pacific Ocean while treating the death of the genuine and warm man from Heaven as a passing event with a few obituaries? The man who gutted the New Deal and the Great Society versus the man who personified, and made into a hymn, America the Beautiful? The Gipper versus the Genius?
I do not know What I'd Say. Perhaps, My Heart Cries for You, America, or probably and more fittingly,
(And Mr. Charles, wherever you are, I am aware that you were a "republican," sang for Mr. Reagan at the Republican National Convention in 1984, and made those greedy "uh huh" commercials for Pepsi... Long forgotten, long forgiven... You'll always be on my mind, Mr. Charles. Peaceful dreams, Sir...)
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Notes and Resources
1. Ray Charles Reflects on the Origins of Rock, http://www.raycharles.com/rock.htm (as of June 14, 2004). (back)
2. This is what I wrote in my short 1996 Swans bio: "Gilles came to these United States of America in 1982 and has yet to recover from having been initiated during the Reagan Era. He has lived and traveled all around the world, speaks several languages and loves to short-sell and denigrate himself. Gilles has always said that he would sell his soul to the devil in order to write. However, not believing in deities and their antitheses, he created Swans instead." (back)
3. See "We Are Not Immune," by Ronald J. Glasser, M.D., Harper's, July 2004. Dr. Glasser concludes his essay thus: "We have grown so foolish and so incompetent that perhaps we do not deserve to survive. Perhaps it is simply time to die." (back)
America the 'beautiful' on Swans
Gilles d'Aymery is Swans' publisher and co-editor.
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