Friday, June 26, 2009

Thrice Removed

They say bad news comes in threes.

I first heard them say this in the summer of 1977, when Elvis Presley, Groucho Marx, and Sebastian Cabot (the butler on Family Affair) all died within days of each other. There was a kind of cosmic appropriateness to these deaths. Elvis was the King of Rock and Roll, Groucho was the King of Comedy, and Sebastian was the King of Supporting Actors on Sentimental Family Sitcoms.

Now, thirty-two years later, Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson have all died within days, and, for the latter two, hours, of each other. I will discuss each of these three in reverse order of both their deaths and celebrity status.

Michael Jackson wasn't that much older than me, so I guess you could say we grew up together. When I was a little boy he was the little boy lead singer of the Jackson 5, though I was probably more familiar with the Saturday morning cartoon Michael than the flesh and blood performer. When the cartoon was cancelled to make room for Speed Buggy or Hong Kong Phooey or something like that, I promptly put him out of my mind. Plus, the Jackson 5 disappeared from Top-40 radio, as did most black acts in the late '70s. When Michael came roaring back in the early '80s, I was at first unsure if this taller, thinner guy was the same cartoon kid I once knew.

I have to say I didn't particularly like Michael Jackson back then. At the time I was a fan of the stripped down rock of folks like Bruce Springsteen and Bob Segar, whereas Jackson sounded a bit too disco for my tastes. Plus, I like to make up my own mind whether I like somebody or not. That became almost impossible with Jackson. I'd turn on MTV and it was RESISTANCE IS FUTILE--YOU WILL LIKE MICHAEL JACKSON. Yes, I know, he "broke the barrier" for black artists on MTV. In that case, they should have played more Stevie Wonder or Patty Labelle. No, just Michael, Michael, Michael. If you said you didn't like, or was merely indifferent to, Michael Jackson, then you might as well deny it three times as the rooster crows. Or get struck by lightning on the way to Damascus. Now that Jacko belongs to the ages, the PR groupie fascist hard sell has started up all over again. Watching Larry King or Keith Olbermann ask people about Jackson's talent, I noticed that more then a few mentioned, without any sense of irony, his popularity. I'm sorry, folks, but before I plunk down money for one of his albums, it has to sound good to my ears, not yours.

This confusing popularity with talent seems to have come from Jackson himself. Upon the release of Bad, his follow-up to Thriller, which had sold around 40 million copies in the early '80s, he had the words 100 MILLION taped to his mirror. This is how many copies of Bad he hoped to sell in a single year. In order to sell that many in 1987, roughly half the population of the United States would have had to buy a copy. Half of the head bangers would have had to buy a copy. Half of the country music fans would have had to buy a copy. Half of the classical music fans would have had to buy a copy. Half of the jazz fans would have had to buy a copy. Half the of the Deadheads would have had to buy a copy. Half of the punk rockers would have had to buy a copy. Even half of the Lennon Sisters fans would have had to buy a copy. In the end, Bad sold about 30 million copies, and that was over a 20 year period. Whatever my feelings about his music, I did occasionally admire Jackson's individuality and nonconformity, but I don't think he himself especially admired those traits in others. He just expected everyone else to be a record buying zombie.

About that individuality and nonconformity, Michael Jackson spent a lot of time cultivating an image of a man who wouldn't let go of his inner child, what with naming his ranch Neverland, filling it with amusement park rides, and giving interviews where he claimed to believe in magic. Strangely, he didn't seem to channel any of that childhood wonderment into his art. At least not from Thriller on. Thanks to all the media coverage, I've spent the last few days becoming reacquainted with Jackson's music. My tastes have expanded considerably since 1982, so I think I can listen to these songs with an open mind. I was struck by the edginess, the grittiness, that Jackson brought to a music form that I'd written off as disco (which I no longer believe "sucks".) For someone with an asexual image, he actually sang about sex quite a bit (straight sex: "girl" this, "girl" that.) I've heard absolutely nothing about the joys of childhood. No childlike whimsy along the lines of "Yellow Submarine". The only song about a child that I'm aware of is "Billie Jean" and in that he's denying paternity. I've also noticed that his high pitched voice occasionally had a growling, snarling intensity. If you only knew Michael Jackson from listening to Thriller, you might think this was one bad motherfucker. I'm serious about this! And as for how he looked when he performed those songs, ever notice he scowled when he sang? In one video he looked so pissed (while clutching his crotch) I think Johnny Rotten might be reluctant to cross him. And what about the names of some of those albums? Bad. Dangerous. This is kid stuff only if it's 11:PM and you don't know where those kids are.

So, can Jackson's childhood wonderment ever be reconciled with his sometimes dark music? Apparently not beyond a reasonable doubt...

Unlike Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett's passing was no surprise. Indeed, there's been practically a media death watch over her these last couple months. More than once I've logged into The Huffington Post and seen, usually from the corner of my eye, such morbid headlines as FARRAH TOO WEAK TO LIFT HER HEAD. The irony is that when it finally happened, it was within hours overshadowed by the death of you-know-who.

Farrah Fawcett was the reigning sex queen of my teenage years. She wasn't, however, my personal sex queen. Just as I don't like people telling me whether I should like Michael Jackson or not, so, too, I prefer to decide for myself whom I find attractive. Actually, I did think she was attractive, but so was Jacqueline Smith, Kate Jackson, Cheryl Tiegs, Suzanne Sommers, Christie Brinkley, Rachael Welch, Goldie Hawn, Linda Carter, Loni Anderson, Angie Dickenson, Jacqueline Bisset, Deborah Harry, Diana Ross, Charo, Lindsey Wagner, Barbi Benton, Catherine Bach, Bo Derek, Adrienne Barbeau, Jayne Kennedy, Olivia Newton John, Valerie Perrine, Barbara Bach, Jennifer O'Neill, Jill St. John, Carol Wayne, Lola Falana, Susan Dey, Roz Kelly, Randi Oakes, Linda Day George, Elaine Joyce, Leslie Ann Warren, Leslie Ann Downs, whoever played Nurse Goodbody on Hee Haw, and the lady that succeeded Farrah on Charlie's Angels, Cheryl Ladd.

Now that I've got that out of my system, I have to say that I watched some sort of retrospective on Farrah the other night, with a lot of clips from the '70s, and, GOD, SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL. It wasn't, as far as I'm concerned, the hair, or the teeth, or the high cheekbones. It was the eyes. She had beautiful eyes. If she had been bald, toothless, and had Nixonian jowls, but nevertheless still had those eyes, she would have been beautiful.

Farrah Fawcett later proved to be an excellent dramatic actress. Well, she proved that to everyone but me. I'm only halfway convinced. When it came to facial expressions, yes, she was good. She could look happy, sad, terrified, mortified, excited, bored, curious, the whole gamut of human emotions. And she could cry, with actual tears streaming down her face. That can't be easy. The problem for me was when she opened her mouth. I could always tell she was reciting lines she had earlier memorized. That what acting is, of course, but I don't need to be reminded of it.

Then there's Farrah's famous poster. This might be what put me slightly off of her for so many years. Here's what's bugged me about it.

She wasn't wearing a bikini.

OK, you're now probably thinking I'm being picky, or sexist, or both. Well, I'm not. In real life, I'd gladly settle for an attractive woman, or halfway attractive woman, or quarterway attractive woman, or one-eighthway attractive woman, or one-sixteenthway attractive woman, in a one piece bathing suit. Beggars can't be choosers.

But a poster isn't real life. A poster is a poster. A beggar can choose. And, dammit, if I'm going to hang a beautiful, sexy woman on my wall, I want her in a bikini!

(I have a thing for belly buttons, OK?!?!)

Finally, there's Ed McMahon. While I can't say I was actually a "fan" of his, I liked him well enough. I don't think Ed was even expected to have a fan base. His role in life was to make anyone who did have a fan base look good. Johnny Carson, of course, but also any celebrity sitting in between him and Johnny. He could even rein in Jerry Lewis on the telethon (he always announced a tote board number at the most opportune moment, such as when Jerry was crying, throwing a fit, or laughing wildly as he tried to eat his mike.) This is why Ed was such an appropriate host for Star Search. He made the contestants look good. If they won, they might become celebrities, go on The Tonight Show, and Ed McMahon could make them look good all over again.

Chris Matthews, taking a break from politics the other night, pointed out that Ed was a conduit for the audience. He was the audience. He was one of us.

Except, of course, he got paid to be one of us.

Monday, June 22, 2009


If you bothered to read them, you might have noticed my last few "Recommended Reading" links have dealt with health care reform. I haven't written anything about the subject myself because, I figured, those guys are experts and can explain it a lot better than I ever could, especially when big words are involved. But now I feel I have to write about health care as it's all I can think about, especially after catching an old episode of Marcus Welby last night and thinking I might be coming down with the same symptoms as Special Guest Star Pat Harrington (his eyebrows were thinning out at an alarming rate...)

First up, "single payer", where the government pays for everything. This is the system Canada, Britain, and France has, but those countries, according to critics of single payer, are "nanny states". So? Fran Drescher has been wanting to go into politics, anyway. And didn't these critics ever watch Mary Poppins as kids? As a nanny, she was practically perfect in every way. She was also oddly alluring, wearing that tight-fitting Edwardian governess outfit, and seductively cooing "Chim Chim Cheree" (OK, I was a weird kid.) Anyway, according to the critics, we need a system that's "uniquely American", which actually pretty much describes the current system, what with it's 16% (as of ten minutes ago; more layoff announcements pending) of the population without any kind of coverage other than the police asking you to move along if you start having a seizure in front of an entrance to a dollar store. If we really need a uniquely American health system, can't the doctors, nurses, and orderlies just add red and blue to their basic white? Besides, there's things we use every day that came from somewhere else. Like our arithmetic. We got that from the people whom lately we've been so at odds with, the Arabs. And how about our language? It ain't called Americish.

Another reason we can't have single payer, according to none other than our President, is Americans have traditionally received their health care though their employers. I don't know. At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans, and pretty much everyone else, had traditionally traveled on horseback, had traditionally lit their houses with candles, and had traditionally relieved themselves outside (or in pots that they then had to dump outside), yet we somehow managed to break free of such traditions (so much so that we now tremble in fear whenever environmentalists warn us we might have to go back.)

Single payer is off the table. The public just won't stand for it. Assuming the public even knows what it is. Single payer has been so absent from the current debate, that if you asked the average Joe to define it, he may think it either has something to do with an unmarried couple going Dutch, or it's the opposite of a joint tax return.

Then there's the "public option". Under this plan we would still have private insurance, but it would compete with one run by the government. No one much likes this, either. Well, according to the latest polls, 70% of the public do like it, but we're not talking people who count. The President usually counts, and has been publicly in favor of such an option. There are rumors, however, that he's willing to drop it so as to not rile up the Republican minority. After two humiliating election cycles, he must feel those folks have suffered enough. Just what don't the Republicans (and some "blue dog" Democrats) like about a public option? They claim it's an invitation for the government to "meddle" with your health care. Perhaps. But we're talking competition here. You can either choose to have the government meddle with your health care, or, if you're an ardent laissez-fairest, you can opt to be turned away by a private company for a pre-existing condition.

Finally, there's mandates. Just force everybody to get insurance. Well, that's one way to achieve universal coverage. The private companies have no problem with mandates as long as it's THEIR insurance everyone is forced to get (although they still want the option, the private option, to turn people away.)

I wonder if we could solve other social problems with mandates. Poverty, say. Just make it against the law to be poor. Or homelessness. You legally have to live somewhere.

Then there's murder, rape, assault, burglary, and theft. Those problems need to be addressed.

Let's make crime a crime.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Vital Viewing

Still politically incorrect. Thank God.

Blog Verite: Floored

I was driving along and saw a guy on the side of the road carrying a sign that said this:


Guess it's a liquidation liquidation.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Blog Verite: Rap Resume

Overheard at a jobs fair:

"They have to hire me. I have only two felonies on my record!"

Sunday, June 14, 2009

God's Odds

I am not a religious person. I haven't written off the idea of a supreme being, but neither have I committed it to incombustible paper and indelible ink. At best, Our Heavenly Father is scrawled on a Denny's napkin with one of those little pencils they give you at putt-putt golf and filed away between a rejected Jack and Jill Magazine manuscript (I shouldn't have patterned the talking squirrel after Simon Cowell, and the kidnapped princess after Amy Winehouse), and a rough draft (written with a Sharpie marker on the back of some High School Musical -themed holiday wrapping paper) of a pilot script for a proposed Englebert Humperdinck sitcom. I'm sorry, but stuck as I am on this third rock from the Sun (I've got a decade old rejection slip from them, too, along with a Jane Curtin refrigerator magnet), I see no evidence of divine intervention, divine revelation, miracles, guardian angels, the supernatural, the paranormal, Bewitched -caliber magic, or an 8-ball reading not fraught with internal contradictions. The closest I've ever come to spiritual transcendence is the occasional coincidence.

The occasional coincidence.

That might be something to grasp at, a reason to make that leap of faith. If you could only form a religion around a coincidence. Only problem is what often happens after a coincidence occurs, which is often nothing.

I remember once I was driving home and decided to put on an oldies station. The first song to come on was "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head". About halfway through the song, guess what happened? It started to rain! I pulled my car to the side of the road, got out, and started dancing with joy. A coincidence had occurred! Suddenly, the universe made sense! Hallelujah!

Just as suddenly, landing smack dab in a puddle, it made no sense at all. What exactly was I supposed to do next? Cast aside all my possessions and follow B.J. Thomas to the ends of the Earth? I didn't even know where the hell B.J. Thomas was! Was he still alive? Was he performing in Branson, Missouri? Was he on The Surreal World ? So many questions. So few answers.

No, if you were going to form a religion based on a coincidence, I'm afraid it would need some other savior than B.J. Thomas. Well, I suppose you could also throw in Burt Bacharach and Hal David. That would be some Holy Trinity, wouldn't it? Still, it just doesn't seem weighty enough. It doesn't seem historic enough.

There are indeed historic coincidences. One involves September 11 and the twenty dollar bill. It came out shortly after the terrorist attacks that if you fold a twenty a certain way, you'll have a picture of what looks like the twin towers on fire. And if you fold it another way, you'll get a burning Pentagon. Well, that's certainly a historic coincidence. But there's already too much religion surrounding the events of September 11. And as for the twenty dollar bill, I think our society worships money enough as it is.

When I was a kid I had a comic book that featured an ad for a two-headed Lincoln penny. Why Lincoln's head was on both sides of this penny, I have no idea. I suppose it could have been a mistake made at the mint, thus worth a lot of money, but numismatists have their own publications, don't they? I suppose the coin could be fake, but a counterfeiter is taking quite a risk advertising in a comic book. Don't G-men read X-men? Anyway, in a kind of sidebar, this ad contained some amazing coincidences between the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, such as:

Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846. John F. Kennedy was elected to congress in 1946.

Lincoln was elected President in 1860, Kennedy in 1960.

The names Lincoln and Kennedy both contain seven letters.

Both were involved with civil rights.

Both lost children while living in the White House.

Both were shot on a Friday.

Both were shot in the head.

Both were assassinated by Southerners.

Both successors were named Johnson.

Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was born in 1808. Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded Kennedy, was born in 1908.

John Wilkes Booth was born in 1839. Lee Harvey Oswald in 1939.

Both assassins are known by their three names.

Both assassins names are comprised of fifteen letters.

Booth shot Lincoln in a theater and was caught in a warehouse. Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and was caught in a theater.

WOW! Those are coincidences of historic proportions, ones you could build a major religion around. Welcome to the Church of Coincidental Assassinations. Lincoln could be the Old Testament, Kennedy the New. And just as Judaism has Jerusalem, Catholicism has Rome, and Islam has Mecca, so, too, this religion could have Dealey Plaza as a place of pilgrimage. Or maybe it should be Ford Theater. Hmmm. I see a possible schism developing.

Another historic coincidence involves the very founding of our country. On July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, both signatories to the document, died within hours of each other. Well, I don't have to tell you the religious implications of that coincidence. The United States is God, and God is the United States. American exceptionalism by divine decree! We can do anything, because God is always on our side! We can invade other countries! We can invade countries with oil fields...

As with any religion, any god, doubt always rears its ugly head.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Quips and Quotations

In ancient times, cats were worshipped as Gods. Cats have not forgotten this.

--Terry Pratchett

Recommended Reading

Club Med

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Blog Verite: Flyover

Watching the "Jaywalking" segment on the final The Tonight Show with Jay Leno reminded me of this exchange at work a couple years back.

A woman had recently spent her vacation in North Carolina, and on her first day back at work she wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Kitty Hawk".

Another woman walked up to her and asked, "What's Kitty Hawk?"

"You never heard of Kitty Hawk?"


"How about the Wright Brothers? Ever hear of them?"

"Oh, yeah. They sang "You Lost That Lovin' Feeling".

Orville and Wilbur Righteous.

Friday, June 5, 2009

In Memoriam: David Carradine 1936-2009

Actor. Kung Fu, Death Race 2000, Kill Bill I&II

"I don't need to convince anybody that I know kung fu, but maybe somebody needs to know that I really can act, without doing a Chinese accent or funny walk."

Monday, June 1, 2009

Interrogation Irritation

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

--Amendment V, U.S. Constitution

You have a right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights?

--Joe Friday, Dragnet 1967

That second quote is actually what's known as a "Miranda warning", but I first became aware of it watching decade old Dragnets in the 1970s. Joe Friday said it in every episode. Much more so than, say, Ironside or Colombo or Starsky and Hutch, but that's because those guys would tell some underling (and bit player), "OK, read 'em their rights!" So the rights did get read. But that Joe Friday, he did it himself. He didn't even pass on the responsibility to Harry Morgan! He was one right Joe, all right. However, many years later I watched some even older Dragnets , from the 1950s, and while it was a lot like the later version, there were three significant differences. It was in black-and-white, someone other than Harry Morgan played Friday's partner, and Friday never, ever said the Miranda warning. Simply because the Miranda warning did not yet exist. What a difference ten years make!

Although the warning didn't exist during Dragnet's original run, the fifth amendment did, though people then, and now, associated it with something a defendant in a trial says as he's being harassed by a prosecuting attorney: "I'll take the Fifth!" But, either way, what exactly is the point? Why can't somebody say something that will be used against them in a court of law? Why can't they be compelled in a criminal case to be a witness against themselves?

The answer is torture.

For most of our nation's history, the idea was that if the cops tortured a confession out of someone, at the very least that someone had a chance to recant it in court. Of course, there was always the possibility that the jury might disregard the recantation, and just go with the original confession. So, shortly before the second Dragnet aired, it was decided not only could you take the Fifth in court, but also before hand. Way before hand. From the moment you were arrested. And the cops had to tell you you could do this. And that you were allowed to have an attorney present, so in case something went wrong during questioning, the attorney could say, "Hey! Stop torturing my client!"

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney is thought by some to have condoned the use of torture against prisoners taken in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's a growing drumbeat that he should be investigated, and even tried in court, for condoning such torture. If he is investigated, and if he is tried, and if some prosecuting attorney does harass him about it in court, well, he has an out.

He can take the Fifth.

If Cheney chooses, out of the goodness of his heart, not to take the Fifth, what might he say? Well, the Fifth Amendment does make an exception "in time of War". That just leaves the Geneva Convention to worry about.

There's also the mitigating factors, such as ticking time bombs. This, I'm told, is a popular excuse for torture on the TV show 24 (can't Keifer Sutherland ever arrest anybody before they set the damn timer?)

This all sort of assumes that cops, soldiers, and secret agents never make mistakes. I don't mean mistakenly torturing somebody, I mean mistakenly torturing the WRONG somebody. Do they always get their man?

Aside from the legalities, there's both a moral, and a logical argument against torture. The moral argument is that torture is , well, immoral. The logical argument is that someone under torture will lie, tell you what you what you want to know, and what good is that information?

Now it's coming out that Cheney didn't want people tortured to prevent ticking time bombs, but rather to find some sort of connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11. Now, again, I ask you, what good is that information? If some prisoner had lied about such a connection, we would have just gone to war under false pretense.


There might be some tortured logic here, after all.