Psalm: Dystopia






From man’s blood-sodden heart are sprung

Those branches of the night and day

Where the gaudy moon is hung.

What’s the meaning of all song?

‘Let all things pass away.’

                                                WB Yeats, “Vacillation”


Once upon a time,

and a very good time it was,

before we put seeds in the ground,

the gods lived inside the snake,

inside the bush, inside of us.


After the capture of the seed,

the plants lost their souls

as the folk toiled

beneath the eyes of a watchful god —

or so they thought.


But over the centuries, as they reaped and sowed,

the sky god began to shrink, to wither

into little more than a whisper.


Later, citizens polished their pianos,

and the factories spewed their soot,

and the dead carp floated upon the lake,

and the coral disappeared from the seas,

which rose year after year –

to reclaim the trade-seared land.


Shadow Boxing Earlier in the Day: Clay vs. Ali

cassius_clayIn my boyhood, before adolescence, I began each day by retrieving the newspaper from what we called the front porch, though, in truth, it was more like an elevated stoop, a 6 x 6 concrete slab. If there were a big story, like the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, I’d read it right there, or if there were an untelevised sporting event I cared about, I’d rip open the sports section to discover the outcome. That was the case on 25 February 1964 when Cassius Clay, as he was called in those days, upset Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. It was the outcome I had fervently hoped for, and it had happened, despite 7 to 1 odds. I remember sitting on the steps of the stoop, reading the account that included the accusation that Liston had thrown some type of blinding powder in Clay’s eyes.

My father had been an amateur boxer in his youth, a welterweight who developed his skills on the sidewalks of Spring Street in Charleston, SC, during the Depression. Every Friday night he’d watch the fights broadcast on the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports as he sat on the sofa smoking cigarette after cigarette, leaning into the television, screaming suggestions to the combatants even though they were hundreds of miles away at Madison Square Garden. He had bought my brother and me boxing gloves and roped off the living room and taught us how to box, to crouch, to throw punches with our “hips” instead of our “arms.” I hated it, being at once weak, blinky, and adverse to pain.

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

My father in his Spring Street Days, aged 15

But I did enjoy watching the matches, and we liked “Cassius Clay,” because he was funny, brash, clever, a rhymer, and, I’m sorry to say, perhaps because he was “light-skinned,” unlike Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.   Clay, and later, Ali, was also too aware of this distinction in skin tones. Here’s a snippet from Robert Lipsyte’s superb obituary from the Times:

But Ali had his hypocrisies, or at least inconsistencies. How could he consider himself a “race man” yet mock the skin color, hair and features of other African-Americans, most notably Joe Frazier his rival and opponent in three classic matches? Ali called him “the gorilla,” and long afterward Frazier continued to express hurt and bitterness.

Ali would also play upon racial and ethnic stereotypes. Here is a joke he told at a fundraiser in Louisville in 2005:

“If a black man, a Mexican and a Puerto Rican are sitting in the back of a car, who’s driving? Give up? The po-lice.”

And here he is explaining to a Soviet reporter in 1960 why he’s proud to be an American citizen.

“It may be hard to get something to eat sometimes, but anyhow I ain’t fighting alligators and living in a mud hut.”

In some ways, like my father, he was a man of his times.

However, even though these quips might have gotten Ali dis-invited from a speaking engagement at Oberlin, in the course of his life, he displayed more courage than any other athlete I can think of. Ali was a man of his convictions, willing to make unpopular brand-tarnishing decisions like converting to the Nation of Islam and facing the prospect of prison for refusing to be drafted into the Viet Nam War. “I ain’t got nothing against them Vietcong,” he said, adding, “They ain’t never called me no [racial expletive].”

And Ali sacrificed three prime years when boxing commissions around the country stripped him of his titles, and although the backlash was fierce and many journalists refused to call him by his new name, he earned the respect over time for his principled stands, and, even my father, not exactly a devotee of Malcolm X, continued to pull for Ali upon his return to the ring.

Perhaps it was because Ali was such a beautiful, graceful fighter, poetry –not doggerel — in motion or because he was so witty, possessed such a generous spirit, and these attributes transcended by father’s homegrown prejudices.  Later in life Ali said, “Color doesn’t make a man a devil. It’s the heart and soul and mind that count. What’s on the outside is only decoration.”

At any rate, it says something positive about our nation that at his death Muhammad Ali was virtually universally admired by his fellow citizens, even, it would seem, Donald Trump.

All leave you with this ditty from the great Bob Dylan:


I was shadow-boxing earlier in the day

I figured I was ready for Cassius Clay

I said “Fee, fie, fo, fum, Cassius Clay, here I come

26, 27, 28, 29, I’m gonna make your face look just like mine

Five, four, three, two, one, Cassius Clay you’d better run

99, 100, 101, 102, your ma won’t even recognize you

14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, gonna knock him clean right out of his spleen”



The Big-Boned Lady Has Sung

fat lady 1.0

If you believe the pundits – and why should you given that virtually every one of them emphatically assured us that Donald J Trump would never be the Republican nominee? Anyway, if you believe the pundits, they claim that Hillary Clinton’s so-called foreign policy speech Thursday was “a turning point in the campaign.”   If I had the time and patience, I could perhaps construct one of those rapid-fire montages that the Daily Show made famous: [cut to Eugene Robinson: “turning point,” cut to Rachel Maddow: “turning point,” cut to Hendrik Hertzberg, “turning point,”]. A turning point, I assume, in that Clinton has gone from reactive to proactive, has taken control of the news cycle.

People were expecting a boring speech on national security, but instead they got sardonic stand up:

”There’s no risk of people losing their lives if you blow up a golf course deal.”

“Donald Trump says, ‘I know more about ISIS than the generals do. Believe me.’ Well, [semi-eye roll] I don’t believe him.”

The speech was well delivered, more conversational, less strident.

Not surprisingly, Clinton didn’t mention her foreign policy legacy during the speech, the vote on the Iraq war, the debacle in Libya, etc. Essentially, she used Trump’s own words to illustrate just how unstable, intemperate, and megalomaniacal he is, something Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio were loath to do until it was too late. Obviously, Clinton has nothing to lose by alienating the Republican base, that fraying quilt of evangelists, secessionists, country club members, and unreconstructed Confederates.

It may also be a turning point in that on the Friday before the New Jersey and California primaries none of the pundits were talking about the Democratic horserace.

To politically correctly emend that operatic cliché, “the big-boned lady has sung.”

Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee, and she might be more of an effective campaigner than we had imagined.

A Tiny Tribute to Ry Cooder


Ry Cooder is an underappreciated American treasure. Although his exquisite studio session work (with bands as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Captain Beefheart, and Paul Revere and the Raiders) has been invaluable and his delightful original compositions often remarkable, it is his work as an archivist that has enriched my musical knowledge and refined my musical tastes.

Cooder’s an excavator of buried treasures, a discoverer of exotic, beautiful music, whether it be from the Mississippi Delta, Mexico, Cuba, India, or Sub-Saharan Africa. He’s sort of a medium – a vessel through which these songs are filtered and then transformed into a mode that preserves their essence but makes them new.

Check this out, for example, a cover of Washington Phillips’ obscure gospel song “Denomination Blues” from Cooder’s second studio album Into the Purple Valley, released in 1972.

This snippet embodies a remarkable paradox of Cooder’s music — his recordings of dated songs never sound dated — they sound the opposite of stale.

His fourth album, Chicken Skin Music, might be my favorite. On this record, Ry embraces both Hawaiian and Tex-Mex music. Essentially, he blends those formats into country and blues numbers. For example, here are legendary Hawaiian musicians Gabby Pahinui and Atta Isaacs contributing to this old Hank Snow tune:


Chicken Skin Music also features for the first time now long-time collaborator Flaco Jimenez and his diatonic button accordion. Here they are doing Jim Reeves’ 1959 “He’ll Have to Go” in bolero rhythm.

Not to give you the wrong impression; the cat can also rock, as he does in this cover of Elvis’s “Little Sister,” from the 1979 album Bop Till You Drop, the first major label album ever to be digitally recorded.

Of course, in recent years, Ry’s justly become famous for his collaborations with Cuban musicians in The Buena Vista Social Club, the Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, and the Indian sitar player Vishwa Mohan Bhatt.

Here’s a short clip from the Touré collaboration.

Add to that concept albums like Chavez Ravine, My Name Is Buddy, not mention his work with Little Village, the band he formed with John Hiatt, Nick Lowe, and Jim Keltner, and you have a body of work deserving of some sort of Presidential Medal.

I bet in a 100 years Cooder’s recording will not have aged – and that’s always been the test of great art. So c’mon President Biden, Let’s get goin’.