(I Done Got) Levitation at Psych Fest 2015

by Bob Simmons

Tommy Hall at Levitation 2015

P1290296

Sitting in the shiny Airstream trailer looking at Tommy Hall and seeing him for the first time since 1968, is what, like 46 years? We are at the 2015 Reverberation “Psych Fest” in Austin, with its nearly 70 bands, 20,000 people and one or two old hippies that one can use to compare and contrast. And who would do that better than Tommy, a walking talking true cultural artifact if there ever was one.

Tommy Hall 1966
Tommy Hall

I am awash in remembrance of what it was like all those years ago when the 13th Floor Elevators were encouraging their fans to ‘let it happen to you.’ As a student at UT in the 60’s I admit gladly that I was one of those who decided to indeed let it happen, in fact, to work actively to make it happen to me and anyone else who would listen. Proselytizing ‘R Us some cynics might have said. But hey, if it worked for the Beatles, Jimi, and everyone in Golden Gate Park, why not for us? Pass the sacrament Jack. Just put the little Janis blotter stamp on your tongue and let nature take its course.

(actual blotter acid stamp, do not lick screen)
http://www.telebob.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/blotter-acid-singer.jpg

Many know the story of Roky and the Elevators, but for the quick recap, the group was Austin’s contribution to the turmoil and art of the 60’s by being one of the nation’s first ‘psychedelic’ bands with their driving bass and drum lines, reverb guitar, and an angelic screaming kid singing anthems about the inner places in your brain that could be accessed only by chemical gonzo. Who wouldn’t love that? And what was that unearthly ethereal whooping sound weaving around behind the guitar parts? Was it a bird, an instrument? What?

Texas teens, post teens, and hipsters flocked to their shows in the late 60’s. At the same time Texas Rangers, cops and sheriffs hated them and stalked them at every turn, to the point that some of them were arrested right off stage during a show. One could never say the Elevators were ‘discreet’ as to what they were all about. Lore has it that Roky was a constant user of LSD and other psychedelics, four, five, six hundred trips? It was said that it was at Tommy Hall’s urging that the band needed to be tripping to play to a turned on audience. And indeed, all too briefly, the band and their audiences did achieve what they called Levitation. It wasn’t carefully crafted Beatles music; it wasn’t updated dirty blues like the Stones; it was pound your brain, bass-thumping energy and attitude combined with high-minded lyrics in the most literal sense of ‘high-minded.’ The music was that of a legend foretold whose echoes are with us still.

But like Icarus, the band flew a bit too close to the sun, and the crash ended with a dead guitarist, a lead singer in the State Hospital for the criminally insane in Rusk, Texas receiving hundreds of shock treatments, not to mention some less than excellent recordings and worse recording contracts, plus every other curse that could befall a band that today should have a special alcove in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Snakebit, is what they was.

Elevators onstage at La Maison, Houston, TX 1966
Elevators in Houston 1966

Tommy Hall, the Elevators founder’s genesis and journey was not unlike that of a lot of other seekers at the time. Baby beatniks or Yearning hicks is what Tom Wolfe called the syndrome. At least that’s what Wolfe called Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters in the days of the Acid Tests, and ‘we’ were not all that different, except we lived in Austin, Texas, which, at the time, seemed to some of us sort of a jerkwater backwoods place suitable only for leaving. We were all trapped in Ozzie and Harriet land, Patty Pageville, Squaresville, USA, and mainly we wanted out. Geographically, mentally and philosophically we sensed there was big change in the air, and we were anxious to help be its agents.

Tommy was one of the prophets of that chemical revolution (Better Living Through Chemistry), and he found that rock music was a fine way to get his cosmology and philosophy out to the lumpen. Unfortunately, there were a lot of other people who were resistant to the blandishments of the Age of Aquarius or what the hell it was supposed to turn out to be. You know, straight people, so they were anxious to provide jail, prison, expulsion, or just a random beating by the rednecks for daring to step into the coming paradigm. It was something that sadly Tommy and Roky came to know intimately.

It seemed to me that Tommy was an exemplary of the ‘let’s transcend all this bullshit and get behind the veil of Māyā. He had been a part of the Ghetto/Ranger crowd at UT who liked to go to the folk-sing, hang out at the UT Chuck Wagon, and if I remember correctly, he had a penchant for the mystical writings of Gurdjieff, Herman Hesse, and the Indian Vedas. Tommy too, like many of us, was keeping up with the happenings of our spiritual brethren on the East and West Coasts. He wanted to write, and he wanted to write about serious topics like consciousness and cosmic human experience. Some of the rest of us experimenters were less serious, cynical, perhaps hard-bitten, anti-religious, atheists and jokesters. If it wasn’t funny, then it didn’t count. But with Tommy, it was all serious business. Think Alan Watts meets Joel Osteen. This was all a long time ago on W. 35th Street in Austin, Texas before the commodification of hip, before tattoos became a sign of middle class anxiety.

So now, all these years later, Tommy is there, sitting across from me in that little aluminum trailer. He has a big stack of Franklin’s BBQ on the table between us. Brisket and beef ribs. I can see from the pile of bones that the flavorful succulent nature of the Franklin’s ‘Q’ is not lost on him. It’s probably been a very long time since he has been treated so much like royalty, but that’s what is on his menu tonight, a good hotel, rides in limos, decent chow, all that stuff that a rock star should experience. King for a day. So, what should I say to him after so many years? Not that we were ever close. “Hey man, you holdin’?” seems inappropriate.

I choose,“How do you like that Franklin’s BBQ?” for my icebreaker. Tommy immediately acknowledges that it is exceptional. Surprise! He is no vegan, maybe even not a good Buddhist, but he goes on, “I understand that Franklin was trained by John Mueller.” Wow! In spite of all those years in California, Tommy hasn’t forgotten his roots. My own knowledge of ‘Q’ is not so great, but I do know that John Mueller was Louis Mueller’s of Taylor, Texas son, and a recognized heir of one of the lionized names of Texas BBQ. Tommy seems to know all this too and more. I wonder how someone who lives holed up in a cave in the Tenderloin of San Francisco could be up to date on Texas BBQ.

Others wonder if he can still play the electric jug or if he is up for explaining his cosmic theories, but I am more curious about his preternatural awareness of BBQ. Does the Texas zeitgeist radiate out to Tex-ex-pats in the world and keep them apprised of the minutiae of Texana culture? Has Tommy been pondering the theories of Steven Hawking and barbeque in the same brain? If I had been on my toes I would have asked him about his opinion on the Church of the SubGenius. (Look it up, it started in Dallas.) It would be a funny answer, I’m quite sure of it.

As we chat, a brand new Cadillac Escalade pulls up in front, and out pops Roky Erickson, the voice, the front man for the Elevators and others for all these years, accompanied by his son Jegar and his wife, Dana. He is in a smiling good mood though not saying much. In some ways the whole event of Reverberation and the Psych Fest is an homage to him and his saga, so why not be happy? Thousands of adoring fans are waiting at the Reverberation stage to be anointed by his presence. All hail bleib alien! (watch-“You’re Gonna Miss Me”)

Harsher critics might ask, “How’d he get so old, gray, and um, girthful? But if they knew his full story, they would be astounded that he is today still up on the boards, singing and playing at age 68 or so, and not sounding half bad. All those shock treatments, all those trips, all that bad food, yet here he is like the Unsinkable Molly Brown floating above all the fray, unflappable, stoic, calm.

A good day for Roky and Ronnie (what’s that on his head?)
Ronnie and Roky

It’s actually another triumph for Roky and the rest of the surviving 13th Floor Elevators. There has been attrition of course. Stacy Sutherland, the band’s original guitarist was shot by his wife sometime in the seventies, Benny Thurman, the bassist died only a few years ago, but taking the stage tonight will be Tommy Hall as lyricist and jug player, drummer John Ike Walton, bassist Ronnie Leatherman, and the almost wraith like return of their indestructible vocalist, Roger Kynard Erickson. Filling out the roster is guitarist Fred Mitchim (who also heads up a band called The Tommy Hall Schedule) and a new lead guitarist Eli Southard who also plays with Roky’s son’s group. It’s an important reunion… so important that Sean Lennon and some of the Flaming Lips drop by to pay their respects to the Buddha after Sean’s own rather spirited performance at around sunset.

Sean Lennon comes to say ‘hi’ to Roky (yikes lady, thanks, but I gotta go)
Sen says, 'yikes!'

Still there in the trailer, I don’t want to set Tommy off to talking about the cosmos, so I ask about San Franciso. It turns out that psychedelic guru Tommy is worried about the San Francisco Giants and how ‘The Freak’ Tim Lincecum is going to do this year. It figures in a way that Tommy, who is known for espousing the odd combination of right wing politics combined with an advocacy of LSD for the masses, would be a major league baseball fan. I mull over the strange interface of how one could be busy talking about the universal oversoul, drug consciousness, eastern mysticism, and still merge those topics to the soundtrack of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh lambasts. As someone once wisely said, “There are many mysteries.” Not to mention that I too am worried about the Giants’ health, Buster Posey and whether Matt Cain’s flexor tendon would heal in time for the All Star Game. Never mind tales of peyote mush cooking on the stove back in the dim mists of the 60’s. We’ve got Dodgers to pound into the mud hole.

Suddenly our tête-à-tête is over as Tommy is whisked away by a camera crew for an interview. I am told by Elevator’s biographer Paul Drummond that this is Tommy’s first on-camera interview ever, though he has spoken to the print press now and then about his early days of prophesy in the hinterlands, but never before in full color high def TV. I can only remember Dick Clark asking him on American Bandstand in 1966 who the head of the group was, and Tommy replied, “We’re all heads.” One of TV’s shorter interrogations. Perhaps we will see Tommy conversing with a generous interlocutor someday on YouTube or Vimeo. I can’t wait, really.

So, to the stage. I count the crowd out front of the Elevators at seven to eight thousand. A fairly impressive turnout with a mix of millennials, a few old greybeards, and a huge herd of 25-35’s in various forms of festive garb and adornment. The crowd is ‘mellow,’ kind of like they’re all on Prozac, but warm and accepting. It reminds me of once when I went to see the Popemobile go by. People waiting to be blessed. It definitely is not Woodstock, nor is it Altamont. I don’t even sense that there are a lot of people who have been ‘psychedlecized’ tonight in the audience. Hardly anyone seems to be smoking dope or whacked on X. Definitely no ‘bath salts’ behavior.

A crowd gathers for the ceremony
Reverberation Audience for Elevators

Nor do I see one person on a bad trip in the first aid tent! No babies being born or people being stabbed to death onstage. Yawn. Not even a sign of police presence uniformed or undercover. What kind of rock festival is this? At least a Willie concert you would see dozens of Highway Patrolmen and local sheriffs hoping to get near the stage. Busting hippies must be now out of vogue with Travis County law enforcement personnel. Another mystery for me, the old ragged claw scuttling between the Airstreams.

The Elevators walk onstage amidst a cloud of mist and into a fabulous light show that would make a flea circus look impressive. Hats off to the tech of the presentation. The sound is great, the lights are world class, and Roky bangs into “She Lives in a Time of Her Own,” a thoroughly appropriate kick off tune from the “Levitation” stage. His voice is rough, his singing antics reduced to an occasional microphone grab or hand wave, but there is still magic in the tunes, and the band backing him is tight. Ronnie Leatherman, Benny Thurman’s replacement, and John Ike Walton the original drummer are not playing bad for old guys. Eli Southard has Stacy’s guitar parts down cold. They miscount a few bars every now and then, but a little slop in rock and roll is always allowed if the spirit is there.

Elevators Onstage Now
Elevators onstage now

They’ve granted me access to the stage and the pit in front, so I’m able to get a few good photos of the band, and even a little video. It’s not pro, and probably not as good as the shots I got in black and white at the 1966 Houston shows, but what is as good as it was ‘back then?’ I’m happy enough to share some ‘then and now’ with you here at The Rag Blog.

Houston, TX – La Maison 1966 Then
13th Floor Elevators -La Maison from rear

Tommy and Roky- Austin, TX –Reverberation 2015
tommy and roky

I don’t know how much longer Roky and the Elevators will be able to do shows, but as for me, I was very happy to be able to attend this reunion of old mates. Maybe they’ll do it again next year? Take your Geritol boys, and first thing you know, you’ll be on a Stones tour. It’s never too late to keep on rockin’ in the free world.

Roky Sings ‘Roller Coaster’

© all media by Bob Simmons

Reflections on the horror of Iguala, Mexico -the dead ‘Normalistas’ and Mexico/USA relations

Not sure, but this is what happens when the idea of the ‘rule of law’ reverts to the ‘rule of men’. Mexicans have always had a deep cultural attachment to the ‘rule of men’ rather than law. Impunity is the final result of a system based on the whim of man. Will this be their fatal flaw?

In some senses, Mexico has become a failed state in spite of its thriving economy for the ownership classes. Even with the rather large social safety net that Mexico has stretched, millions of Mexicans are not saved or salved by it. The barriers to education and social class networks are impenetrable. If one is born poor in Mexico… there is almost no hope whatsoever of rising out of the muck of daily struggle even to eat. With one exception… you can always join the Narcos. The narcos are one of the only equal opportunity employers where an energetic young man can make a living and achieve a certain status… IF one is willing to take the risks. (In some cases the young are recruited whether they like it or not.) The rule of men is dominant especially outside the official civil society. Tribes and tribal bosses have more porous barriers to class and status.

Here in the good old USA I can understand the fear of the Tea Party and other anti immigration proponents. The large scale ‘invasion’ of people who have a fundamentally different attitude toward civil society is indeed a threat to ‘Norman Rockwell’s America.’ On the one hand you have a culture and a socio-economic structure based on the heritage of the Enlightenment and the traditions of Graeco/Roman law and Protestant canon/ethic, on the other, the descendants of both Aztec and Hegelian “oriental despotism”. Carroll Quigley points out that Latin America is largely populated and culturalized by the ‘Moorish Experience’ of 900 years of Muslim rule in Spain … which was imported to the new world by the Conquistadores.

The curious juxtaposition of Mexico’s culture and the American experience placed geographically next to one another leads to inevitable cultural conflict. The decline of an integrated culture in the USA and its insatiable need for chemical experience vs its Puritanical patriarchy devolves to our own cultural dissonance as well. Where would Hegel place the dialectic in this context? Eeek. The brain reels. So many wheels turning inside of other wheels. Diagram this one …someone, please.

So, tragedy piles upon tragedy and society spins off into a realm where none can predict the outcome. People will be caught up in this meatgrinder as they play out parts they only vaguely understand. Count me in the category of those who only vaguely understand what is happening. You see the events … but who knows what they mean?

Iguala

teleobob

My review of ‘Under The Skin’ Dir. by Jonathan Glazer and starring Scarlett Johansson

Spoiler Alert! If you’re planning on seeing “Under the Skin“… don’t read this.

UNDER THE SKIN

Dir. Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson

I’m not sure a movie could be more appropriately named. This thing will get under your skin while watching and make you wish to excise it before the credits roll. I found it painful to even look at, like a splinter. Please rid me of this foreign body.

One thing though, I did realize while leaning into a glass of sauvignon blanc at the Alamo Draft house, everyone wants to kiss Scarlett Johansson. There is something about the fullness of the lips, her vulnerable eyes. Man, woman, the family dog, we all want to kiss her, even when she is a heartless alien stalking hapless Scottish men on the streets of Edinburg like the Green River Killer or any other garden variety serial murderer.

But what a muddled mess this movie is. It gives you the same feeling you might get while watching a drunk trying to cross an icy street. You can feel the writer director Johnathan Glazer uncertainly trying to find the next logical dramatic device to hang his Vogue Magazine cinematography on. Oh, and gorgeously shot it is. Deep saturated colors under an overcast sky. Murky lanes with zoomy motorcycle shots lifted straight out of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I don’t think I saw an original moment in the film. Wait! I exaggerate. The part where the unsuspecting abductees go swimming in some liquid that strips their bodies out of their skins was plenty darned creepy. And above them, like some Cretaceous critter dancing on the top of the La Brea Tar Pit, prances the nude Scarlett Johansson. Spoiler alert. Oh, too late.

You know folks, she’s OK I guess, but her physique is just not that spectacular. If you came for the nudity, you’re going to be disappointed there too.

Spoiler alert II, hell! I’m going to do what I can to get you to save your money. Stay away in droves, please. This is one of those movies that make people like me actively angry. I’m not bored. I’m pissed off. I feel like I just walked out of a fixed poker game where the cynical and rather stupid game hosts are laughing at the marks that came in to play. This movie made me as mad as some piece of Eurotrash ‘art’ like Lars Von Trier’s ‘Antichrist.’ You just want to hunt down the director and hit them with a nine iron until they agree to go back to film school.

I know, I sound like a man who has been betrayed. A man without gruntles. Like a plastic surgeon raging at the divorce court who has just given half of everything he owns to a faithless gold-digging wife who stands smirking at him from behind her lawyers. But I feel cheated. There is supposed to be a bargain when you go to the movies. You put up your money thinking that there is a director and his backers who have worked like demons to put an artful mélange of elements on a screen to help you, the audience, to escape into a constructed dream world that will free you from your own quotidian ennui for at least ninety minutes or so. It makes you feel like the poor fellow in the Monty Python skit when you find you have just come in and plopped down for ninety minutes of abuse, trickery, and a true disregard for the intelligence of the audience. I could fume on, and maybe I will.

Some critics have marveled at the flatness of affect of Scarlett’s acting. Wow. What a directorial moment! OK, get in the car and drive. Don’t act. Don’t do anything, just drive. When you are picking up men, just read your lines. Think you can handle that? If I were Scarlett’s people I would be contemplating a lawsuit for damaging her future marketability as a sex icon or ‘world’s sexiest woman.’ Wait, I’ve found an even less flattering angle. “You game, Scarlett?”

One of the other irritating things about this exercise in advanced goofy magazine photography are the recurring murder scenes where Scarlett, the vixen extraterrestrial, lures the working class Lotharios into the pool of doom. Each sequence is exactly the same. ‘Ohhhh, nooo. Laddie don’tya gae inta the muck wit the lass, it’ll be yer last gasp.’ It’s more repetitious than a goddam Philip Glass score, you’ll be itchin’ to hit the fast forward button for sure.

And no ripoff reprise movie like this would be complete without the requisite psychedelic sequence in a decadent local rave joint complete with house music and soccer hooligans. You know. Talk about your Icky Thump.

I suspect Glazer is going to make some lame comments at festivals about ‘surrealism’ and ‘symbolic narrative’ but if you want real surrealism, stick with Luis Buñel. Incoherence masked with pretty long-lens photography and creepy old wet woods that remind you of something out of ‘Swamp Thing’ just don’t cut it with me, or anyone else that I might respect.

As a final spoil, spoil, spoil, don’t go don’t go comment, there is a rape scene at the end that is pretty funny as the critter living inside the Scarlett Johansson suit is revealed to be Uncle Remus’ tar baby. The tarbaby thing can’t seem to figure out what to do next. They never had that problem in any version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”

Overall, the movie it has more untied ends than Raggedy Ann’s hairdo. What are the space farmers doing with the bodies they are snatching? If they’re from space how come they have to ride motorcycles? How can they control the underworld (and where is that place anyway?) and still have to drive around in cars. Where did all those funny lights come from? Oooh plot indecision point ? No problem, insert a funny glowy light thing.

If you go, and you like this movie. please hie thee to a remedial literature class or a psychiatrist. Meanwhile, I’m doing a Kickstarter program to raise money for a class action suit against Hollywood for fraud. I plan to go after Glazer and Lars Von Trier first. Anyone want to chip in?

Sincerely yours.
Bob Simmons
from somewhere down in Texas

Why I am a fan of Lewis Lapham

This is taken from Tom’s Dispatch, who is reprinting the piece from Lewis Lapham’s Quarterly. (A highly recommended publication for all of you who used to love his work at Harper’s)

Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, How “Revolution” Became an Adjective
Posted by Lewis Lapham at 5:51pm, March 16, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.
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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: This site will be a little quieter than usual this week — only one new piece instead of two — because I’m heading off on a semi-vacation. Don’t count on me to answer mail in a timely fashion either. Expect a new piece at the site this Wednesday, a TD classic “best of” piece over the weekend, and we’ll be back up and running at full speed next week. Tom]

In 1969, I was working as a (not very good) printer at an “underground” print shop in Boston. There was, in fact, nothing faintly underground about it, but in what was then called “the movement,” it was a romantic label — and use it we did. I had an older co-worker there who had played an early role in launching the movement politics that became such a part of the era. He paid me next to no mind and yet his presence intimidated me greatly. He was, as they said at the time, “close” to PL, or the Progressive Labor Party, which was a hardline lefty outfit of the moment. One day, out of the blue, he invited me to dinner. I was surprised, to say the least, but took it as an unexpected stamp of approval and accepted with alacrity, experiencing a wave of gratitude that, being a guy, it was impossible to express.

On the appointed night, I arrived at his place where he and his girlfriend, also close to PL, welcomed me to the table. In the middle of dinner, however, they got into a fight. Suddenly, it was as if I weren’t there at all. As it turned out, they were arguing about the latest PL edict, a call to members to “build bridges” to co-workers, the category into which I obviously fell. The question, it seemed, was which of several categories of fellow worker I fell into. They ranged — at this great distance I can’t remember the exact descriptive details — from the equivalent of simpleton liberal dolt to equally insulting labels somewhat more to the revolutionary left. After the meal, I slunk out into the night.

That, I suspect, was as close as I got to being a “revolutionary.” In the generally exhilarating years we now call the Sixties, by which we tend to mean the period from perhaps 1965 to 1973, it often seemed as if an abyss had opened at your feet and the most reasonable as well as thrilling thing to do, even if you were a somewhat timid and polite boy of the 1950s, was simply jump in. At an individual level in the America of that moment, the experience was, I suppose, revolutionary. Certainly, in those years it wasn’t hard to bump into every shade and grade of self-proclaimed revolutionary or revolutionary group. Still, as Lewis Lapham makes clear today, and as I learned at that dinner table, revolution was then in the eye of the beholder, an easy enough label to throw around even if, looking back, the real revolutions of the moment weren’t on the left but on the right and, as Lapham points out, also in fields that ranged from advertising to surveillance — and aimed not at liberating but controlling us all.

In those years, Lapham, as you’ll soon find out, was having far better dinners than I at far better establishments. A half century later, he’s made “revolution” the topic of the Spring issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and so the focus of his latest essay at TomDispatch. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, this website thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom

Crowd Control
Political Revolt and the Accumulation of More

By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in “Revolution,” the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall.
— Erwin Chargaff

For the last several years, the word “revolution” has been hanging around backstage on the national television talk-show circuit waiting for somebody, anybody — visionary poet, unemployed automobile worker, late-night comedian — to cue its appearance on camera. I picture the word sitting alone in the green room with the bottled water and a banana, armed with press clippings of its once-upon-a-time star turns in America’s political theater (tie-dyed and brassiere-less on the barricades of the 1960s countercultural insurrection, short-haired and seersucker smug behind the desks of the 1980s Reagan Risorgimento), asking itself why it’s not being brought into the segment between the German and the Japanese car commercials.

Surely even the teleprompter must know that it is the beast in the belly of the news reports, more of them every day in print and en blog, about income inequality, class conflict, the American police state. Why then does nobody have any use for it except in the form of the adjective, revolutionary, unveiling a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick?

I can think of several reasons, among them the cautionary tale told by the round-the-clock media footage of dead revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, also the certain knowledge that anything anybody says (on camera or off, to a hotel clerk, a Facebook friend, or an ATM) will be monitored for security purposes. Even so, the stockpiling of so much careful silence among people who like to imagine themselves on the same page with Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty, or give me death” — raises the question as to what has become of the American spirit of rebellion. Where have all the flowers gone, and what, if anything, is anybody willing to risk in the struggle for “Freedom Now,” “Power to the People,” “Change We Can Believe In”?

My guess is next to nothing that can’t be written off as a business expense or qualified as a tax deduction. Not in America at least, but maybe, with a better publicist and 50% of the foreign rights, somewhere east of the sun or west of the moon.

Revolt from Thomas Jefferson to the Colossal Dynamo

The hallowed American notion of armed rebellion as a civic duty stems from the letter that Thomas Jefferson writes from Paris in 1787 as a further commentary on the new Constitution drawn up that year in Philadelphia, a document that he thinks invests the state with an unnecessary power to declare the citizenry out of order. A mistake, says Jefferson, because no country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance, and with it ready access to gunpowder.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Jefferson conceived of liberty and despotism as plantings in the soil of politics, products of human cultivation subject to changes in the weather, the difference between them not unlike that between the growing of an orchard and the draining of a cesspool, both understood as means of environmental protection. It is the turning of the seasons and the cyclical motions of the stars that Jefferson has in mind when in his letter he goes on to say, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion” — i.e., one conceived not as a lawless upheaval but as a lawful recovery.

The twentieth-century philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt says that the American Revolution was intended as a restoration of what its progenitors believed to be a natural order of things “disturbed and violated” by the despotism of an overbearing monarchy and the abuses of its colonial government. During the hundred years prior to the Declaration of Independence, the Americans had developed tools of political management (church congregations, village assemblies, town meetings) with which to govern themselves in accordance with what they took to be the ancient liberties possessed by their fellow Englishmen on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. They didn’t bear the grievances of a subjugated populace, and the seeds of revolt were nowhere blowing in the wind until the British crown demanded new, and therefore unlawful, tax money.

Arendt’s retrieval of the historical context leads her to say of the war for independence that it was “not revolutionary except by inadvertence.” To sustain the point she calls on Benjamin Franklin’s memory of the years preceding the shots fired at Lexington in April 1775: “I never had heard in any conversation from any person, drunk or sober, the least expression of a wish for a separation, or hint that such a thing would be advantageous to America.” The men who came to power after the Revolution were the same men who held power before the Revolution, their new government grounded in a system of thought that was, in our modern parlance, conservative.

Born 13 years later under the fixed star of a romantic certainty, the French Revolution was advertent, a violent overthrow of what its proponents, among them Maximilien de Robespierre, perceived as an unnatural order of things. Away with the old, in with the new; kill the king, remove the statues, reset the clocks, welcome to a world that never was but soon is yet to come.

The freedom-loving songs and slogans were well suited to the work of ecstatic demolition, but a guillotine is not a living tree, and although manured with the blood of aristocrats and priests, it failed to blossom with the leaves of political liberty. An armed mob of newly baptized citoyens stormed the Bastille in 1789; Napoleon in 1804 crowned himself emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

Jefferson’s thinking had been informed by his study of nature and history, Robespierre’s by his reading of Rousseau’s poetics. Neither set of political ideas brought forth the dream-come-true products of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution — new worlds being born every day of the week, the incoming tide of modern manufacture and invention (the cotton gin, gas lighting, railroads) washing away the sand castles of medieval religion and Renaissance humanism, dismantling Robespierre’s reign of virtue, uprooting Jefferson’s tree of liberty.

So it is left to Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, to acknowledge the arrival of the new world that never was with the publication in German of the Communist Manifesto in 1848: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

Men shape their tools, their tools shape their relations with other men, and the rain it raineth every day in a perfect storm of creative destruction that is amoral and relentless. The ill wind, according to Marx, blows from any and all points of the political compass with the “single, unconscionable freedom — free trade,” which resolves “personal worth into exchange value,” substitutes “callous ‘cash payment’” for every other form of human meaning and endeavor, devotes its all-devouring enthusiasms to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the energies of the capitalist dynamic take full and proud possession of the whole of Western society. They become, in Marx’s analysis, the embodiment of “the modern representative state,” armed with the wealth of its always newer and more powerful machines (electricity, photography, the telephone, the automobile) and staffed by executives (i.e., politicians, no matter how labeled) who function as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

What Marx sees in theory as an insatiable abstraction, the American historian Henry Adams sees as concrete and overwhelming fact. Marx is 17 years dead and the Communist Manifesto a sacred text among the left-wing intelligentsia everywhere in Europe when Adams, his habit of mind as profoundly conservative as that of his great-grandfather, stands in front of a colossal dynamo at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and knows that Prometheus, no longer chained to his ancient rock, bestrides the Earth wearing J.P. Morgan’s top hat and P.T. Barnum’s cloak of as many colors as the traffic will bear. Adams shares with Marx the leaning toward divine revelation:

“To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed… Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”

The Sixties Swept Away in a Whirlwind of Commodities and Repressive Surveillance

I inherited the instinct as a true-born American bred to the worship of both machinery and money; an appreciation of its force I acquired during a lifetime of reading newspaper reports of political uprisings in the provinces of the bourgeois world state — in China, Israel, and Greece in the 1940s; in the 1950s those in Hungary, Cuba, Guatemala, Algeria, Egypt, Bolivia, and Iran; in the 1960s in Vietnam, France, America, Ethiopia, and the Congo; in the 1970s and 1980s in El Salvador, Poland, Nicaragua, Kenya, Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Jordan, Cambodia, again in Iran; over the last 24 years in Russia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Croatia, Bosnia, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Somalia, South Africa, Romania, Sudan, again in Algeria and Egypt.

The plot line tends to repeat itself — first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police force to another police force, the latter more repressive than the former (darker uniforms, heavier motorcycles) because more frightened of the social and economic upheavals they can neither foresee nor control.

All the shiftings of political power produced changes within the committees managing regional budgets and social contracts on behalf of the bourgeois imperium. None of them dethroned or defenestrated Adams’ dynamo or threw off the chains of Marx’s cash nexus. That they could possibly do so is the “romantic idea” that Albert Camus, correspondent for the French Resistance newspaper Combat during and after World War II, sees in 1946 as having been “consigned to fantasy by advances in the technology of weaponry.”

The French philosopher Simone Weil draws a corollary lesson from her acquaintance with the Civil War in Spain, and from her study of the communist Sturm und Drang in Russia, Germany, and France subsequent to World War I. “One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution… This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”

During the turbulent decade of the 1960s in the United States, the advancing technologies of bourgeois news production (pictures in place of print) transformed the meaningless magic word into a profitable commodity, marketing it both as deadly menace and lively fashion statement. The commercial putsch wasn’t organized by the CIA or planned by a consortium of advertising agencies; it evolved in two stages as a function of the capitalist dynamic that substitutes cash payment for every other form of human meaning and endeavor.

The disorderly citizenry furnishing the television footage in the early sixties didn’t wish to overthrow the government of the United States. Nobody was threatening to reset the game clock in the Rose Bowl, tear down Grand Central Terminal, or remove the Lincoln Memorial. The men, women, and children confronting racist tyranny in the American South — sitting at a lunch counter in Alabama, riding a bus into Mississippi, going to school in Arkansas — risked their lives in pure acts of devotion, refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots.

The Civil Rights movement and later the anti-Vietnam War protests were reformative, not revolutionary, the expression of democratic objection and dissent in accord with the thinking of Jefferson, also with President John F. Kennedy’s having said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Performed as a civic duty, the unarmed rebellions led to the enactment in the mid-1960s of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, eventually to the shutting down of the war in Vietnam.

The television camera, however, isn’t much interested in political reform (slow, tedious, and unphotogenic) and so, even in the first years of protest, the news media presented the trouble running around loose in the streets as a revolution along the lines of the one envisioned by Robespierre. Caught in the chains of the cash nexus, they couldn’t do otherwise. The fantasy of armed revolt sold papers, boosted ratings, monetized the fears at all times running around loose in the heads of the propertied classes.

The multiple wounds in the body politic over the course of the decade — the assassination of President Kennedy, big-city race riots, student riots at venerable universities, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy — amplified the states of public alarm. The fantastic fears of violent revolt awakened by a news media in search of a profit stimulated the demand for repressive surveillance and heavy law enforcement that over the last 50 years has blossomed into one of the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries. For our own good, of course, and without forgoing our constitutional right to shop.

God forbid that the excitement of the 1960s should in any way have interfered with the constant revolutionizing of the bourgeois desire for more dream-come-true products to consume and possess. The advancing power of the media solved what might have become a problem by disarming the notion of revolution as a public good, rebranding it as a private good. Again it was impossible for the technology to do otherwise.

The medium is the message, and because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it substitutes the personal for the impersonal; whether in Hollywood restaurants or Washington committee rooms, the actor takes precedence over the act. What is wanted is a flow of emotion, not a train of thought, a vocabulary of images better suited to the selling of a product than to the expression of an idea. Narrative becomes montage, and as commodities acquire the property of information, the amassment of wealth follows from the naming of things rather than the making of things.

The voices of conscience in the early 1960s spoke up for a government of laws, not men, for a principle as opposed to a lifestyle. By the late 1960s the political had become personal, the personal political, and it was no longer necessary to ask what one must do for one’s country. The new-and-improved question, available in a wide range of colors, flower arrangements, cosmetics, and musical accompaniments, underwrote the second-stage commodification of the troubled spirit of the times.

Writing about the socialist turbulence on the late-1930s European left, Weil lists among the acolytes of the magic word, “the bourgeois adolescent in rebellion against home surroundings and school routine, the intellectual yearning for adventure and suffering from boredom.” So again in America in the late 1960s, radical debutantes wearing miniskirts and ammunition belts, Ivy League professors mounting the steps of the Pentagon, self-absorbed movie actors handing around anarchist manifestos to self-important journalists seated at the tables in Elaine’s.

By the autumn of 1968 the restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan served as a Station of the Cross for the would-be revolutionaries briefly in town for an interview with Time or a photo shoot for Vogue, and as a frequent guest of the restaurant, I could see on nearly any night of the week the birth of a new and imaginary self soon to become a boldfaced name. Every now and then I asked one of the wandering stars what it was that he or she hoped to have and to hold once the revolution was won. Most of them were at a loss for an answer. What they knew, they did not want, what they wanted, they did not know, except, of course, more — more life, more love, more drugs, more celebrity, more happiness, more music.

On Becoming an Armed Circus

As a consequence of the political becoming personal, by the time the 1960s moved on to the 1980s and President Reagan’s Morning in America, it was no longer possible to know oneself as an American citizen without the further identification of at least one value-adding, consumer-privileged adjective — female American, rich American, black American, Native American, old American, poor American, gay American, white American, dead American. The costumes changed, and so did the dossier of the malcontents believing themselves entitled to more than they already had.

A generation of dissatisfied bourgeois reluctant to grow up gave way to another generation of dissatisfied bourgeois unwilling to grow old. The locus of the earthly Paradise shifted from a commune in the White Mountains to a gated golf resort in Palm Springs, and the fond hope of finding oneself transformed into an artist segued into the determined effort to make oneself rich. What remained constant was the policy of enlightened selfishness and the signature bourgeois passion for more plums in the pudding.

While making a magical mystery tour of the Central American revolutionary scene in 1987, Deb Olin Unferth remarks on the work in progress: “Compared to El Salvador, Nicaragua was like Ping-Pong… like a cheerful communist kazoo concert… We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Nikolai Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice singalong and a ballet. We weren’t a revolution. We were an armed circus.”

As a descriptive phrase for what American society has become over the course of the last five decades, armed circus is as good as any and better than most. The constantly revolutionizing technologies have been spinning the huge bourgeois wheel of fortune at the speed of light, remaking the means of production in every field of human meaning and endeavor — media, manufacturing, war, finance, literature, crime, medicine, art, transport, and agriculture.

The storm wind of creative destruction it bloweth every day, removing steel mills, relocating labor markets, clearing the ground for cloud storage. On both sides of the balance sheet, the accumulations of more — more microbreweries and Internet connections, more golf balls, cheeseburgers, and cruise missiles; also more unemployment, more pollution, more obesity, more dysfunctional government and criminal finance, more fear. The too much of more than anybody knows what to do with obliges the impresarios of the armed circus to match the gains of personal liberty (sexual, social, economic, if one can afford the going price) with more repressive systems of crowd control.

To look back to the early 1960s is to recall a society in many ways more open and free than it has since become, when a pair of blue jeans didn’t come with a radio-frequency ID tag, when it was possible to appear for a job interview without a urine sample, to say in public what is now best said not at all. So frightened of its own citizens that it classifies them as probable enemies, the U.S. government steps up its scrutiny of what it chooses to regard as a mob. So intrusive is the surveillance that nobody leaves home without it. Tens of thousands of cameras installed in the lobbies of office and apartment buildings and in the eye sockets of the mannequins in department-store windows register the comings and goings of a citizenry deemed unfit to mind its own business.

The social contract offered by the managing agents of the bourgeois state doesn’t extend the privilege of political revolt, a point remarked upon by the Czech playwright Václav Havel just prior to being imprisoned in the late 1970s by the Soviet regime then governing Czechoslovakia: “No attempt at revolt could ever hope to set up even a minimum of resonance in the rest of society, because that society is ‘soporific,’ submerged in a consumer rat race… Even if revolt were possible, however, it would remain the solitary gesture of a few isolated individuals, and they would be opposed not only by a gigantic apparatus of national (and supranational) power, but also by the very society in whose name they were mounting their revolt in the first place.”

The observation accounts for the past sell-by date of the celebrity guest alone and palely loitering in the green room with the bottled water and the banana. Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces “Revolution,” the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.

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Copyright 2014 Lewis Lapham

TALES OF HIPPIE GLORY… My pal Bill Beckman and the East Village Other

In the Mid 60’s  after I got out of the Army, and after I had lived in Mexico City working for this little English language daily (The Mexico City Times) I ran away to New York City to become something… I don’t know what, but I had to do something while I figured out what I wanted to do…. I found The East Village Other and my old pal Beckman.  Interesting tale to follow. CLICK HERE.

Sturm und Drang

So what’s the deal?  Why’s everyone so upset?  Here’s an explanation from more than  four years ago…:

 

In 2007, Bill Bonner of Agora Financial produced a descriptive example of this process.

Imagine a man who makes his living digging ditches. He may hire himself out at a daily rate of, say, $25. The old capitalists would have paid no attention to him – he is just one of millions of small entrepreneurs getting by in life.

But today’s financial hustlers will spot the opportunity. Let’s take him public, they will say. We’ll raise his daily rate to $30…pay him his $25…and the rest will be our “profit.” We’ll sell shares to the public at a P/E of 20…let’s see, 20 x $5 x 250 days per year = $25,000. All of a sudden, the ditch digger has a capital value of $25,000.

Then, they borrow $20,000 from a hedge fund…and pay it to themselves for structuring the deal. Now, the hustler has $20,000 in his pocket; the hedge fund has a high-yield bond worth $20,000; the shareholders have $25,000 worth of stock; and the poor man is still digging his ditches.

Then, an even more ambitious wheeler-dealer will come along and decide to “roll up” the whole industry – bringing the ditch diggers together into a multi-national consortium. Now they can all do cross-border transactions…including derivatives.

And now ditch-digging is a major business, suitable for large investors…with more investment coverage and a higher P/E ratio. Soon all the world’s banks, pension funds, insurance companies, and hedge funds have some of the ditch digging paper – debt or equity – and billions in fees and commissions have been squeezed out of ditches by the financial industry.

That, patient reader, is the way (the world-over) that industries and assets are now being bought, sold, refinanced, leveraged, re-jigged and resold. In the old days, companies went to investors or to banks for capital and cultivated a relationship with them that was long and fruitful.

Now, it’s all wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am capitalism. Inquiring capitalists now only want to know one thing – how fast can we do this deal? How many points can we get out of it and how much leverage can we get? And whom can we dump it on, when we’re done?

This is – the proper definition of – inflation : an increase in the supply of money plus credit relative to available goods and services. In times of speculative mania, when people no longer care what they pay for something on the grounds that someone else will always pay more, and money is being created with abandon in order to satisfy the acquisitive impulse, credit hyper-expansion constitutes inflation on a massive scale.

Expansion is the only reality many of us have known, hence it is no wonder we imagine it can be a permanent condition.

Economist Steve Keen on BBC has solution to the ‘debt crisis’

‘Gloom and doom economist,’ Steve Keen is interviewed about how to solve the debt crisis.

Keen has a solution. It might be bitter and distasteful, but perhaps an improvement on a loss of two decades, a ‘Depression’ (which he says we have already entered), and enormous global social disruptions. Think WWII,  angry multitudes, starvation, and the decline of civil life worldwide. Which is the better choice?  Wipe the present debt with a ‘jubilee’, or suffer ‘living in interesting times,’ as the Chinese curse goes?

His proposal sounds almost plausible….. many economists disagree… but quite a number agree with Keen.  I wonder what Noriel Roubini would say?  How we accomplish this debt forgiveness, given modern political realities, he doesn’t propose.