Monday, March 28, 2016

My Sister Hillary

"I watched the Revolution on my TV
Watching Walter Cronkite at my daddy's knee"

-- "(Why Does) Dan Rather (Want to Be My Friend?)" by Mike Plaisted

I grew up in the 1960s.  Born in '55, I was ages 5 to 15 during the Great Decade, in which America grew up; often hard and horrible, but also in awesome, joyful transcendent ways.

I remember the nuns coming into the 3rd grade classroom to tell us about JFK's awful (yes) still-unsolved assassination and then coming home from church the following Sunday to hear one of my sisters telling about how she just saw the (yes) all-too-convenient assassination of (yes) pasty Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV. (All I could think of is "damn, I missed it.  Why did I have to go to church?")

I saw the images of the Vietnam war and the body counts on TV every night.  I saw the Watts riots and wondered -- far from the action in podunk New Holstein --  what it was like to live in Milwaukee as the crowds of the disaffected hit the streets in 1967. I was entranced by the police riots outside the Democratic Convention in 1968, watching the long-hairs get beat upside the head by helmeted cops for the mere sin (I assumed) of being long-hairs.

I remember news networks breaking into prime-time television in April 1968 announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.; and waking up that morning in June to the horrible news on the Today Show of Bobby Kennedy's assassination.  One thing I have always thought then and since -- the Forces of Darkness got the right guys.  The world would be a better and different place if JFK, MLK and RFK (and Malcolm) had been allowed to complete their righteous life missions. And they knew it.

I also watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the Summer of Love as told by the news anchors of Squareville.  I watched the Woodstock movie in rapture of whatever was going on there in that glossy Hollywood version of a mediocre rock concert staged in a disaster area.

Yep, I bought it.  I bought the Dream.

But if TV and my father's newspapers were all there was, I wouldn't know much of anything.  It was my sisters who brought the Revolution home to me.

My three older sisters were born within three years of each other -- the product of Mom and Dad's personal, post-war Baby Boom.  All three graduated from a small town high school at various times in the mid-60's, innocently enough, I'm sure.  They went off to college and suddenly the music of the time -- Four Tops, Temptations, Stones, Four Seasons, Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, and lots more -- filled the house.  As their generation spread its wings and as they all found their own selves through the prism of new discovery, they brought it home.  There were arguments around the dinner table with our Nixon Republican father -- often heated, crying, stomping off to the bedroom mad.  But Dad encouraged it, I think.  My sisters gave as good as they got and won more than lost, whether Dad thought so or not.  I tried to pipe up once in a while, with lamely hilarious results.

Now, fifty years later, my sisters are all, in some way or other, a product of their g-g-generation, their times, their private revolutions.  Now, they are all in places they would never have been without it.  None of them were all that radical, even back in the day.  But they took the unique notion from the '60s of reinventing what their nation should and shouldn't be, what it meant to be a human -- especially what it meant to be a woman -- and grew it gracefully, effortlessly into their own beautiful lives.  All have loving, awesome life partners who grew up in the same times and share the same values.  All produced terrific kids with hearts just as big, who are carrying it all forward.

Throughout their careers, they were committed to some kind of public service and moving the ideals forged in the '60s forward; as a teacher, a nurse, a physical therapist, among other things.  They made their marks as sisters, wives, mothers, friends, homemakers. They don't preach or judge others.  They live the Revolution quietly, in their hearts and minds

Which brings me to Hillary Clinton.

At 68, Hillary Clinton is right in the middle of where my older sisters are now, ranging from 67 to 70. She also grew up in the Midwest, also the daughter of a conservative father.   She was certainly more classically political, better connected -- privileged, even. But she also had her own private revolution. In 1965, she was with the Young Republicans -- by '68, she was a supporter of Eugene McCarthy.  At least none of my older sisters were ever Republicans...not that I know of, anyway.

Where my sisters stayed in-state -- Marquette and Oshkosh, later UW -- Hillary went to Wellesley, a highfalutin women's college out East. There she got connected; Yale Law, more connected; met Bill, more know the rest.  My sisters found themselves in other ways -- working, exploring, building families and community.  One break here or there, perhaps a little more of the hard-driving ambition that the Clintons shared, and it could be my one of my sisters out there subjecting herself to the destructive lies and sexist insinuations of Republicans who tear down because they cannot build on their own.

What my sisters and Hillary share is not only the revolution, but a life committed to making the world a better place.  Most Boomers have done so in personal, small, quiet ways.  And when Hillary and Bill Clinton had the chance to make a bigger difference -- because of their positions in great colleges and law schools, their ability to squeeze themselves into political organizations and campaigns, dumb luck and, importantly, each other -- they grabbed it and did it.  There has not been any other couple that emerged from the generation that grew up in the '60s that took those values to a higher level.

Was it how we imagined the '60s generation would govern?  Not hardly.  No Department of Peace, no tie-dyed T-shirts at the inauguration -- heck, not even long hair on the President.  Those were all the cartoon version of what the revolution was all about anyway.  In the end, Bill and Hillary governed -- and will govern -- in a practical manner, accepting the sludge they inherit from the past and moving the nation forward ever so slightly, as much as they can, inch by inch.

That's what all the Boomers I know have done or try to do. Far from some brief flirtations with communes and street protests, they all grew up.  They blended into the communities they were in or found, not in the subversive way some might have imagined, but in positive constructive ways.   They didn't Fight the Power -- they became the power, for the benefit of all.

So, my sisters and Hillary aren't that different, really.  They all have succeeded in affecting the very real world in very real ways.  The first woman president may very well have been named Patricia, Barbara or Donna. Instead -- by the luck of the draw, twists of fate and hard work -- it will be Hillary Clinton.  Yes -- just-like-my sister, Hillary.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Rebecca Bradley's Original Sins

One of the (many) reasons I stopped blogging for a couple of years is because I found it impossible to keep up with the 24-hour -- now, really, 8- or 4-hour -- news cycle.  By the time I had gotten the time to write something, the urgency of the issue, whatever it was, was gone and we were on to the next thing.  Talking about the too-polite Republican debate from way last Thursday ("Please, Sen. Cruz, after you"..."No, no, Donald, please, you first...") became badly dated within 24 hours, when protesters descended on a Trump rally in Chicago and the Big Tough Trump wimped out and cancelled. "Security concerns" my ass.  He couldn't face the uncontrolled heat of the rejection of his politics of fear and racism.

Here in Wisconsin, Justice Rebecca Bradley's bigoted, stupid writing while she was an undergrad at Marquette was too soon overshadowed by the story of her representation of a boyfriend in a custody battle with his ex-wife.  The no-doubt gratis representation was declared not an ethical violation by the presiding judge when the ex and the GAL complained about it.  And maybe it wasn't, technically. Lawyers can represent people they've fooled around with, if the fooling around was before the representation.  I'll remember to put this in the old memory bank for future reference.
But imagine you are the GAL interviewing the 16 year-old child and the kid starts talking about Daddy's girlfriend, "Aunt Becca", or whatever, who apparently was so involved with the kid that they exchanged gifts at Christmas.  Now, should the GAL be talking to the husband's counsel, not as his lawyer, but as a member of the extended family?  How that's not a conflict, I don't know.  Bradley certainly seems pretty sensitive about it -- check out the link to the audio of the Journal Sentinel reporter asking her about it for the first time (on the left side of the page linked above).  While her ever-present handler is trying to get her out of there, she blurts out "The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel should be ashamed of itself and you can put that on the record." Well.  Excuuuuse me.

That was only Thursday after the student-writing story on Monday.  By Friday morning, the newspaper was printing GOP spin to soften the blow; about Judge Kloppenberg saying Lincoln had slaves, that Justice Anne Walsh Bradley also skipped out early on an oral argument while she was running, and blah blah blah.  In the meantime, the Shame of the Journal Sentinel, in-house Republican shill Christian Schneider has joined the usual gang of local and statewide coordinated right-wing radio talkers to take the desperate Bradley campaign's talking points out for a stroll in a full-court press of denial, obfuscation and outright lies.

A weekend of volleyball watching (go Ken and Aaron!), a concert at the Coffeehouse (killed it) and a day of trial prep (didn't go) later and your humble reporter is now, a week later, still trying to get my thoughts out here about Rebecca Bradley and her absurd student "writing".  Having done a lot of it when I was an undergrad -- lots more for much longer than she did, I think -- I know something about what and why you write at a young age, and what it means for your middle age and beyond.

I wrote for the Daily Cardinal at UW-Madison from the summer of 1979 until my graduation in 1982; then a little more on the opinion pages while I was in law school, mostly around the 1984 election cycle.  Besides having a great time with some great people (we still get together and laugh with and at each other about once a year), I started on the Fine Arts pages (back then, the writer ghetto for the strongly progressive paper) and, eventually, with opinion columns (mostly media criticism), some news stories (Moonie recruiters were my beat for a month) and the staff actually gave me the keys to the place in the summer of 1981, when Jim Nelson and I put out a twice-weekly edition for a couple of months with a skeleton staff and an excellent distribution manager (Hi Mary!).

I was not J-School like most of the more serious people there, but I was enthusiastic about getting stuff in the paper.  I was pretty much allowed to write anything I wanted, and the editors often didn't know quite what to make of my writing, so they just ran it without many edits. The first piece I got published was a review of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk. Complaining about that over-hyped, inflated mess of a double album, I tried to be funny about it, setting back my career as a humorist several decades. "How many Fleetwood Macs does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" I asked. "Only one, but it will take him or her two years and it'll cost ya a million bucks!" This caused one of the news editors (now still active in Milwaukee County politics) to stand up at the next staff meeting railing about running this shit in the paper and, by the way, who the hell wrote it?  I sheepishly raised my hand, and my career at the Cardinal began.

I understand that this was back in the early '80s and young Ms. Bradley's deliberately ignorant diatribes were a decade later, but, still, this was a different world.  In both eras, there was no social media -- if you were a college student with something to say, student newspapers were the only game in town. And, if you actually got something published -- something you meant to say, something you cared about enough to spend the two-to-three hours it took to write it and fight the editors, if you had to -- it was an accomplishment.  You were proud of it.  I saved clips of every one of the things I had published in the Cardinal (see above for just a small part), right down to the three-inch TV Screams columns.  You can bet, when Rebecca Bradley got the Marquette Tribune to run her hateful screeds, she was proud too.  She ran right back to her cabal of College Republicans and celebrated, I don't know, however those people celebrate.

I also knew, as did all college writers, that whatever you wrote would go down on your permanent record. Bradley didn't write just to write -- she wrote to advance her stature in the then-burgeoning right-wing college "movement".  We knew these types of people well at the Daily Cardinal.  In the early '70s, right-wing icon William F. Buckley bankrolled the Badger Herald as an "alternative" to the Cardinal's unabashedly leftist perspective.  Thus did a bunch of conservative mouthpieces find their way onto the campus' news kiosks, blathering all kinds of predictable nonsense from their dark-money handlers.

To a (usually) man, those people rewrote conservative talking points with enthusiasm and vigor, and some probably moved on to careers as another kind of Republican hack, proud of what they wrote and embracing what they advocated, building on it to an always-well-paying right-wing career of lies and spin. This was fine for most seeking the comfort of the right-wing bosom from which the Herald sprung in the first place.  But, when one of their own tries to get elected to something actually important, like the Wisconsin Supreme Court, well, all of a sudden, the literature of hate is treated like a symptom of a childhood disease. Oh that thing about gay people deliberately killing themselves with AIDS, yeah, I was so young and drunk... 

Except that she wasn't that young and not drunk at all.  She meant what she said and she said it.  I've read a bunch of my old stuff in the past week and I don't have to apologize for any of it.  I'd write all of it again -- perhaps with a lot less use of the phrase "of course" -- I used that a lot.  What I wrote was part of what I was and still part of what I am.  I think college writers are all proud of what they wrote and they still have the same world view -- they just go after their goals in different ways. I know I do.

Bradley certainly has.  She has never swerved off the nut-right political path, serving as president of the radical-right bunch of lawyers called the Federalist Society and all manner of other right-wing groups and causes.  As late as 2006, Bradley was writing about how pharmacists shouldn't be "forced" to be "a party to murder" by doing their job and filling birth control prescriptions. It is written in the same kind of deliriously clueless writing from her Marquette days, without the name-calling.  The student apple didn't fall far from the adult tree.

"Have I offended anyone? Good..." she wrote in a particularly charming reaction to the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.  That's what she meant to do then.  As a member of the radical right-wing on the sadly decimated Wisconsin Supreme Court, she doesn't care what you think now, either.  Except for this election thing.  At least until April 5th, she has to pretend that she isn't who she was in college and who she is now.

But I firmly believe that college writing is a window to the soul.  And looking at Rebecca Bradley's bigoted, hateful writing, the view is not pretty.

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

"Are You Loose???" Not So Much

On the way out of the Springsteen/E Street River show at the Bradley Center last week, I ran into a friend who I suspect has done much more Bruce tourism than I have.  I have made a couple of trips (to Detroit for Rock The Vote in '04; Indianapolis once just for the hell of it), but usually I just catch them when they come around.  But I think he has followed the band much more around the country.

"I'm done." he said.

Coming as it did after yet another three-and-a-half hour marathon by the Hardest Working Man in Show Business and the World's Greatest Working Band, the comment took me aback.  But, this concert raised more issues than it answered -- issues of content, passion, execution, the choices made.  Springsteen fans think about these things; where the band is headed, what happened before, why we are here again. We care.  He insists on it.

Now that I have had a chance to think about it...Yeah.  I think I'm done too.

The problems on this tour begin and end with content. The Elephant in the Room on this tour is the whole wrong-headed idea to play The River, a minor release in the Springsteen catalog from 1980. As loyal fans, we smile, show up and hope for the best.  This is not the best -- not nearly.

But Bruce Springsteen has never been the best judge of his own music, his talent or his own legacy. The first greatest hits album he pieced together in 1995 was a collection of trite, predictable cuts that were on his mind at the time, with nothing from his best album, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle or  Ashbury Park.  His solo outings have been -- at least -- a disappointment.  At his Tom Joad show at the Riverside in 1996, Springsteen was a silence-demanding crank, yelling at people who dared to cheer "Born in the USA" (hey, Bruce, I thought, maybe the guy's a veteran, fer crying out loud).  And let's not forget the worst concert ever at the Bradley Center, when Springsteen and a band of younger hired guns stunk up the place on Bill Clinton and Russ Feingold's election night 1992 with some of the same songs and none of the spirit of E Street. At least Bruce has gotten the picture since 1999 that he and the E Street Band as a unit is ten times better than anything he could do solo or with anyone else.

Which brings us back to The River.

The River was a double-album, back in the vinyl days, and, as with all double-albums from The Beatles' White Album on down, it has some, er, junk on it.  Not as bad as "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" or "Honey Pie", mind you (ah, McCartney...), but, you know, junk. In fact, I don't think I've ever bothered to listen to the damn thing all the way through since I first dropped the needle on the day it was released.  I now know the whole project sputters and dies in the middle of Side 3, starting with "Fade Away" and ending, five songs too late, with the weary "Wreck on the Highway". Sure, "Ramrod" is in there somewhere, but I've always thought it a plodding too-slow excuse for a rave-up.

How do I know this?  Because I have now lasted through two concerts where I couldn't get away from the damned thing.  The songs kept coming.  It -- they -- would not stop.

How did this happen?  Imagine you are in the room with Springsteen and/or manager Jon Landau last year and someone comes up with the bright idea to hit the road playing the entire River album, from beginning to end. Would anyone dare to say "but what about the dreck?"  Not bloody likely -- the world is littered with could-have-been-greater superstars (Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, etc.) with fawning entourages and enabling managers who refuse their to give their bosses the benefit of the advice they deserve.

Alright, so the idea is hatched and they get to rehearsals.  You can see Bruce and what is left of the E Street Band working through the first nine songs and, yeah, this seems like a great idea. But then they hit the giant speed-bump called "I Want To Marry You", a song that was too cute by half cute at the time, and that there is just no reason to play again, ever.  I imagine Miami Steve at that first rehearsal when they come to that song, and then it dawns on him: Oh my god, we are playing the whole fucking album! He has to think it -- does he say it? Is he a good enough friend to...? The album recovers with the title track and film-noir "Point Blank", a dramatic high-point in concert.  But a Wisconsin night "Cadillac Ranch" and a too-obvious "I'm a Rocker" later, the whole album falls off a cliff.  After the first practice, does the band look at each other and think "Well that was fun, but what are we really going to do on this tour?" Maybe.  And the The Boss says "OK. Let's do that again!"

Springsteen now calls this his "coming of age" record, but that was Darkness on the Edge of Town.  The River is really his (then) mid-career crisis, his "what do I do now after all this success?" album.  There is a lot of flailing around, a lot of phony (stolen) car mysticism, and nothing digs all that deep.  Other than "Cadillac Ranch" and "Hungry Heart", none of this album has been featured in his usual setlists through the years.  Nor should it have.

When I first saw this tour in Chicago in January -- the second show of the tour -- Springsteen seemed to understand he had some 'splaining to do about why he was going to make us sit through over two hours of The River.  His solution then was talking it to death.  Many songs that night were preceded by explanations of where he was, what he was thinking, who it was about.  There was a real long one before "Marry You" and it didn't make the song itself any better.  There was much less chatter in Milwaukee -- only "Independence Day" got the usual "this is about my dad" treatment.  The shut-up-and-play version worked much better.

But, still.  As the River part of the set wound down, the antiseptic concourses at the Bradley Center filled with knowing fans on an extended beer break.  There is always something disconcerting about hanging around outside the arena while you can hear Bruce Springsteen echoing off the walls -- he's not here every day, shouldn't I be in there?  Back in '78, I was thankful for relative duds like "Racing in the Streets" because it gave me a chance to catch my breath before hurrying back in there.  Now, I heard "The Price You Pay" droning on and realized there are still three songs to go until the Real Show starts.

But I will say one thing for enduring all of The River -- it sure makes whatever he plays after that very much appreciated.  In fact, the rest of the set brought tears to my eyes, which usually happens at least a couple of times at the best of these shows.  The hour-and-a-half post-River set was moving, through not revelatory; impeccable, without passion. It was about the past -- our past, his past -- not the present.

It started with "Badlands", not usually a weeper for me.  "I ain't no sin to be glad you're alive..." I felt the heart in "No Surrender".  "Now I'm ready to grow young again..." The two cuts from The Rising -- the title song and "Lonesome Day" -- brought me back to that  great comeback tour and the whole album, the single greatest artistic expression of 9/11 emotion produced by anyone in any medium.  "It's alright/It's alright/It's alright/It's alright yeah!".

Nils Lofgrin spun on his heels, his rock star tassels flying, during an incendiary solo during "Because the Night", a rare moment -- for this show, certainly -- of unplanned spontaneity.  Or maybe they planned it. But not like that. Even Nils couldn't have planned it just like that.

Then came "Jungleland", apparently called as an audible.  The audience sang along and Bruce let us until he gradually took control of his own lyrics and voice.  By the time Jake Clemons took his late uncle's great solo -- as he was all night, musically perfect, note for note, if not as emotionally invested as the Big Man (how could he be?) -- I was reduced to a slobbering, crying grown man.  "Kids flash guitars just like switchblades..." In that moment, I wanted Bruce and Steve to do that guitar battle I saw back in 1978, when they both "reached for their moment and tried to take an honest stand". It seemed to last forever.  They wouldn't let it go.  They couldn't.

These things don't happen with the E Streeters any more, except by design.  The deaths of Danny Frederici and Clarence Clemons took much of the heart and soul of the band and time has taken the rest.  The band is still the best in the shrinking rock band genre; talented veterans with the best technology.  And (except for Steve, I imagine) they are totally Bossed, with a job to do.  Any passion there is comes from the songs themselves, not necessarily by their current sparkling execution. Maybe, still, capable of spontaneous combustion, but nobody asks them to do that thing any more.

There will be no more Super Bowl Slides at these shows by Bruce, who is still in great physical shape for the long show (with no breaks) but, unlike before when he did it because he was a passionate, jazzed-up, crazy motherfucker, he does it now by measured, well-paced endurance.  At 66, he is finally showing his age.

I'm sure this has been going on for a while and I've just refused to notice, but this show lacked two of the most important elements that I love most about the Springsteen experience -- spontaneity and whimsy.

First of all, you can forget about spontaneity in a concert in which you promise you are going to play a double-album from beginning to end. That also effects the rest of it, now rushed and constrained to an-hour-fifteen, tops -- and don't forget to leave 9 minutes at the end for a pointless rendition of the over-played-to-infinity "Shout".

As for whimsy...defined as "playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor", by has always been an element of not only Springsteen shows, but his earlier work.  There are songs -- "E Street Shuffle", "Spirits in the Night", "So Hard to Be a Saint in the City" and, god help us, "Kitty's Back" -- that represent the best of Bruce -- passionate, playful, lots of chord and tempo changes.  They worked on record and have completely rocked in concert when the time and the band was right.

The only song of this kind that the band played here (and, apparently, everywhere) was "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)".  I was shocked in Chicago how dry and rote this was played, and it didn't get any better here.  All of the essential parts were there -- all that stuff going on out in the street, but "Rosie you're the one"...the sax break...the guitar duel..."don't you know daddy's comin"...  But where's the joy?  I know it's too much to ask to go back to the days when Clarence and Bruce exchanged that beautiful sloppy kiss at the climax, but is it too much to ask for something real, and really in the moment?  "Hey, man, they did Rosalita!!" Yeah...I guess they did...

Bruce Springsteen has given me some of the best, highest moments in my life -- and that is no exaggeration.  They were the kind of moments you never get from distant rock stars; the kind of moments that usually only happen with family, lovers and friends.  We were both in the right place at the right time, more than once, whether he knows it or not.  I'll never forget that.  I'm just not expecting it to happen again.

"I'm done," he said.

Yeah. I think I am too.