Tuesday, December 27, 2011

On Life, Death, Baseball and Lynn Samuels

End of the year stories often end up as lists of the "best of this", and the "worst of that", and so on. In fact, though it is common practice for most newspapers and magazines to run their own big fat editions with bloated versions of the ten best, and worst lists, these editions are usually just boring retreads, and barely readable.
It wasn’t any list that had a lasting effect on me this year. It was, sadly, two deaths,of two completely different types of people that really gave me pause to think about the very nature of both life and death.
Life: it's not just the physical actions of breathing, eating, walking, loving, and sleeping. Life is best defined as the maximizing of each waking moment, doing things that are fun, and that make you, and other people happy. For some people, myself included, in my childhood and early adulthood,the game of baseball WAS life itself. I lived it, breathed it, even once rode my bicycle 22 miles to play in a Babe Ruth League baseball game, having forgone a trip to Las Vegas with my dad, just to get my turns at bat. Later, I tried out, unsuccessfully, for the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies. A blown out shoulder and less than stellar running speed were my undoing, but my passion for the game was as strong as ever. This was evidenced by the dozens of Yankee and Mets games I drove hundreds of miles to attend. I almost always brought a glove with the hope of catching a foul ball hit into the stands. After all, catching a foul ball was akin to winning the lottery to a kid. At the very first baseball game my dad took me to, in 1971, the New York Yankees were playing the Washington Senators. My dad and I had seats in the upper reserve section behind home plate in the old Yankee Stadium. A foul ball was hit right at my dad, who had his hands held in the basket position ready for that as-precious-as-gold bit of horsehide and yarn to settle itself into them. I still remember how my pulse raced and how all sound seemed to hush as the ball arced its way up, and then down…smack into the single, meaty hand of some hotshot who stuck his arm up right in front of my dad’s waiting grasp. For the rest of the game all I could think of was that baseball and all my dad could do was keep asking the guy to give up the ball so I could have it for a souvenir. I think he even offered him 20 bucks, but it was not to be. Ironically, it wasn’t until many years later that I finally got a foul ball, hit by Bobby Murcer, that bounced into the stands and pinballed around the floor under the seats until it bumped up against my foot, where I skillfully bent over and picked it up. No pulse racing, no hand reaching over to grab it—just me and a baseball. And the thrill of a lifetime.
It was with that thrill still somewhere in my memory that I read the sad story of Shannon Stone, a good and kind man, a fireman, and father, who had taken his young son, Cooper, to a Texas Rangers baseball game this past July. At the game, another good and kind man, a ballplayer named Josh Hamilton, tossed a foul ball to Shannon Stone, for his son. His throw was a bit off and when Shannon Stone reached to catch it, he toppled over a railing and fell many feet to the concrete floor below. As he was being carried out on a stretcher, still conscious, he was asking that people take care of his son, who was now alone a deck above. Sadly, Shannon died from his injuries, leaving what should have been a beautiful memory for his son, Cooper, as a nightmare instead.
What struck me so about this incident was the reaction of Shannon’s mother, SuZann Stone. Recalling the joy that her own son had once felt when her husband, Al, caught a foul ball for Shannon himself many years earlier, she was intuitive enough to realize that there was another victim of the tragedy---Josh Hamilton. Hamilton, understandably, had stopped tossing balls to fans. SuZann related to a reporter what she had written in a note to Josh Hamilton. She said, “Shortly after the accident, there was some discussion about whether foul balls should be thrown into the stands to the fans. I wrote to Josh Hamilton, and I said: ‘Please, don't stop throwing those balls. Because that's so important. That's why daddies bring their little boys to the ballgame... for memories like that. Please don't stop.’"
Her grandson was dead. Josh Hamilton was traumatised. But SuZann Stone knew that life is more than flesh and blood. Hopefully she got the message clear to the heart and mind of Josh Hamilton. She sure got through to me. Life is so much more than the physical actions that make it work.
Death: There were a lot of celebrity deaths this year, Amy Winehouse being the most egregious case of a life wasted, pun inferred but not intended. It wasn’t Winehouse whose passing really bothered me, though. It was the Christmas Eve heart attack death of Lynn Samuels. If you lived in New York anytime in the last 40 years, you knew who Lynn Samuels was. Her New Yawk Jewish accent sounded like exaggerations of both aspects but it was her real voice, a one of a kind sound that was immediately recognizable and definitely NOT for radio, which is, in this ironic world, exactly where it would be heard for decades.
She was crude and crass. She leaned politically left but opined the other way at times. She loved alt-rock but her last theme song was ABBA’s poppy little ditty "Nina Ballerina". She lived alone, comparing herself to a bag lady at times, but it all seemed to be an act to the casual listener. To real fans, as I was, she was the real deal. We knew. Of course, radio isn’t the largest medium, and save for Howard Stern and a few others, it is more of a pleasant distraction, even for real fans. And so when Lynn Samuels lost her regular weekday gig and was moved to weekends several months ago, I didn’t make the effort to listen to her as much, and I am sorry for that. When her co-worker, Alex Bennett, made the announcement, via Facebook on Sunday that Lynn had passed away sometime early Saturday, it came as a huge shock. As details hit the press, about Lynn not responding to a cue for her show, broadcast from her home on an ISDN line, and how Sirius radio sent someone to check on her, only to find her dead of an apparent heart attack, all alone, I became even more pensive.
She used to talk of retirement. She loved and yet hated the city, or what it has become, and had travelled a lot in search of a place to retire in comfort. The list seemed to be down to either Scottsdale, Arizona or Charleston, South Carolina. Callers were encouraging her to move, to get out of New York and do her show from her new digs where she would be comfortable, but she always had an excuse. I figured that the move to weekends would probably be the last straw before she left for her golden years in a sunny clime. Instead, she breathed her last in a cramped apartment in Queens, in a neighborhood that she called little Ecuador. I’m not sure that she knew what life was all about anymore. Maybe I don’t have it exactly right, but dying alone in a cramped apartment isn’t life. It isn’t even death. It’s just sad.
There is no big conclusion to be drawn from these deaths. People die all the time. But it is how they died that makes the lives they lived more or less meaningful in our minds, or at least gives us a little insight into their world. Shannon Stone died while trying to make his son happy. Lynn Samuels died alone in a place she despised. She made the choice, of course, but that doesn't change the sad ending to her story.
So as the year ends, there are no lists. Instead, I leave you with a quote from Bob Dylan, who said in his Academy Award acceptance speech: "...bless you all with peace tranquility and good will."
And to that I add life---heavy on the life, to us all in the new year.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Freedom of Speech: Ours to Lose

Is it “Freedom of Speech” or “Freedom of Speech…as long as you don’t say too much?”
The Internet has sure changed the game, hasn’t it? Where once responsible writing and journalism were the expected behavioral norm, now, it appears that with the increased exposure and freedom, and by extension greater power, come greater irresponsibility.
It may have been intended to be funny. Someone with too much time on his or her hands thought that declaring that musician/philanthropist Jon Bon Jovi was dead at age 49, a few days before Christmas, was somehow a good idea. On its face it was shocking and terrible news—a man who, by all accounts is a good man, a generous public figure and a husband and father with a fine reputation both in his community and in the world community---was dead of mysterious causes. Deeper thought about it only makes the fraud worse---he has a wife and children who might have been browsing the web—what would their reaction be if they had, for whatever reasons, not seen him all day? Imagine the panic that would have set in. The man also has literally millions of fans and admirers, including a lot of very young teenaged girls, especially, who might have reacted badly, and who might have injured themselves, or worse.
It’s not the first time that something like this has happened on the internet---it’s just the most recent. A recent court ruling states that so called “bloggers” (“blog” is short for “web log”) are NOT subject to the protections of the First Amendment to the Constitution where journalists are concerned. In short, just because you go online and write a regular posting (your humble columnist is among this group) does NOT make you a journalist. When you work for a newspaper, or magazine, or radio and TV, and some internet sites, you are protected (your humble columnist was also a newspaper reporter in New York for years, and as such was subject to those very same rights) as long as you are careful to check your facts and be able to back them up. As a reporter, it was my job to tell the story of whatever I was assigned to cover, from local town board meetings to criminal activity. As a columnist here, (writer of opinion pieces that incorporate facts with my own thoughts) I still must adhere to the rules of journalism. I am free, as everyone is, to voice my opinions, but the facts that inform them must be valid and true, or I, and more importantly, the newspaper, could be subject to lawsuits for libel.
Bloggers on the internet have no such restriction, excepting themselves. Oh, it is possible to sue someone for libel, but after the fact it is akin to prosecuting someone for stealing your car and wrecking it. You make them accountable eventually, but the damage is done. A car is a car, but a reputation is altogether different, and if someone ruins it by writing blatant untruths, it can ruin a life, or lives.
Our freedom of speech is maybe our greatest freedom. To exploit it in such stupid ways is the real crime because too much abuse might make it go away, and if that happens, we are no better than those we deride for their more restrictive societies.
So, happily, may Jon Bon Jovi live forever, and the same wish to our First Amendment rights.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kramden on Kristmas

It was a much bigger deal when I was a kid. Early on, I remember big trees with a truckload of presents for my sister and myself, all crammed under the lights and ornaments and fake snow, which smelled awful and tasted worse. Then, after tearing through the gifts, wrapping paper covering every square inch of the living room, we would run out into the real snow of the Adirondack mountains and make snow angels and forts and we could see the smoke rising from every chimney in Brainardsville, New York. It was pretty special.
Then life happened and as we got older our family fell apart, so Christmas was kind of awkward, and became something to be endured rather than celebrated. One part of the day was spent at my dad’s, where I lived, and the other at my mother’s, where my sister lived. Those Christmases were not fun, and I would have rather just not bothered. But that was a long time ago, and a million miles away. These days, I don’t really celebrate the day, but a strange thing has happened. I really appreciate the day. Not for religious reasons—I’m not religious—but for the outpouring of infectious goodwill and joy that I see it brings to other people. I like the music—Christmas songs have the most beautiful melodies—Do You Hear What I Hear?, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, Oh Holy Night, those tunes are timeless and achingly beautiful, and modern Christmas songs like Happy Christmas(War is Over) by John and Yoko Lennon, and I Believe in Father Christmas by Greg Lake are also big favorites.
I also used to like to watch the classic Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer on television. The man who wrote it lived near my house in upstate New York. His name was Romeo Muller, and he looked exactly like the Santa character on the show. In the summers he would drove around in a big convertible car and it always seemed like High Falls, New York was Santa’s summer home because we would see Mr. Muller in his car.
Maybe my favorite Christmas memory, though, is a small part of another old television show. I was an avid fan of the Honeymooners, and watching Ralph and Alice and the Nortons was a nightly event for years. Though there were only thirty nine shows made, and one of them was a Christmas show, called The Night Before Christmas. In that show, as usual, Ralph does something stupid, and has to do a mea culpa at the end, while pacing the floor, nervous at what Alice is going to say. This time though, the story line ends with a happy note, and Ralph gets to wax philosophical rather than apologetic. To this day it remains my favorite meditation on the season, and I can repeat it from memory. And thanks to Youtube, I can now watch it anytime I want to, which is often.
Ralph: "You know something, sweetheart? Christmas is -- well, it's about the best time of the whole year. You walk down the streets, even for weeks before Christmas comes, and there's lights hanging up, green ones and red ones. Sometimes there's snow. And everybody's hustling some place. But they don't hustle around Christmastime like they usually do. You know, they're a little more friendlier -- if they bump into you, they laugh, and they say 'Pardon me' and 'Merry Christmas.' Especially when it gets real close to Christmas night. Everybody's walking home; you can hardly hear a sound. Bells are ringing; kids are singing; snow is coming down. And boy, what a pleasure it is to think that you've got someplace to go to. And the place that you're going to has somebody in it that you really love. Someone you're nuts about. Merry Christmas."
My sentiments exactly. Merry Christmas, everyone.

My Friends Steve

I want to tell you about my friend Steve.
But first, I must mention that I have never met him.
This summer, while walking across the country, I received a friend request on Facebook. From my friend, Steve. I did not recognize his name, but a quick scan of his profile told me than he was a young man from right here in Jackson, Georgia. I accepted his request and we began a brief correspondence. He told me how he had been inspired by the story of my walking across the country, and how I was directly responsible for him joining the same gym of which I am a member. We had a brief dialogue about how to lose weight, and he told me how he had lost a certain amount of poundage. I encouraged him to keep it up, and gave him some tips about dietary changes he needed to make. And then we gradually lost contact, and by the end of my walk I had all but forgotten him.
Back in Jackson, life continued. Across the street from my place of business, a nondescript triangle of grass and dirt in the middle of an intersection began to change, transformed by hardworking men into something quite different. The early word I had heard was that it was to be a memorial park to fallen soldiers. I didn’t pay it much attention until it was close to completed, and the black marble slabs that would eventually contain the names of soldiers were in place. To be honest, I had thought that the world didn’t need yet another tribute to dead soldiers. But I admired how pretty the thing was becoming.
When it was almost complete, I noticed that each day, a man with a cane would linger around the park, watching the men who would eventually sandblast the names into the marble. It is a very intricate process, with rubber stencils with the names and information already on the stencils, computer generated, I suppose, and then adhered to the stone with something sticky. I was fascinated, and dismayed at the number of soldiers whose names were on those slabs of marble. I approached the man with the cane and asked him if he had lost someone on the wall. He informed me that he was actually waiting to see his own name engraved. He showed me where his name was on the stencils, and it was then that I realized that the park wasn’t for the dead as much as it was for the living, and that it was a beautiful tribute not to martyrs, but to the brave men and women still with us, and able to appreciate the deserved tribute.
I looked at his name. It was the same name as my young friend Steve. I asked about the coincidence, and the older man told me that my friend Steve was his son, Steve Junior. I related our brief correspondence of the summer and he stopped me in my tracks and proceeded to tell me some very nice things that his son had told him about me. It was good to hear that I truly had had a positive impact on a young man.
So Steve the elder now has his name proudly displayed, honoring his service to our nation. And I still have not met young Steve, but yesterday I did receive the following message from him on Facebook:
“Hey Mr. Jim, my Dad was diagnosed yesterday with stomach cancer...we were supposed to go to the Atlanta VA tomorrow but they don’t have any beds available.”
It is Christmas time, folks. Please, in addition to the flatscreens and expensive toys that are going to be gifted this year, please remember to send out some prayers and good thoughts for my friends, Steve. Both of them.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Day John Fogerty Spoke to the Vietnam veterans

We call them by the generic and overused but righteous name of “hero” now. They fight for us, keeping us free and safe from evildoers. They put it all on the line, and sometimes, sadly, they lose it all. As a Veterans Memorial Park across the street from where I write this says, “All Gave Some, Some Gave All”. In 2011 , soldiers are somewhere on the pedestal next to Jesus and Mom and Pop. It wasn’t always that way though, not by a long shot. I’m talking about soldiers---the men and women who fight for this country and do not question their orders.
They used to be called “babykillers”, “thugs”, “murderers”, and more. They were spat upon in airports, attacked, and castigated, and after their particular war, the conflict in Viet Nam, often had a hard time returning to a society that treated them like outcasts. And many of them had been drafted into service, against their will, where they did honorable jobs doing very dishonorable acts. And some gave the title of soldier a bad name: witness the My Lai Massacre, and other atrocities. War itself is an atrocity, though, and it was a time where the divide between the young , anti-war and politically left leaning students and the older, pro-war factions fromtheir parents’ generation were at greater odds than ever before. The summer of love, Woodstock, and several political assassinations, along with the daily body counts from the war had rocked the world like never before.
And speaking of rock, it was rock and roll music that was the soundtrack for the era, and the war, and groups like the Doors, and Crosby, Stills and Nash provided the music that will forever be associated with that time and place. Certainly hindsight helps—Apocalypse Now, for instance—Francis Ford Coppola’s use of the Doors still resonates, as did Billy Joel’s Goodnight Saigon, with the line, “we passed the hash pipe, and played our Doors tapes…”
There was one act, though, whose songs really burned themselves into a nation’s soul, no matter which side you were on: Creedence Clearwater Revival. John Fogerty, he of the odd hair and flannel shirts---wrote songs as tuneful and smart as anyone, and the general appeal of his music meant that he had fans on both sides of the aisle, much as Bruce Springsteen would have a few years later. I’ve known many the diehard rich Republican who loves the song called Fortunate Son, even though it is directly and pointedly about his party, and not in a good way at all.

And so it came to be that more than a decade after the Vietnam war had ended, the soldiers, now veterans, were still being called baby-killers. Slowly, though, as information gradually came to light---information about some of the sinister misdeeds that the powers that lead had conjured up, information about the use of chemicals like Agent Orange and other health damaging substances, and conditions at home, the collective consciousness of the country began to change, and the plight of Vietnam vets, many of them homeless and unable to help themselves, became more and more clear to the general public. Someone came up with the idea of holding a concert, as a way to welcome home the Vietnam vets in rousing fashion, and as a way to say, “Mea culpa” and try to at least begin a healing process.

It was to take place in Landover, Maryland, on the perfect date: the 4th of July, 1987. The Vietnam War had been over for some 13 years, but the veterans who had fought in it, and who had been so publicly demonized for their part in a war that the United States had no right even being involved in, were still carrying a lot of baggage. Emotionally, it was still a very rough time. Physically it was even worse for many, with crutches, canes and wheelchairs all in abundance, as the vets walked, rolled and hobbled into the Capital Center for a benefit concert to honor them, and to raise to help homeless vets.
The lineup for the concert was impressive. Among those who were scheduled to perform were Lou Gossett Jr., Peter Fonda, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Linda Ronstadt, James Ingram, Anita Baker, Crosby, Stills and Nash, Richie Havens, , and John Fogerty.
Fogerty especially was a surprise because he had rarely played in public for many years, being held almost prisoner of a draconian contract that would not allow him to play any of his own songs, classics which he had recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR). He had recently released an album, Centerfield, containing all new material, his first in ten years, and he was just beginning to make public appearances in support of it. He even had early legal problems with the new album because of one song, called Zanz Kant Danz, a less than thinly veiled jab at record company honcho, and the source of Fogerty’s misery, Saul Zaentz. Zaentz, who owned Fantasy Records, CCR’s label, sued Fogerty for plagiarizing himself, a novel concept, claiming that The Old Man Down the Road, one of the new songs, shared a chorus with Run Through the Jungle, a classic CCR song that, while written by Fogerty, was copyrighted by Fantasy Records. Lawsuits went back and forth, with Fogerty winning reimbursement for his attorneys fees, and Zaentz getting a bit of redemption for his defamation of character suits due to Zanz Kant Danz (Zanz kant danz but he’ll steal your money,” the lyrics read) and another song called Mr. Greed.
The concert, called the Welcome Home Concert, was meant to be a feel good event. Veterans were admitted free. It was broadcast on HBO, who opened their signal to all for free. Various speakers like Lou Gossett Jr, who had played a Vietnam pilot in a film, and who came of age in the 60’s, addressed the crowd, as did many artists, writers, poets and others.
It was John Fogerty, though, who took things up a notch. After a slightly strange introduction by Peter Fonda, “Here is a guy who believes in his music…I believe in his music…and that belief has cost him over the years…but he’s refused to sell out…..so for some of the most KICKASS (nods head) ROCK AND ROLL ANYWHERE… here’s JOHN FOGERTY!”
Shortly after this, you could hear a sound man say loud and clear: “This is gonna blow your mind!”

Fogerty and band hit the stage, and broke into the opening notes to the new song Old Man Down the Road, playing them over and over until it almost seemed that he had forgotten the words. It was widely becoming known that he would not play any CCR songs due to his legal troubles with Fantasy, and Saul Zaentz. But then the band slowed down and gradually just stopped playing, leaving a feedback drone in the air which suddenly and skillfully turned into the introduction to Born on the Bayou, a Creedence standby. The audience, who had been sitting on their hands for the most part, went nuts. The song finished without a word, and was immediately followed by Down on the Corner, another instantly recognizable classic from the CCR oeuvre, and then, after huge applause, Fogerty spoke.
“I just want to tell you something real short…and sweet. I’m talking to the vets here….I myself have gone through about twenty years of pain…and I finally faced that pain. I looked it in the face and said well… You got a choice…you can do it for twenty more years or you can say, well, that’s what happened. You can’t change it that’s just what happened. So I’m telling you guys, it’s what happened…you got the shaft. You know it, we know it. It’s reality. So drop it. In fact, send me a letter…Berkeley, California…but you promise me something…you send the letter--- you drop it in the box and then you drop all that shit you been carrying around. Is that a deal? And get on with it buddy.
The applause that followed this impromptu little sermon wasn’t as vigorous or as loud as it had been for the music. I recall sitting and thinking that he was somewhat off base, comparing his legal contractual problems to those very real and very onerous issues that the vets were facing, and that it was not going to make him look like anything more than a spoiled musician who had lost touch with reality. But the music…the music that he played, both before and after his little speech was so profound in its power and beauty that all was forgotten and tacitly forgiven. As I listened to my recording of that day many times over the years, though, I still always felt a little embarrassed for Fogerty every time the speech part played. I wondered if anyone else ever thought about it, or felt the same way as had, or was everyone just caught up in the moment, and had disregarded it completely?
Then I discovered several posts on Youtube of the segment, and the commentary following them is divinded and telling. I was not alone in feeling both the power of the music and the doubt as to whther Fogerty shold have said what he said.
Samples: Richmullinax said: I was there for this, 7/4/87 and it was one of the best rock-n-roll experiences of my life. He had a strict policy of NOT playing CCR tunes, except for the induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame the previous year and one other guest appearance a few years previous. We had NO IDEA he was going to pull this stuff out! NO ONE expected CCR material! The sound guy in the back ground was right. it DID blow our minds!
A newspaper reviewer added the following in the days after the concert: That blunt advice (Fogerty telling the vets to drop it and to get on with life) marked the only time that the participants in the concert…didn't coddle the veterans, and it came as a bracing tonic amid the prevailing blandness.

From some veterans themselves came bitterness:
“I guess it’s easy for someone who was not even there to casually say ‘Hey, just forget it’ I doubt it is that simple John.” said one, using the name blackbeltpatriotism, as a comment to a blog entry in 2010.

Said another, treehot16: “I always liked CCR until I saw this clip. Still like the others in the group, but Fogerty has no idea what he is talking about. Been forty years, but the pain is still there. Thank God for the VA. I’m still alive.
Randymemphis said: Yes, I reckon he could have held back his thoughts on this one. Never tell someone how or what they should feel, If you have never walked in THEIR shoes.
So, opinions were divided. Some felt Fogerty, who had joined the reserves back in the 60’s as a way to avoid getting drafted, should have kept his mouth shut. Some people resent being told how to feel about an issue, especially when they are knee deep in it. Others feel, as I do, that once a certain amount of time has passed, that it is time to move on. We mourn our dead, adjust, and move on. That is exactly what I think John Fogerty was saying on that day almost 25 years ago. Then too, the Vietnam war was the most recent conflict. Now, in 2011, we have several wars of more recent vintage to ponder, and we have thousands more dead, and it still goes on and on. It may never stop.
But as long as wars are fought, and powerful music is made, I hope that common sense thinkers like John Fogerty will still be around to keep it real. And as long as soldiers continue to fight for the right to speak freely, the circle will remain unbroken.