Breakthroughs, Bitterness and Biopics

Music biographies mesmerized me when I was a kid. Whether it was Glenn Miller or Elvis Presley, it was always the same fascinating formula: talent and tenacity leading to the precipice of success, with the artist always searching for that one elusive element to define his signature sound, to breakthrough. With Miller it was the addition of trombones. The proceedings always put me on the edge of my seat and the breakthroughs set me reeling. I guess it was in my blood.

It persists. The other night I watched two great documentary-style biopics on TV, one on Johnny Cash, another on Willie Nelson. Willie, as many of his fans may not realize, was actually a Nashville songwriter penning such classics as “Crazy,” which Patsy Cline etched into the music lexicon. Despite his preeminent status as a writer, Willie couldn’t get arrested as an artist in Music City. His quirky phrasing was way too off-beat for the 60s sound, which was infused with sweet strings and pop arrangements.

At the age of 40, Willie returned home to Texas. Such a move would have meant a life sentence selling insurance had history not intervened. As fate would have it, Woodstock Nation had opened the doors to multiple music movements by the early 70s, and Willie realized that such hippie hangouts as Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters were ready for a new kind of country artist. He enlisted his buddy Waylon Jennings, among others, and set about launching a novel sound to a new audience. His ultimate success turned country music, and the music establishment at large, on its head. Ultimately, he was responsible for redefining music, establishing its “outlaw” class and creating the Austin revolution as well as worldwide social activism that persists to this day.

Despite his huge outsider success, Nashville rejected this giant yet again. By the 1980s, you couldn’t find a Willie song on mainstream country radio, and forget about a major label deal.

Okay, let’s get right down to the hard part. Cash was just another music god to be tumbled unceremoniously from Olympus. By the 80s, he, too, was cast out like so much trash. His popularity was dwindling, and he was struggling to find an audience and make a living.

So these outlaw outcasts banded together, literally, forming the country supergroup The Highwaymen, along with Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. Talk about a Mount Rushmore of talent. They had taken fate into their own hands and, once again, set out to redefine the music scene, outside the establishment, all on their own.

A Bronx boy, I was still getting my country legs under me, when I hit Nashville in the late 80s. At the time, I couldn’t understand why the likes of Willie and Johnny weren’t getting mainstream air play, why I could eat lunch with Emmylou Harris but couldn’t hear her songs on country radio, why Nanci Griffith was considered a darling in all the clubs, to all the execs, but couldn’t get the chart toppers and eventually carped about it in interviews.

I was just getting introduced to the hard truth of the music industry: bitterness. Griffith was bitter, my friend Artie Traum (from back home in Woodstock) — one of the sweetest guys to ever grace the business — was expressing a degree of bitterness, too, in interviews of the day. I was just learning.

The songwriting trade in Nashville was rough. By year two, I was saying you had to learn to live on a diet of stones. Rejection was the blue-plate special everyday. It took me two years to get my first major song contract and more to get my first staff writing job and my first cut. Everyone who stuck with it had war stories: the song on hold that never happened, the artist cut that got dropped by the label or never got released as a single or didn’t make it above 20 on the charts. But, despite eventual successes and even industry support, I left after a decade to pursue a career as an artist, packing scars and wisdom, love and hate.

But back to Johnny Cash. One of the greatest artists to “walk the line,” he faced the pure pain of artistry more deeply, more movingly than anyone before him. Late in his career, with the help of producer Rick Rubin, Johnny faced his inner darkness, his demons, his truth, his soul. With such albums as “American Recordings” and “Unchained,” he found a vast and vital new audience, just years before his death. His new material was so raw that family members had a tough time listening. They told him it sounded like he was saying goodbye. He told them he was.

Pure Johnny Cash

In the Cash bio, artists such as Sheryl Crow, John Mellencamp and Vince Gill expressed the true painful tumble that all artists must face. Mellencamp himself recently penned a telling if rambling article on the biz in HuffPost, a blog post that established a wellspring of conversation in the social media sector.

So, this little Bronx boy, who reeled from the Glenn Miller story and cut and broke his teeth on Music Row, finally came to understand bitterness and the role it plays in any music career. No one is exempt. It may be (excuse me) a bitter pill to swallow, but I recommend downing it to develop a good artist-immune system. Another words, one has to learn to deal with it, embrace it, pain and all, and find a way to move on. Carry it on your back, in your suitcase, in your heart, on your skin — the rose tattoo of the music artist.

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Manson Family: Still Evil After All These Years

Like Forrest Gump, I seem to be placed in historic moments. In the wee hours of the morning of Aug. 11, 1969, the Los Angeles Police stopped my travel companions and me. We were on our way out of town in my 1948 Cadillac hearse. It was the morning after the LaBianca murders, and just two days beyond the Sharon Tate massacre.

They searched the 22-foot-long vehicle and checked out its hirsute occupants. At the time, we had no idea why they had stopped us. They released us, to continue on our way to, oh yeah, Woodstock.

Our path through history had also taken us through Eureka, California the morning the Apollo 11 crew took their first giant step for mankind just a month earlier. My post “Moon Landing is Backdrop to Song” captures the irony of that moment.

Actually, we all seem to be reliving these events as 40th anniversaries abound. But this post isn’t my “On the Road” chronicle. It’s about the Manson clan and their quest for freedom.

My take is simple: no. No parole. No freedom. No leniency. Not for Susan Atkins. Not for Leslie Van Houten.

I’ve never been big on the death penalty, but I’m sorry the Manson team wasn’t fried. Their original death sentences were commuted to life behind bars, when the Supreme Court struck down death penalty laws in 1972. Consequently, now the families of Sharon Tate, her murdered friends and the LaBiancas must suffer the pain of further hearings, of impassioned pleas for mercy from the famous and the infamous, and of the possibility that one or more of the clan — specifically Atkins and Van Houten — could be set free.

True, Atkins, 61, is paralyzed and has terminal brain cancer. According to CNN, in her 1993 parole board hearing, Atkins said Tate:

asked me to let her baby live. … I told her I didn’t have any mercy on her.

But, according to Time.com (Time Warner owns CNN), Atkins really said:

Look bitch, I don’t care about you. I don’t care if you are having a baby. You are going to die and I don’t feel a thing about it.

The latter account is just a tad bit different in the evil department. Maybe Atkins’ reinvented, kind persona just “can’t handle the truth.”

Sharon’s sister, Debra Tate told CNN this spring that Manson family members convicted of murder should remain behind bars. She said the slayings were:

so vicious, so inhumane, so depraved, that there is no turning back. The ‘Manson Family’ murderers are sociopaths, and from that, they can never be rehabilitated. They should all stay right where they are — in prison — until they die. There will never be true justice for my sister Sharon and the other victims of the ‘Manson Family.’ Keeping the murderers in prison is the least we, as a society who values justice, can do.

Meanwhile, Van Houten continues her request for release. Her latest supporter is filmmaker John Waters. In a recent piece on Huffpost, he says, believe it or not:

I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness. Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do.

CNN’s Erica Hill featured Waters on a show earlier this week. He pitched his latest book, “Crackpot,” and attempted to explain his friendship with Van Houten. CNN’s AC360 is doing a weeklong special on the Manson murders.

Water’s sense of justice is misplaced at best. Maybe he’s just trying to reclaim his past celebrity. He’s always courted the outrageous, so why should his appeal hold, uh, water.

So I’ll think of the victims of the Tate-LaBianca murders on this anniversary and forget once again the evil clan who took their lives in such cruel fashion. Then, I’ll move on to celebrate Woodstock as I did when I pulled away from the Los Angeles police back in 1969.
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Moon Landing in Iran

The riveting events in Iran could be compared to the moon landing in 1969. Perhaps because they are world changing, keeping the planet on the edge of its seat, so to speak, wondering what will be?

They are very different, yet they are also similar. The moon landing had nothing but upside, launching the imagination of mankind, exciting us with what could be.

Yet the same could be said for the circumstances in Iran. After all, the Iranian people have harnessed the power of technology, brought it to a new level, caused us to feel the world will never be the same again.

In Iran, dictators may fall at the hands of the people. And, in this case, their hands are nothing more than their voices. Perhaps never again will strongmen be able to suppress the voice of a willful people. It sets the mind and heart to reeling.

It’s 1969 all over again. Isn’t it?

Excerpt:
The riveting events in Iran compare to those of the moon landing in 1969: world changing, exhilarating, setting the mind and heart to reeling.
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Iran Updates (VIDEO): Live-Blogging The Uprising


Totally expected whitewash from Khamenei. Yet there is opposition reported in the clerics’ ranks. Lead cleric and former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a Moussavi supporter, may play a pivotal role. Despite Khamenei’s threats, the demonstrations are continuing. This isn’t over by any extent.
More on Iranian Election
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Iran: Washington Responsible For Post-Election Protests


No surprise here. Simple bait and blame. Obama is taking the right stand for the time being. He shouldn’t play into Ahmadinejad ‘s or Khamenei’s hands. Besides, a strong hand right now by the U.S. might actually turn off the Iranian street. I venture they want freedom and world support, but likely don’t want to look like U.S. shills either. They need to establish their own autonomous voice.
More on Iranian Election
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost

Bait and Blame in Iran

Surprise, surprise. Khamenei whitewashes, err, sanctions election of Ahmadinejad, warning opposition leaders that they will be “responsible for bloodshed and chaos,” if they don’t shut down opposition rallies. The blame baiting continues, following accusations from Iranian leaders of U.S. intervention. According to today’s HuffPost:

Iran directly accused the United States of meddling in the deepening crisis over a disputed presidential election and broadened its media clampdown Wednesday to include blogs and news Web sites. But protesters took to the streets in growing defiance of the country’s Islamic rulers.

In contrast, there may be division in the mullah ranks. The Lede blog recounts New York Times U.N. Correspondent Neil MacFarquhar’s report of an underlying power struggle among Iran’s clerics. He notes that lead cleric and former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a Moussavi supporter, may play a pivotal role:

One of the country’s most influential clerics, Mr. Rafsanjani has been notably silent since Mr. Ahmadinejad was declared the winner last week, and there has been speculation that Mr. Rafsanjani is in Qum trying to muster clerical opposition to the country’s leaders. But those reports are difficult to confirm with any authority.

Mr. Rafsanjani leads the 86-member Assembly of Experts, whose duties include endorsing the performance of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who on Saturday called the election’s outcome “a divine blessing.” In theory, the group has the power to remove him, but that has never been done and any attempt to do so would probably further inflame the situation, analysts said.

The analysts say about a third of the Assembly members are loyal to Mr. Rafsanjani. Of the other members, perhaps a quarter are considered loyal to Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, a mentor to Mr. Ahmadinejad and a staunchly conservative figure who has suggested that allowing the public a voice in elections serves only to sully God’s laws. The rest are viewed as independents who could vote either way.

Meanwhile, Middle East expert Fawaz A. Gerges discussed social underpinnings in Iran yesterday morning on CNN, with John Roberts. A Sarah Lawrence professor, Gerges explained that young women and youth in general want more reforms than even the opposition leader Moussavi offers. He is an excellent source for cultural analysis in Iran. Gerges is a frequent CNN guest. Check out this transcript page from the day of the Iranian election. In it, Gerge provides good background on the workings of Iran’s culture today.
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Twitter Nation

What to make of this freshet of posts raining down on us on Iran? Here in America, we are naturally excited by any peoples taking to the street in the face of stolen elections, repression, state murder. Furthermore, to see technology level brutality and class the way it has flattened major incumbent industries like music and journalism is downright heady.

Now Twitter, for one, an almost so-yesterday communications channel has suddenly been pressed into the service of freedom. Just a few weeks back Ashton Kutcher was turning the mini blog into a joke. Then this week, the U.S. State Department convinced Twitter to delay a scheduled maintenance downtime, to keep the Iranian movement of packets and pixels from shutting down. The CIA is likely stepping up efforts to recruit social-media gurus with the urgency of the Yankees seeking a starting pitcher in late July. Name your price.

Maybe YouTube, Facebook and Twitter are the newest class of drones. Maybe the people of the world are the new army. And no one saw this coming. Even the relatively progressive CNN was left clueless in the rush, failing to compete with the reportage from the electronic front over the weekend. The Grey Lady, too, has had scant front-page real estate devoted to these events, handling them instead in The Lede, their news blog (which is itself well done).

As a pr guy, I read the journal Ragan.com daily. For months Twitter has dominated the headlines. Yes, because it is a useful tool, but more because it made for trendy headlines. So, where are they now? Today’s e-mail newsletter contains no Twitter coverage. I suppose they don’t do revolution.

Now for an over view of today’s coverage:

HuffPost’s Nico Pitney is leading the field, tirelessly collecting and analyzing coverage from all media and social-media quarters. Late this afternoon he posted a heated debate between American Enterprise Institute’s Danielle Pletka, the Atlantic’s Andrew Sullivan and a Twitterer named khoobehi. It all started with Pletka’s op-ed piece in the New York Times that minimized the five-day-old Iranian uprising as “little more than a symbolic protest” that was “crushed by the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.” Sullivan uncovered her neocon pedigree and suspect motives, while this khoobehi character managed via tweets to get Pletka to backpedal a tad.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on the social media phenom:

A couple of Twitter feeds have become virtual media offices for the supporters of the leading opposition candidate, Mir Hussein Moussavi. One feed, mousavi1388 (1388 is the year in the Persian calendar), is filled with news of protests and exhortations to keep up the fight, in Persian and in English. It has more than 7,000 followers.

BTW, mousavi1388 doubled his followers since the Times’ citation this morning.

Update: the Twitter maintenance occurred early this evening.
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