Bye Neil, and Thanks

Seems like we’re more consumed with headshots — a la gunmen gone postal — these days, but mid-20th century it was moon shots. Actually meant something back then. The NASA rover Curiosity is bombing around Mars at the moment — unmanned, of course. But the country is more consumed with cat vids. Whatever happened to dreaming? Big ideas? Big steps?

One small step

Certainly, Neil Armstrong knew something about big steps. The iconic astronaut passed away Saturday at the age of 82. I have my own memories of that fateful day, framed by the surreal counterpoints of the times. Following is an excerpt from a post commemorating the 40th anniversary of that moon landing.

I was in a second-rate hotel in Eureka, California the day the Apollo 11 crew landed. I was with my own merry band of pranksters on a cross-country trip in my 1948 Cadillac hearse. As we descended into the hotel lobby, Walter Cronkite’s voice crackled from a TV, saying something like, “What a great county…I just don’t understand these hippies…” The TV was a table model that sat on a broken Sylvania console. Behind these proceedings, a derelict American Indian lumbered along the street in the hot California sun. What an ironic scene. Could have been out of an Antonioni film.

P.S. Okay, so was originally thinking of heading this post with some play on “the Eagle has landed.” Didn’t. Then, the next morning, while shaving, I looked out my bathroom window to see a magnificent bald eagle wheel across my front lawn, lighting in a big oak. How’s that for synchronicity?

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The Hot Ride

A heat bomb hit me when I slid into my Chevy today, a welcome rapture after an icy winter in upstate New York. It took me right back to the tireless Nash that was heaped among the weeds in my boyhood, nested among toads and copperheads in a bungalow colony in Peekskill.

A James Deanish boy named Leif was my summer partner in crime. He was the true grit country boy, I, the city kid learning the ropes. We were just short of teenage, and that mechanical skeleton was our rocket to the moon.

We sat in the stultifying July sun, hornets circling; our souls exulted from the dusty upholstery scents as we took turns behind the hot steering wheel, the battered speedometer feeding our imaginations. The cracked and crazed sheet metal became a time machine, taking us on far journeys through states that were as yet unknown. Our young hearts baked and burned. Turn after turn, we explored, escaped as if mapping out the rest of our lives.

I have no idea what happened to Leif after that summer. Year after year, my own soul baked on: in my father’s Studebaker, Dodge; in my first car, a 1948 Cadillac hearse. That black monolith took me to California and back twice, tracing every road I had imagined in that magical Nash.

It persists. I’ve since traveled the back roads of most states. My wife, Roxanne and I continue the journey every chance we get: Cross Creek, Savannah, New Orleans, Pueblo, Greensboro, Kansas City, Barstow, Staunton, Albuquerque. Somehow, it’s always just beginning, when the sun enwraps you behind the wheel.

America is in my blood, my bones, as evinced in my writing. Check out this raw reality in the video to my song “Miss America.”
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Honeyboy’s Grammy: A Moment for a Great American Voice

The legendary bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards received a lifetime achievement award at last night’s Grammy Awards ceremonies. One of the last of the first generation bluesmen, Honeyboy was a close pal of Robert Johnson and a contemporary of Charley Patton and other blues pioneers.

The 94-year-old Honeyboy was instrumental in establishing a unique American voice, one that was born of slavery and struggle, spirit and magic. It’s a rich history that begat rock and roll and even rap. Artists from Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones to Jay Z emanate from those underpinnings, and many more contemporary artists have paid homage to this field of music from which they came.

If the blues seems like a quaint, dusty, irrelevant music genre, give a listen to Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Johnson and Honeyboy. Listen long in the dark with your eyes closed and go on a journey to the center of the American music universe. And when you turn the lights on, read a copy of the late Robert Palmer’s “Deep Blues,” a thorough primer on the music and its handprints on American culture.

Dave "Honeyboy" Edwards, left, and Allen Shadow.

I got a chance to talk with Honeyboy after one of the many blues concerts I’ve promoted over the years that have included the likes of Buddy Guy, Koko Taylor, James Cotton, Earl King, Little Milton, Odetta, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Honeyboy was as charming as he was informative, happy to tell stories of Johnson and the early days. I considered it an honor and was pleased to see this giant of American music recognized last night.
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Catcher 22: Holden Caulfield Today

“The Catcher in the Rye” was as singular a novel as the voice of J.D. Salinger, who passed away on Thursday. To my generation – The Who, Woodstock and all that – it was the bible for the disaffected, misunderstood teenager, who was ready to flip from Peter Pan.

Of course, the flipping continued. After high school, there were new discoveries on the road, so to speak, to self-discovery: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Hemingway, Dylan, the Beatles, the Williamses (Tennessee and Hank), the Millers (Henry and Arthur), Lorca.

But today’s youth don’t have time for such protracted processes. As Jennifer Schuessler put it, writing in the New York Times last June:

Today’s pop culture heroes, it seems, are the nerds who conquer the world — like Harry (Potter) — not the beautiful losers who reject it.

Some critics say that if Holden is less popular these days, the fault lies with our own impatience with the idea of a lifelong quest for identity and meaning that Holden represents.

Since the 1980s, I’ve been saddened by the fast-track trajectory of college students. Pressure to choose a gilded career flattened any chance for soul searching during its ideal developmental period. No doubt many college students in recent times have bounced from major to major, from career to career, and have fallen under the wheels of life a few times. Yet something still seems lost in today’s culture.

Nevertheless, I’m convinced there’s something inherent in human nature that seeks its own inquisitive level despite the “so now” pressures and distractions of the times. Our three-year-old grandson, Russell is as spoiled with store-bought toys as many, but I was heartened to see that his favorite play thing of late is an empty chewing-gum box — the best gift his pappy ever gave him.

The soul lives on.
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Dems ‘Double’ Up on Racism

It would be comical if it weren’t sad, the transparent rationalization of Senator Harry Reid’s comments on the complexion of Barack Obama, the candidate.

I understand the president’s acceptance of the senator’s apology and his need to bar the White House door against a political tempest. But trying to explain away Reid’s choice of words as “inartful” does nothing more than put a ribbon on a rat.

Many influential African Americans have gone on the record in defense of Reid: CNN Political Analyst Roland Martin, PBS Editor and Senior Correspondent Gwen Ifill and John L. Jackson, Jr., author of Racial Paranoia. Furthermore, liberals galore – and I’m no conservative — are smugging up the joint. Case in point, Frank Rich, who writes in his Sunday column:

For all the hyperventilation in cable news land, this supposed racial brawl didn’t seem to generate any controversy whatsoever in what is known as the real world.

I suppose the “real world” would be rationalization nation, which, to me, is populated by hypocritical apologists.

Excuse me ladies and gentlemen, you’re focusing on trees: there’s a forest out there in them thar words. Shall I parse their highly charged meaning?

I’ll take a crack at it. Essentially, by saying Obama would work as a presidential candidate because he was light skinned and didn’t talk like those negroes (I exaggerate here to make a point) is racist pure and simple. You don’t have to be a linguist to read between these lines and their attendant implications. Turn the phrase around, and here’s what Reid is really saying: “I’m sure glad he doesn’t look real dark and talk, you know, real Negro.” Another words, this guy isn’t like those real dark black people who scare the pants off us white boys.

Exaggeration? If so, by how much. It’s all code, man, and we’ve all been around enough to know it. High-minded parsing can’t explain it away.

It’s a Democratic double standard, pure and simple. Maybe that’s why I became an independent long ago.

And, by the way, happy birthday, Martin Luther King.
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PR Artillery Needed in Obama’s War Room

The elephants in President Obama’s war room are so faint on the media radar-screen as to be nonexistent. What pachyderms, you say?

How about, while the Republicans hammer the press on Barry’s warrior meter — including the Christmas Day debacle and his battle terminology – the administration has failed to remind the public that it helped take out some 30 al-Qaeda leaders in Yemen just weeks before Abdulmutallab took a bathroom break over Detroit.

Not to mention the dozens of successful drone hits in the outlaw hills of the ‘stans during the president’s scant time in office. According the Washington policy group The New America Foundation, as reported in the New York Times:

More C.I.A. drone attacks have been conducted under President Obama than under President George W. Bush. The political consensus in support of the drone program, its antiseptic, high-tech appeal and its secrecy have obscured just how radical it is. For the first time in history, a civilian intelligence agency is using robots to carry out a military mission, selecting people for killing in a country where the United States is not officially at war.

Obama’s stealthy war strategy keeps the left in the dark, and opens him to jabs from the right.

Furthermore, the president should court the moderate Muslim community, which is beginning to get ink stateside, albeit buried in the noise of political skirmishes, airport jitters and bloated bank bonuses.

As Tom Friedman revealed a week ago, the battle against terrorism requires meaningful participation from moderate Muslims.

…no laws or walls we put up will ever be sufficient to protect us unless the Arab and Muslim societies from whence these suicide bombers emerge erect political, religious and moral restraints as well — starting by shaming suicide bombers and naming their actions “murder,” not “martyrdom.”

I keep saying: It takes a village. The father (of Abdulmutallab), Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, saw himself as part of a global community, based on shared values, and that is why he rang the alarm bell. Bless him for that. Unless more Muslim parents, spiritual leaders, political leaders — the village — are ready to publicly denounce suicide bombing against innocent civilians — theirs and ours — this behavior will not stop.

In fact, national newscasts included American-flag-waving Muslims speaking out against terrorism outside the courthouse during Abdulmutallab’s arraignment.

Obama should meet with prominent Muslim groups asking for their help in taking back their proud religion and way of life. He should take to the podium and call for the heads of Saudi Arabia, Jordon and other moderate Middle East states to speak out and take a leadership role.

If I were his PR man, that’s what I’d tell him.

Allen Shadow (aka Allen Kovler) is a veteran PR man, accredited by the Public Relations Society of America.
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9/11 Redux: Intelligence Fails to I.D. Plot

Blame it on bureaucracy. Blame it on inter-agency culture wars. No matter, the ball dropping in the Flight 253 case is eerily similar to intelligence failures leading up to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Flight 253 on the ground in Detroit.

This unfolding story is chilling. As reported in this today’s New York Times, the National Security Agency picked chatter from Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen outlining a terrorist attack involving a Nigerian man. But various intelligence agencies failed to put the pieces together and thwart Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s aerial act over the skies of Detroit.

Furthermore, agents at National Counterterrorism Center in Washington didn’t connect those National Security Agency dots, when Abdulmutallab’s prominent banker father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, made urgent appeals to U.S. State Department officials and the C.I.A. regarding his son’s radical intentions. According to the Times:

A family cousin quoted the father as warning officials from the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency in Nigeria: “Look at the texts he’s sending. He’s a security threat.”

The cousin said: “They promised to look into it. They didn’t take him seriously.”

The new details help fill in the portrait of an intelligence breakdown in the months before Mr. Abdulmutallab boarded a plane in Amsterdam with the intent of blowing it up before landing in Detroit.

In some ways, the portrait bears a striking resemblance to the failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, despite the billions of dollars spent over the last eight years to improve the intelligence flow and secret communications across the United States’ national security apparatus.

Unfortunately, these calamitous events have produced mostly political finger-pointing and posturing. And officials have rushed to save face by burdening innocent air travelers with a series of ridiculous security measures. It’s like closing the airport door after the bomber is out. The solution is simple: make the inter-agency intelligence system work. In fact, start by search any of the 550,000 on the broader watch list when they show up at an airport. Isn’t that better than overburdening tens of millions daily.

The Times’ Scott Shane did an analysis of these events as well, comparing the current events with those of Sept. 11:

The finger-pointing began in earnest on Wednesday over who in the alphabet soup of American security agencies knew what and when about the Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up an airliner.

But the harshest spotlight fell on the very agency created to make sure intelligence dots were always connected: the National Counterterrorism Center. The crown jewel of intelligence reform after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the center was the hub whose mission was to unite every scrap of data on threats and suspects, to make sure an extremist like Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be bomber, would never penetrate the United States’ defenses.

“It’s totally frustrating,” said Thomas H. Kean, chairman of the national Sept. 11 commission. “It’s almost like the words being used to describe what went wrong are exactly the same.”

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