Weblog of Leland Rucker
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Category — Interesting Stuff

We Watched a Man Named Armstrong Walk Upon the Moon

Neil Armstrong (NASA image)

Neil Armstrong: August 5, 1930 – August 25, 2012

Black boy in Chicago
Playing in the street
Not enough to wear
Not near enough to eat
But don’t you know he saw it
On a July afternoon
He saw a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Young girl in Calcutta
Barely eight years old
The flies that swarm the market place
Will see she don’t get old
But don’t you know she heard it
On that July afternoon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon
She heard a man named Armstrong
Had walked upon the moon

The rivers are gettin’ dirty
The wind is getting bad
War and hate is killing off
The only earth we have
But the world all stopped to watch it
On that July afternoon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon
To watch a man named Armstrong
Walk upon the moon

Oh, I wonder if a long time ago
Somewhere in the universe
They watched a man named Adam
Walk upon the earth

– “Armstrong” by John Stewart
From the LP Cannons in the Rain (March 1973/RCA Records)
Listen to the song here.

August 27, 2012   No Comments

You say Grossman; I Say Goldman

A sharp-eared listener (thanks Ginger) caught me calling the notorious manager of Bob Dylan and the Band Albert Goldman during the Levon Helm tribute program on KGNU.

Everybody knows it’s Albert Grossman.

Albert Goldman

Both of them were about the same age; Albert Grossman was born in 1926, Albert Goldman about a year later.  Each had some connection to rock and roll, and both were almost equally reviled for their efforts in that regard.

Albert Goldman was a teacher and an author, and it was his efforts in the latter that earned him the disdain of rock cognoscenti. His biographies of Elvis Presley and John Lennon dared to look down the subjects, instead of up. Each book had its flaws, but it was his disdain for two pop superheroes that pissed off most who read it. His biography of Lenny Bruce isn’t as reviled. His biography of Jim Morrison remains unpublished.

I would certainly recommend Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Presley over Goldman’s, but after reading Tim Riley’s exhaustively researched Lennonbio, I don’t think Goldman, though he makes some rather ludicrous assumptions, was that far off the mark about Paul McCartney’s songwriting partner.

Albert Grossman circa 1966

Albert Grossman was once the most powerful manager in the music business, and a model for an entire breed of manager that thrived beginning in the 1960s. He was, as promoter George Wein told author Fred Goodman in Mansion on the Hill, “a strong, one-way street. He was a brilliant man and a good man in his way, but a tough son-of-a-bitch.” And though he was militant about protecting his “artists,” his arrogance generally drove away all his clients, including Bob Dylan, whom he famously managed from 1962-1970.

But the most interesting thing is that both men died on jets heading from the U.S. to London,  Grossman of a heart attack Christmas Day 1986 aboard the Concorde at age 59 and Goldman on March 28, 1994, aged 66.

As it turns out, I walked past Albert Grossman once. It was forty years ago this month. I was in Chicago, May 1972, at a Peter Yarrow/Lazarus concert. After the show I saw this fellow standing near the doors cupping a cigarette in his hand who, as best I could figure, looked like Benjamin Franklin. I wasn’t sure it was Grossman, but since he created Peter Paul and Mary, it seemed right. Years later I began reading other descriptions of him as looking like a certain bespectacled founding father.

May 16, 2012   No Comments

Jesus Christ — The Superstars! Buffalo Bill & Little Missie

What is it about superstars? Why do they so fascinate us?

I thought about that as millions mourned publicly for Whitney Houston last month, as I read Tim Riley’s John Lennon biography, and again after finishing Larry McMurtry’s The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (Simon and Schuster 2005).

Buffalo Bill: The first superstar to go viral.

Annie Oakley and Bill Cody were among the first real American celebrities, those people — mostly actors, musicians, athletes or media professionals — who become stupendously successful. McMurtry notes that we don’t remember any of the other big names from that period when live shows about the West were as popular as stadium concerts today. Pawnee Bill, Ned Buntline, Doc Carver, Johnny Baker and Lillian Smith were all renowned performers of their day. But we remember the Colonel and Little Missie. They were superstars.

And as such, McMurtry makes an equally good case that Oakley and Cody were also among the first to get swept up in the frenzy of celebrity, something they didn’t understand and ultimately weren’t able to control. In their wake, few have.

His wry, common-sense style is perfect for this kind of interpretive historical story-telling as he traces the arc of Oakley and Cody’s triumphs and tragedies, always questioning what made them so darned popular.

“Superstars cannot exactly create themselves, no matter how skilled – the public cannot be manipulated vis-à-vis superstars only up to a point. The public must, at some point, develop a genuine love for the performer – a love that grows as long as the performer lasts,” he muses. “When great stars die, thousands mourn and mourn genuinely. Exactly how this chemistry works, no one quite understands – but some deep identification is made or superstardom doesn’t happen.”

In Cody’s case, at least part of it was that he actually was a scout in the 1870s, a man of the frontier, as well as an entertainer. But Oakley, on the other hand, was just a performer who dressed in buckskins and was a damned good shot.

Luck and circumstance certainly have something to do with it. Cody’s life as a frontiersman overlapped with his performing career. His Wild West Show idea was prescient, and though he never got to see his dreams materialize, he was a film visionary as well.

He was almost certainly the first artist to go viral. His iconic image, first immortalized in dime novels, books, and on posters, sitting on a horse in buckskins looking out at the endless prairie, is still as recognizable today as it was around the turn of the twentieth century. Everybody saw his image somewhere. We all know Buffalo Bill.

McMurtry wonders aloud why Robert Duvall, an extraordinary actor who, for all his skills, isn’t a superstar, while John Wayne, hardly in the class of Duvall as an actor, was. “The sonofabitch just looks like a man,” McMurtry quotes director John Ford about Wayne. McMurtry ponders that it might be something in the way superstars move. Was it because Oakley would give a little back kick when she did well or would visibly pout when she missed that made the audience love her? Was it because Buffalo Bill looked as good on a horse as Wayne did when he sauntered, his walk slightly tilted, into a movie saloon?

In the end, like the rest of us, McMurtry has more questions than answers about superstardom, and he seems to be as bemused as the rest of us about it all, but the book is quite enjoyable. Perhaps in this case, the quest will have to be enough.

March 8, 2012   No Comments

Getting Lost in Shangri-La

I got Lost in Shangri-La (Harper 2011) for a few days last week. What’s not to like about Mitchell Zuckoff’s non-fiction book about a plane crash in New Guinea in 1945? It’s a World War II story with adventure, intrigue, danger, a daring rescue mission and a head-turning WAC, who is among the Americans who survive a plane crash in a remote canyon peopled by Stone Age tribes not listed on any maps and rarely seen by modern-day humans that gets its name from the 1933 James Hilton novel that captured my imagination as a kid.

Margaret Hastings gets her photo taken with a tribal child after a plane crash in the New Guinea wilderness in 1945.

That’s about all I’m going to say about one of the most interesting and eccentric tales of the Pacific War. On a personal note, my father was stationed on the western coast of New Guinea, an island known for its incredible natural beauty and, as Zuckoff writes, “a gift-box assortment of inhospitable environments,” for five months in 1944. Like many stationed there, he left after conracting malaria in August, several months before this incident happened, but most surely he was aware of the rumors of the hidden valley GIs called Shangri-La, and he must have read or heard news reports about this incident while recovering back in the States.

What I found as interesting as the book itself was how the author came across and pieced together the whole story, which happened sixty-seven years ago. Zuckoff’s interest was piqued after finding a newspaper story about the incident, which, mostly because of Margaret Hastings, the Women’s Army Corps survivor, got lots of contemporary press in the waning days of WWII, while researching something else. He found one living survivor, who had kept a diary and his memories, which in turn led him to the families of the other survivors, many who had journals, documents, photographs, letters and personal details about the strange story. Using these first-hand materials, Zuckoff was able to bring the very human story to life and render it in a way that it almost reads almost like a novel.

Dozens of black-and-white photos throughout the book really help advance the story, and Zuckoff posted a contemporary documentary film of the event on his website, which I’m not going to link to here because you need to read the book before you watch the film. Great page-turner for a vacation or to snuggle up with for a weekend.

January 25, 2012   1 Comment

Quanah Parker’s Star House

I have a thing about old buildings, especially ones where history took place. Whether it’s standing inside Buffalo Bill’s hunting cabin outside Yellowstone Park in Wyoming or listening to Randy Newman at Chautauqua Auditorium in Boulder, for that matter, old buildings have a way of making history come to life. This is especially true when those buildings are in out-of-the-way places that you have to seek out.

The Star House's red roof is lower left center, not far from the railroad tracks and behind the amusement park. Only in America. (Click to bigginate.)

That’s why I want to go to Cache, Oklahoma. Yeah. Really. I just finished S.C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (Scribner), which traces the story of the fearsome, decentralized Indian nation that once commanded huge swaths of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico until its leaders surrendered to U.S. forces in 1875.

As with all books about the European/American extermination of Indian tribes from the Great Plains in the late 19th century, Empire of the Summer Moon tells a sad story about a miserable, irredeemable period in U.S. history. I realized how little I knew about the Comanches or the Indian wars in Texas and Oklahoma as Gwynne masterfully points out the pros and cons of both sides.

The book drops you into the Texas frontier in the early 19th century as whites sweeping westward begin tangling with those tribes and their lifestyle on the Southern Great Plains. Gwynne’s descriptions of the tribes’ nomadic life are as breathtaking as his exploration of how the Spanish, during their ill-fated attempt at conquest of the Comanches, among their many mistakes, unwittingly gave the Comanches the very thing – horses — which the Indians would then use to drive out the Europeans and stave off, at least for a while, their own extinction.

But the magic of Empire of the Summer Moon is how all this history weaves into and around the stories of Cynthia Ann Parker and her son, Quanah Parker, the last of the great Comanche chiefs. Apparently, if you grew up in Texas, you know the story of how Cynthia Ann was captured by the Comanches in 1836 at age nine in a brutal massacre against her family’s compound – she witnessed the torture and murder of her grandfather and gang-rape of other women during the incident.

Click on this to get a close-up of the immediate area.

Cynthia Ann was spared, eventually married Chief Peta Necona, had three children and was completely assimilated into the tribe for 24 years before being recaptured by famous Texas rancher Charles Goodnight and returned to her white family. Incomprehensible as it seemed to everyone at the time,  Parker rejected white society and tried to escape many times as she was shunted through a miserable life among her relatives. She never saw Quanah or her children again and finally starved herself to death in 1870.

Her first son with Peta Necona was Quanah. Six feet tall, with long hair, a stately mien and steely stare, Quanah Parker was a highly regarded, especially fearless and murderous chief of the notorious Quahadi Comanche band. Parker fought ferociously and killed and tortured many who chased the Quahadi before finally surrendering at Ft. Sill in Oklahoma in 1875.

For the last thirty years of his life, he lived out the life his mother could never accept. Perhaps more than any other Native American chief, Parker had moderate success living within the constraints of reservation life.  Though uneducated, he had great persuasive skills, and he traveled to Washington to lobby Congress on the behalf of his tribe. He was a founder of the Native American Church Movement peyote religion.

Perhaps the best expression of his desire to live in the white man’s world was the house he built near Cache, Oklahoma. It was a ten-room, two-story structure, a place where the great and the unknown came to pay their respects to the old chief. President Theodore Roosevelt dined at Parker’s house, and his table was always filled with people who wanted to meet the great chief.

Quanah Parker

There is an old photo of the house surrounded by a white picket fence in the book, and near the end, Gwynne says that he found Parker’s Star House, behind an abandoned amusement park near Cache. Beyond the peculiarly American irony of its location, this got me very excited. I quickly went to Google Maps and typed: Cache, OK. I moved down to the local level and began scanning, found a park northwest of town, and there it was, right behind what looks from the air like an old amusement park.

But what guided me to it so quickly were the stars on the red roof. You see, one story says that old Chief Parker, perhaps in a religious vision, had stars embedded in the roof of his home like those he supposedly admired on uniforms. The Star House. So I like to think that Parker himself helped guide me, lo these many years later, right to the spot.  I have to see this.

Read about our 2014 trip to see the Star House here.

December 10, 2011   3 Comments

Among the Truthers: Life in Conspiracy World

In Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, journalist Jonathan Kay, an editor at the National Post in Canada, examines the history of conspiracy theory in America and takes a long look at some of the people and ideas behind the 9/11 Truth movement.

I feel a lot like Kay in that I did an honest search of 9/11 theories. After reading the Truth material and the official Commission Report and many books, including The Looming Tower, and watching, ad infinitum, the videos of the event, like Kay, I concluded that it was much more likely that al Qaeda operatives hijacked four jets, of which three hit their targets than it is to believe that American neo-cons used passenger jets to hit three iconic, already explosive-rigged buildings, attacked the Pentagon with a missile and made several hundred people go away, presumably under hidden identities, never to be seen by their families again.

And like Kay, I don’t consider “truthers” to be, as he puts it, nutbags. If al Qaeda committed the crime, why do so many people believe that Cheney did it?

If you’re looking for more on thermite in WTC debris, or analyses of how Building 7 collapsed or what flying object hit the Pentagon, you won’t find it here. But if you want to better understand why so many people believe in things like this, it’s good background. Kay devotes chapters to conspiracism’s history and mythology, its psychological and religious roots and its advancement through media and academic and activist networks. Especially interesting are the sections on earlier alleged conspiracy plots – Ku Klux Klan, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Holocaust revisionism JFK etc. Kay does a great job of showing how many of the old themes and mythologies are woven into many of today’s conspiracy theories.

He also makes a good point that, though conspiracy theories have always been with us, it is the Internet that has accelerated and advanced the 9/11 Truthers’ cause and conspiracy theory in general. Virtually anyone with web access is free to check any of this out in the privacy of your own home. Gotta love it.

(More of my thoughts about 9/11 Truth.)

December 3, 2011   No Comments

A (Yawn) 4/20 Event at CU

This year we were joined by Lenny Bruce, Mick Jagger, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon and Dennis Hopper.

I took the bus over to 4/20, the Smokeout that has taken place at 4:20 p.m. on April 20 at least back into the 1980s on the Quad of the University of Colorado. Waiting at the bus stop on Table Mesa, I watched groups of kids mostly, with surfboards and phones, walking toward the campus, talking and texting. At every stop, more people piled on, more than I’ve ever seen on a Dash, almost all of whom got off at Euclid south of the Quad. Four other people on the bus were writing; I was the only one with paper, which at least I found amusing.

A group of people made their way through the crowd with signs that suggested burning weed instead of oil.

I met Gil at the Pleasant Street stop a little after four, and we joined the throngs walking into the Quad, which was already jammed with smokers, hangers-on and the curious by the time we got there, just like the other time I attended two years ago. Airplanes dove in close, one with advertising trailing behind it, others, no doubt, filming. Police stood around looking bored, although there were, according to the paper, 11 people arrested for possession, a minor offense in Boulder.

A string band played quietly near the south steps of Old Main, where a photographer was stationed on the roof. Since cell-phone times are a bit off, there was a solid cheer and the smoke became thicker at 4:19, at 4:20 and 4:21. This one has become more of a media event than anything else. I found myself taking pictures of other people taking pictures of what was going on.

This magic moment: Balloons bounced and flags flew through the thickening smoke as the time grew closer to 4:20.

The papers said there were 10,000 people there, but the number could just as easily have been 15,000, many no doubt lured by the publicity generated by local media and a chance to get a buzz with strangers.

That was about it, and we were back in Gil’s office by 4:35.

A string band played quietly over by Old Main.

For all the media attention given it — Playboy magazine (it still exists?) declared CU the top party school in the country mostly because of this three-minute event, TV stations hype it because they have video from last year, and the local paper, the Camera, has been hyping this for days  — this is a real snoozer of a happening.

April 21, 2011   1 Comment

Buck Rogers and the U.S. Budget

The cutline beneath this illustration actually says: "An optimistic artist's rendering of a fully operational Maritime Laser Demonstrator." And this is what is off limits to the budget debate?

I found this “news story” from LiveScience on the MSNBC website It begins with a catchy headline and lede to draw your attention, but it’s really just a glorified press release.

Navy Raygun Disables Boat With Laser Weapon

“With their (sic) new high-energy laser weapons, the U.S. Navy has succeeded in combining buccaneers and Buck Rogers. Called the Maritime Laser Demonstrator, the ray gun quickly disabled a small boat in a recent test.”

Wow. Cool. Just like in the movies. Ray guns. Buck Rogers. Buccaneers. It even includes a video of the “Maritime Laser Demonstration.”

The story goes on to explain that the high-energy laser properly functioned as a weapon on the high seas, something “offensive lasers” have had difficulty with, and that “the lessons learned while developing the laser may prove more valuable than the laser itself.”

And here’s the clincher: “Such lasers could one day protect military vessels from the same kind of tiny boat that almost sunk the destroyer U.S.S. Cole by augmenting the small machine guns already aboard American warships.”

The U.S.S. Cole, you will remember, was attacked by al Qaeda suicide bombers from a small boat on Oct. 12, 2000, in Aden harbor, Yemen. Seventeen U.S. soldiers were killed and 39 injured in the blast, which blew open a huge hole in the destroyer. The story says “ONR developed the laser in conjunction with the defense company Northrop Grumman. The program had a ceiling value of $98 million, and took about two and a half years to complete.” Which begs two questions: a) How many other “offensive lasers” have we built before this one? b) is the U.S. spending at least $100 million and probably a lot more to make sure a small boat with suicide bombers can’t take out a destroyer in a harbor again?

And you gotta love the use of  “could one day” to remind us that this is an early test of some weapons system designed for the future. The cost doesn’t matter, though, because it’s part of the military budget, which makes up enough of a percentage of the total U.S. budget that cuts in its excesses alone could probably make up for most of the one percent our lawmakers and president spent six weeks dithering on about while network news ran countdown clocks on the government shutdown. And that those of us whose money goes toward it have no idea what the hell’s going on.

But what’s interesting is that while we just endured one of the most disgusting, embarrassing debacles in executive/legislative history over a total of one percent of the total budget – with more to come on another couple of percentage points – our government develops weapons programs that we “could” use years down the road and probably will sell to other countries for their wars. And all we ever hear about it is some MSNBC press release that today passes for news in the U.S.? Or this intriguing “infographic” explaining how laser technology can be used to create mayhem and blind people? (Apparently not the laser technology that optometrists use.)

This is just the tiny tip of the iceberg? When will we have a debate in this country over our secret military budget? When will we even be able to see the military budget? When will we ask why, in the name of “security,” we as a country are the major arms supplier in the world? When will we ask why not cut back on future weapons programs instead of arguing over Planned Parenthood?”

April 13, 2011   No Comments

Kilroy Is Still Here!

I don’t remember much about my father, but one thing has stuck in my mind over all these years: It’s this little story he would tell while sketching a funny character on a piece of paper. I have not been able to remember the story, or what the cartoon actually looked like, but I distinctly remember Garold drawing this little caricature and telling a story around it as he penciled it in.

I have tried everything to figure out what that illustration was.

Seeing this face gave me a wild case of déjà vu.

Now, all those decades later, that little mystery has been solved. One of my RSS feeds is linked to the Urban Legends Reference Page, and I recently found one about the Kilroy Was Here phenomenon. I took a look at the drawing and got an wild sense of déjà vu.

I began looking around for more about Kilroy and the illustration. Its etymology is unclear, but it is certain that G.I.s in World War II got into the spirit of spreading “Kilroy Was Here” around the globe. The stories are legion, but their ubiquity during this time helped them become synonymous with U.S. presence around the world. YouTube has several Kilroy Was Here items, including this old novelty recording of “Kilroy Was Here,” by Ted Fio Rito and his Orchestra, with Bozo the Clown as the voice of Kilroy – perfect for the character as drawn, don’ think?

Among the many stories about Kilroy on the semi-official website for Kilroy is this one: “(Under Water Demolition – later Navy Seals) divers swam ashore on Japanese held islands in the Pacific to prepare the beaches for the coming landings by U.S. troops. They were sure to be the first GIs there! On more than one occasion, they reported seeing ‘Kilroy was here’ scrawled on makeshift signs or as graffiti on enemy pillboxes. They, in turn, often left similar signs for the next incoming G.I.s.”

This is probably where Garold ran into Kilroy, and, along with the déjà vu,  it strengthens the case that Garold, who was shipped home from the beaches of New Guinea with malaria in 1945, impressed his young sons in the early 1950s by telling a story while drawing four horizontal lines in the same plane. Then he added the nose and fingers as he explained more to fill in the blank spots in the lines. Then the eyes, the head and finally a little sprig of hair, and Kilroy, with his long nose, is peering over the wall. You couldn’t really tell what it was until he added the last lines, and he would say, triumphantly, “Kilroy was here.” I loved it and would ask him to do it over and over again, and he obliged many times.

At this point, I am grateful for any knowledge of my father. Thanks to Kilroy for giving me another small morsel.

April 6, 2011   No Comments

Sweet Lunacy Comes to YouTube

It was ten years ago, on March 24, 2001, that Sweet Lunacy: A Brief History of Boulder Rock, was first screened at the Boulder Theatre, the opening act for the 25th reunion concert of Dusty Drapes and the Dusters.

Don Chapman and I had worked on and off for more than two years on the documentary, commissioned and funded by a grant from the Boulder Arts Commission for Boulder Municipal Channel Eight. We filmed a host of people who had been part of the music scene in Boulder from the 1950s, when Ray Imel Sr. and Rex Barker opened Tulagi, through the Astronauts, Flash Cadillac, the Dusters, Michael Woody and the Too High Band, Judy Roderick, Zephyr, Firefall, Big Head Todd and the Monsters and many others  into the 1980s, when the Fox Theatre began hosting live shows, and boiled down more than 30 hours of interviews into a one-hour documentary.

Don put the finishing touches on it that morning, and standing there watching it amongst my friends and more than a thousand people for whom it was made was one of the great hours of my life. It has been showing regularly since its release on Channel Eight.

But for ten years, that’s the only way people could see it. Because of budget and staff cuts, Channel Eight no longer makes copies of the film available. At present, it is only available if you have access to Channel 8, and it is not on a regular schedule, so it is truly accessible to only a scant few people.

Meanwhile, requests for it have remained pretty steady over the years. It was originally made for VHS (remember that?), and in a digital world many people who only have it in that format might no longer be able to access it. Others who were interviewed or played a part in the film have never seen it. I get emails inquiring about it, but beyond burning and sending a physical copy, there is no legitimate way for people outside of Boulder to see it.

The arts commission’s only charge to Don and me was to get it in front of as many people as possible, and the way to do that today is to make it available on YouTube. It needs at least the chance to go viral.

It’s now at sweetlunacyboulder, chopped into four easily digestible 15-minute segments, thanks to the lovely and talented Lauren Winton. I have added some notes so you know what’s in each segment, and I’m sure I’ll be playing with annotation and other stuff to make it more easily understood. More about Sweet Lunacy and its making here.

If you are interested in screening the film, please contact me at leland.rucker@gmail.com. But most of all, please, enjoy.

April 1, 2011   1 Comment