Weblog of Leland Rucker

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On the Day Pot Becomes Legal, It’s Reefer Madness Again in Boulder


Bike rack, Table Mesa and 40th Bus Stop, Boulder, Colorado. (Leland Rucker)

Bruce Springsteen put it aptly at his Denver concert last month. “I understand that Colorado just underlined its Rocky Mountain High.” The word’s getting around about our state, the budding Amsterdam of the American West.

On Nov. 6. about 55 percent of Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which allows anyone over 21 years of age the right to have an ounce or six plants of marijuana for personal use.   Even glowing-red El Paso County came out for decriminalization, though just barely. Voters in Denver and Boulder overwhelmingly supported the amendment and were mostly responsible for its passage. Today, December 10, 2012, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed the amendment into law.

Colorado voters in 2000 approved a constitutional amendment allowing medical marijuana for patients with approved cards in Colorado. But it wasn’t until the spring of 2009, following a Justice Department edict that said that the federal government wouldn’t interfere with state marijuana laws, that Colorado erupted in a crescendo of craziness and reefer madness.

Under a volcano of optimism, entrepreneurs – old pot dealers, mom-and-pop businesspeople, everybody, it seemed  – got into the legal medical business. Legislators, caught off guard, for whatever reasons, didn’t deal with state regulations for months, leaving it to local jurisdictions to deal with an onslaught of dispensaries, grow operations and card-carrying patients. Cities reacted in various ways. Some banned dispensaries outright; others, like Breckenridge, completely decriminalized pot within its boundaries.

That crazy period is well documented in Pot, Inc.: Inside Medical Marijuana, America’s Most Outlaw Industry, a great book by Greg Campbell, a Ft. Collins journalist who writes of getting a medical marijuana card and growing six plants in hopes of selling to dispensaries amidst the craziness.

Now Colorado has legalized pot, which brings up more than a few grams of questions and even more reefer madness. First, it puts the federal government on notice that more and more of its citizens, even those who don’t smoke pot, are sick and tired of the hypocritical Drug War rat hole down which billions of our tax dollars plunge each year criminalizing the act of smoking a plant anyone can grow and Grandma now uses to ease her chronic pain. Unless President Obama’s Justice Department decides to revisit marijuana’s current Schedule 1 status, the passage of Amendment 64 might ignite a hell of a states’ right battle.

The Obama administration has followed its predecessors, waffling on its pledge not to interfere in states that have approved medical marijuana. Locally it has issued cease-and-desist orders to dispensaries within 1,000 feet of a school, even if they were in local compliance. It recently reminded Washington state, which also legalized pot in November, of its Schedule 1 status.

Attorney General Eric Holder has not replied to requests from Colorado congresspeople or Gov. John Hickenlooper, for clarity, perhaps because, when it comes to the Feds and marijuana, there is no clarity, no common sense and no science involved in its decision-making process. For seventy-five years marijuana has been demonized by its Schedule One classification, and for forty of those years the federal government has waged a so-called drug war, with our tax dollars, incarcerating mostly poor and minority pot smokers while allowing the marijuana market in the United States to grow into perhaps the nation’s largest agricultural product. Make no mistake; pot is far more ubiquitous and easy-to-find today than it was in when the government began waging war on it.

Locally, Stan Garnett and Mitch Morrissey, district attorneys for Boulder and Denver counties, announced they would drop all pending marijuana possession cases, while Weld County D.A. (and fierce opponent of Amendment 64) Ken Buck said he would prosecute people up until, well, today.

Boulder’s city attorney, Tom Carr, who was voted out of the same office in Seattle at least in part because of his anti-marijuana policies, recommended the city not allow dispensaries because the window for the state to write its regulations and the city to start issuing business licenses is only a few months away and asked a two-year moratorium before revisiting the situation. No less than Nobel laureate Eric Cornell denounced Carr’s actions, quickly seconded by former City Council member and County Commissioner Paul Danish. Wisely, current council members reminded Carr that 2/3 of the voters in Boulder approved Amendment 64 and that perhaps he should revisit his current thinking.

And then, University of Colorado President Bruce Benson, in a bizarre email sent to alumni late Friday night, wrote that he personally had worked to oppose the passage of Amendment 64 and suggested that the university might lose a billion dollars a year in funding because of its passage, an astounding claim. “The glaring practical problem is that we stand to lose significant federal funding,” Benson wrote. “CU must comply with the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which compels us to ban illicit drugs from campus.”

Benson generally keeps his opinions to himself, but he is the guy who authorized CU to spend more than $278,000 to try to stop the 4-20 Smokeout at CU in April. Congressman Jared Polis, in effect calling Benson a liar, pointed out that the university already has banned illicit drugs from the campus and that the amendment’s passage has nothing to do with CU funding. Local entrepreneur and CU donor Brad Feld called for Benson to retract his comments and leave his personal agenda out of CU-alumni communications.

There is more of this kind of lunacy ahead. Even Hickenlooper opposed Amendment 64 before its passage. Who knows what mischief our Republican friends in the state House of Representatives might already be cooking up to subvert Amendment 64 in the legislature’s next session?

All of this is just a reminder that, even here in our broad-minded enclave next to the Flatirons, a significant minority of people with significant power, for whatever reasons, don’t want to see marijuana regulated like alcohol in Colorado. Look for more insanity as reefer madness gives way to the fear of a stoned planet.

December 10, 2012

December 10, 2012   No Comments

Miller No Longer Racing Through the Dark


Want to know why cyclists dope? It's all here. So is the story of how David Millar found redemption after being banned from the sport he loved.

David Millar is a Scottish professional cyclist who was arrested by French authorities and confessed to illegal doping in 2004. After serving a two-year ban, he returned to cycling in 2007 and now races for the Garmin-Cervélo team based here in Boulder, Colorado.

His memoir, Racing Through the Dark, came out last year, but it didn’t really catch my eye until all the latest revelations about doping came to light when Lance Armstrong decided against fighting drug charges and facing a long line of witnesses who testified before the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, essentially admitting his guilt (though still denying it, of course).

It’s easily one of the best books on professional sports you’ll ever read. Millar’s story is in so many ways compelling. A gifted young athlete who loved to party, Millar’s first drug experiences came with sleeping pills, an addiction those who ride the peleton easily find, given the rigors of life on the road and riding more than 100 miles every day for three weeks. Millar came into the sport staunchly anti-dope, and if you want to understand how that attitude changed and how and why riders do drugs to compete, it’s all here.

Like most athletes, Millar got into the sport because he was supremely athletic and it was fun to compete. He became a star and team leader at an early age, winning stages in the Tour de France and other major races. His team, Cofidis, expected him to compete and win. As it became his “obligation,” injecting vitamin concoctions (called recup) after races to recover from three-week tours escalated to signing up with certain “doctor/trainers” with whom you would prepare for big tours by shooting Erythropoietin, or EPO, a hormone that occurs naturally in the liver that produces red blood cells. EPO is used by skiers, endurance runners and extreme athletes, but it has been especially prevalent in cycling. Eventually that activity landed Millar in a French jail cell.

Racing Through the Dark exposes the complete hypocrisy of professional cycling teams, most of whom end their obligation to the drug culture by having riders sign a form that promises they won’t dope. When any are caught or confess, the teams wash their hands immediately of the stench. The buck stops with the athlete. This is the same hypocrisy we see in professional sports in the United States. Just this week Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig announced that even though Melky Cabrera is serving a 50-game drug-related suspension, he could still win the National League batting title if his percentage is the highest.

That’s why Millar signed with Garmin, the American team started in 2007 by Jonathan Vaughters, an admitted ex-doping cyclist whose ambitions as a team owner to clean up the sport coincided with those of post-dope Millar. Vaughters’ radical ideas, spurned by much of the cycling establishment in Europe, include drug-testing his own athletes regularly to create blood profiles.

So far, it’s worked pretty well. Garmin-Cervélo fields one of the most competitive teams in the sport. It includes other riders who, like Millar, doped back in the day and are devotedly clean now. One of them, Tom Danielson, lives in Boulder and, post-dope, is again among the world’s top cyclists. Another, Christian Van de Velde, won the Tour of Colorado last month.

There are those who say that the past is done, and there is no need to return to it. But as Millar makes clear, cycling (or baseball, or all other sports) have to face the truth before it’s able to move on.

Which leaves us with the elephant in the room. In a sense, he already has, and I’m not suggesting he go all Oprah on us, but Lance Armstrong needs to stop living the lie everybody knows about now. Armstrong is a legitimate hero for many people, me included. Billie and I started watching cycling in 2003 after watching a particularly memorable Armstrong moment when he carried his bike across a field to catch the other riders after the stage leader, Joseba Beloki, slid and fell on the hot pavement. His books on his battle with cancer are inspirational, powerful works, and his organization is a bulwark in the fight against that disease. It takes nothing away from any of that for him to finally tell the truth and move on.

September 21, 2012   No Comments

Seeing God in Municipal Auditorium


This photo was taken from the Folly Theater building at 12th and Central, where I worked on a renovation project 1977-79. (KC Public Library)

I was forwarded the Scotty Moore website (Moore was the guitarist for Elvis Presley), which included a page with information about Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. Presley and Moore played there in May 1956, and the page includes a wealth of post cards, photos and information about the building itself. (Thanks to Mike Webber for the forward.)

Reading it brought back a flood of memories on this Labor Day. Built in 1934 as part of a ten-year plan to bring the city up-to-date, Municipal Auditorium, by the time I first began showing up, was only 20 years old. Its art-deco style, subtle lighting and quiet elegance really impressed me, and I loved going there. Some of the other buildings created at this time, including the Jackson County Court House, City Hall and the Power and Light building, are equally mysterious and enigmatic. Another thing I liked about the Auditorium was that it wasn’t built on a flat surface. Standing at Wyandotte and 14th Street, it looked like it had been built into a hill to the north. You couldn’t tell from the inside, but you certainly could from the outside.

I can’t remember the first time I was there, but it was probably a large church event. I remember being in the Main Arena, which seated 10,000, and our local Lutheran choir joined with dozens of others to raise our voices to heaven – it was incredible.

As a child, I also went there for the special Philharmonic concerts for kids in the more intimate Music Hall. I really loved these. It’s where I found out that a hymn I knew as “What Child is This?” was based on the traditional English song “Greensleeves.” The melody haunts me to this day. Another time the power went off during the performance, and the Phil, undaunted, just kept on playing, something I wouldn’t see again until Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns pulled the same trick at Parody Hall in the early 1980s.

Billie and I caught a couple of Barnum & Bailey shows there, before we stopped doing the circus-as-entertainment thing. The arena was large enough (the blog says it was 92 feet floor to ceiling) to hold even the gigantic tank that a horse jumped into during the finale of one show, or the guy shot out of a cannon at another one as well as the many trapeze and high-wire acts that dazzled us.

The arena has an interesting ceiling lighting arrangement. This was the late 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was very real. When the sermons or services would fade into the background, I would stare up and imagine people above the ceiling, watching us from their perch. You know, the people who run the world only we don’t know it. And this was before psychedelics.

The interior of the Auditorium is drop-dead gorgeous. (KC Public Library)

The Moore site includes a photo of a concert by Louis Armstrong Nov. 7, 1964, that I attended. I had escaped Kansas City to attend St. Paul’s Lutheran High School down the new I-70 in Concordia, Mo. Our class took a field trip to Kansas City that Saturday, and we somehow got free tickets at a Katz drug store downtown. Sitting high behind the stage, we watched the musicians in their dressing rooms (which were just partitions) smoking and laughing in between songs. I thought they were smoking cigarettes at the time, but after learning more about Armstrong, I’m sure it was probably something else.

“Hello Dolly” had made #1 in March, and he sang it three times that night, something I wouldn’t see again until almost 12 years later, when Willie Nelson did “On the Road Again” three times July 23, 1976, in the Arena with Tompall Glaser and the Flying Burrito Brothers as opening acts.

Other memorable concerts there included a special British Invasion reunion in July 1973, with the original Herman’s Hermits line-up as headliners with the Searchers, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders. I remember they looked so old. Good acid. Good time, and I thought again about the people who control us all above the ceiling.

Blue Oyster Cult did a great show in January of 1978, with Black Oak and a third act, Millionaire at Midnight, who turned me in the direction of the burgeoning local music scene. I was forced to review Foghat/Bachman-Turner with Judas Priest opening. Ugh. The first time I saw Jethro Tull there, people were celebrating Independence Day by throwing fireworks. The second time, when I gave my ticket to be seated, I was told that the seats “didn’t exist anymore.” He wasn’t kidding; all the seats were pushed back and it was an early mosh pit out in front of the stage.

Neil Young brought his Time Fades Away tour to the Arena with Linda Ronstadt in 1974. Riverrock and Emmylou Harris and the Hot Band opened for Jerry Lee Lewis in the Arena on May 4, 1979. When he asked rhetorically at one point, “who’ll play this old piano when I’m gone,” a woman right behind us stood up and said, “Nobody, killer, nobody but you.”

The last time I was there was in the early 1980s to see the Kinks. Beginning in 1974, they had became an annual attraction at Memorial Hall and the Uptown Theatre. But that particular time they almost sold out the Arena, and I saw a younger generation, the children of the Kinks’ original fans, singing along with every song. Absolutely wonderful.

They were with Arista at the time, and I was friendly with the rep, who was traveling with the band. After the show, in the dressing room, Ray said, “I want to meet the obituary editor and music critic,” and we talked for a couple of minutes. I always hoped he would write a song about the obituary editor who wrote about rock and roll. So far, he hasn’t.

September 3, 2012   No Comments

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

2,000 Miles of Bad Road: The Geology of Western Migration


This view in Wyoming's Sweetwater Valley looks west from Split Rock toward South Pass. (Click to enlarge.)

I don’t think I ever really appreciated the amazing journey undertaken by almost half a million settlers in covered wagons between 1941 and 1869 until I read Keith Heyer Meldahl’s Hard Road West: History and Geology along the Gold Dust Trail (University of Chicago 2007). The book follows the route of those people who crossed from Missouri to California through a mostly unexplored wilderness, as scenic and fascinating as it was forbidding and treacherous, to an uncertain future in what would become the state of California.

That’s a story that’s been told before, often and well, but author Keith Heyer Meldahl applies a geologist/historian’s skills to help explain the route as contingency history. “Historians like to talk about contingency – the notion that key events in the past (turning points, if you like) determine the course of subsequent history,” Meldahl writes. And he offers a good explanation of how geologic processes that have taken place over millions of years (and are still continuing today) shaped the routes and indeed the destinies of the emigrants making their way to the gold fields.

Driving along highways today that take us a covered-wagon’s daily mileage in less than half an hour, it’s difficult to imagine how anyone could have made — or would have even attempted —  this monumental, fraught-with-danger three-month trip. Meldahl explains how the geology made it so much more difficult. “North America’s geological story built the stage and the props, and wrote large parts of the script, for the human drama of the western migration.”

And so he tells two stories, one of the overland journey itself, mostly through the journals of the participants (a great number of people kept them), and the other the tale of how the land came to be.

It’s a great combination. My geology knowledge doesn’t extend much beyond reading John McPhee and taking the Roadside Geology series when we drive Western roads, but his analysis, charts, illustrations, diagrams and photos make it easy enough to understand how our continent pushed westward, creating high mountains ranges, scenic lakes, lush valleys, arid deserts and swift rivers, all which seemed to conspire at one time or another to keep the emigrants from succeeding in their westward quest. At one point he notes that had all these geological phenomena – earthquakes, mountain building, river and valley creation – happened mostly east to west on the continent instead of north to south, the trail would have been so much easier.

South Pass, the one place in the Rockies where you could get a wagon over the Continental Divide.

I had never realized that the science of geology during this period was just beginning to move away from acceptance of the Biblical account of creation to a more scientific way of approaching why the earth looks the way it does. This greatly influenced how the travelers interpreted what they encountered. Today, we see much the same landscape as they did, but we know a whole lot more about the forces that created it.

I found Google Earth to be an excellent companion to Hard Road West. It’s not difficult to trace the emigrants’ route across the broad plains of Kansas, Nebraska and Wyoming, over that one spot along the Continental Divide into Utah and their twisted paths through some of the most inhospitable deserts and intimidating mountain ranges on earth before entering the Sacramento Valley.

Donner Party Memorial west of Truckee, California, a grim reminder of the dangers of the journey west.

I learned a lot from this book. There are several places where we have driven along the trail, mostly in Nebraska and Wyoming. But reading this one makes me feel like I did after finishing Empire of the Summer Moon – I want to get out and follow more of the trails and cut-offs and routes and see more of the paths of this amazing journey for myself.

March 28, 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

John Lennon: A Life of Contradictions


When I was a child, my uncle Jack, who was my guardian at the time, would tell my brother and me, “do as I say, not as I do,” as if that were a way to excuse his own excesses and remain an authority figure.

That’s kind of how I feel about John Lennon after reading Tim Riley’s Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music – The Definitive Life (Hyperion 2011). After 661 pages and almost 100 pages of footnotes, Lennon comes off like Uncle Jack, insecure, deeply flawed and seemingly incapable of controlling his worst instincts. Except that Lennon created music that has become part of my own soundtrack.

Lennon and the other Beatles were heroes of my youth whose music, style and attitude helped shape my own thinking and life. His murder devastated me, enough that it took years to be able to listen or appreciate his music again. Trying to separate the myths from the reality of Lennon’s complicated life is a formidable task, and Riley has given considerable time and energy to the project. Just using “The Definitive Life” in the title sounds, well, definitive.

Most biographies spend little time on childhood, but Lennon’s is worth looking into, and Riley does a great job of tracing his early life in Liverpool: his incredibly dysfunctional family, his fortuitous early hookup with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the formation of the band, the three trips to Hamburg and their residency at the Cavern Club.

This is easily the best historical narrative of the Beatles’ rise, success and dissolution that I’ve read (and I’m looking over at about three dozen Beatles books on my shelf here in my office). Listening to the recordings that survive of their last Hamburg trip (packaged now as Live From the Star Club), it’s easy to understand Riley’s persuasive case that the Beatles created themselves on those scuzzy stages, both the music they engineered out of the riffs, rhythms and harmonies of American proto-rock/soul and the smiling, smirking, smart-alecky attitude that made me to want to adopt a new lifestyle paradigm at age 15.

Riley is at his best when he’s writing about the music itself. Author of Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After, he spends a breathtaking chapter weaving the Beatles and George Martin’s production skills into the rich patchwork of innovation that characterized 1960s rock. His interpretations of Lennon’s songs, though subjective, are always provocative. Though he obviously believes that Lennon was the more serious creative force in the partnership, he is generous in recognizing the special relationship between Lennon and Paul McCartney, McCartney’s many contributions to Lennon’s material, and vice versa, and how even during the band’s dissolution, Lennon and McCartney remained committed to each other’s music.

But back to Uncle Jack and Lennon. “Do as I say, not as I do” pretty much sums up Lennon’s life. Blame it on his childhood or his insecurities (both of which Riley makes a case for), but too often Lennon just doesn’t come off as a very nice guy. Riley doesn’t try to cover over the warts, showing us time and again that what Lennon said and what he did were in complete contradiction, whether it was preaching peace and love but treating even his friends and associates with callousness, or preaching family and fidelity while cheating on the “love of his life.” Riley makes a somewhat persuasive case that Lennon was growing up in his last five years, but not enough to make you believe he really was, as he put it, starting over. And I found myself scratching my head in a few places where he interprets, sometimes without attribution, Lennon’s thought process, and I kept thinking that the word “perhaps” could have been used a bit more often when ascribing motivation.

That’s a minor quibble. Making John Lennon human didn’t change my view of his musical contributions or impact on my own life. If you’re a Beatles/Lennon fan, you really have to read this one and judge for yourself.

January 22, 2012   No Comments

Johnny Otis’ Other Hand Jive


Johnny Otis died Tuesday. He was 90. The great bandleader and songwriter was also an impressive visual artist, and I spoke with him about it in 1995 for Blues Access magazine.

They only met briefly, long, long ago. But Johnny Otis hasn’t forgotten Mr. Charlie or his dogs.

"Mr. Charlie's Dogs" (click to embiggen.)

“It was on one of our trips down South in Mississippi. We pulled into a rural gas station/restaurant. It’s 1950, and here’s a big bus painted with all kinds of carnival things – Johnny Otis’ Rhythm and Blues Caravan, Little Esther, all that stuff in bright red colors.

“A young guy was running the gas station. It shook him up – all he saw was a bunch of black people getting off the bus. I saw him run in and make a call on the phone. I don’t know what he thought this was – the invasion of the rhythm and blues creatures,” Otis is saying during a phone interview in between bites of the leopard shark he’s munching at his Sebastapol, California, home.

“Right quick here comes this big honky with two terrible looking dogs,” he continues, emphasizing the word terrible. “We got back in the bus, and he just looked at us, and we froze. He just walked around us. The dogs looked at us and growled and growled. Oh, he loved the way he was terrorizing the black folks. I had a P-38 under my belt, and I thought, ‘If Charlie gonna start any shit, I’m going to take him with me’.”

“I remember him standing looking at us with a grin, then he pulled out a cigarette and struck a match. It’s that image that’s in my mind. We got our gas, and we left. That was it. We always referred to that as ‘Mr. Charlie’s Dogs’.”

It is a story worth retelling, but you won’t find it in the Johnny Otis songbook. He rather chose to remember Mr. Charlie’s Dogs in a 1986 acrylic-on-canvas painting. It’s in Colors and Chords (Pomegranate Artbooks), a new book on Otis’ art. “Mr. Charlie’s Dogs” is on the cover of this issue.

To his considerable achievements over the last half century – as bandleader, musician, hit songwriter, community activist, organic grocer, occasional preacher – be sure and add visual artist.  Otis’ talent has manifested itself, especially during the last 10-13 years, in paintings, lithographs and sculpture detailing contemporary black lifestyles, his music milieu and socio-political themes.

“Painting was something I just did, mostly as therapy in between gigs,” he explains. “What are you going to do when you’re off for a month? That happens in the music business. Can’t go fishing all the time.”

His active art life dates back to 1945, when he began sketching cartoons of band life for fun. “As we would be riding along in the bus, I would just sketch a little something funny, and everybody would laugh. And it turned into a request program about what happened the night before, something naughty or something sexy or something ridiculous. Most of them have bit the dust by now except for the ones in the book.”

Colors and Chords offers a couple of works, including the brooding, moody “Nat Turner” oil painting, from the early 1960s. Then Otis didn’t paint for a long time. “The only time I feel really emotionally inspired to do any artwork is when I’m in music,” he admits. “When I’m out of music, shit, I’m miserable.”

The late 1960s and early 1970s were lean years for the Johnny Otis Band. “That was when the British Invasion occurred, and we couldn’t get a goddam job. We weren’t working with the band for a stretch of years. As I think back, coincidentally, I didn’t do any art work to speak of, either.”

It wasn’t until 1979 that we went back to art in earnest. “We were working again,” he says. “We were playing all the time.” And Otis went on a tear, creating in many media, echoing Picasso and cubist painters and native African styles in his brightly colored, primitive, plastic and wood sculptures. Being immersed in music also stimulated his visually creative style.

“I went into an art store to buy a little pad of paper, pencils and pens, and I see all these colors, all these paints, and I said, ‘Shit.’ They were a magnet. It just happened like that.”

Otis believes that music and painting and sculpture have much in common. As a major chord is made up of the tonic, third and fifth notes, he sees the same triad in the three primary colors. And as you find out in music, there are new, interesting shading possible by mixing the colors or the chords.

That thinking can be readily seen in a whimsical oil painting of a band called “Olive and the Primaries.” “These are not true-to-life characters,” Otis says. “These are composites of musicians I’ve seen and heard. Olive’s breasts are shaped like olives, and the members of the band have faces in the primary colors – red, yellow and blue.”

Some other Otis paintings – Boogie Stompers,” “The Blues,” “Little Esther” and “Silas Green” – capture the immediacy and intimacy of the Otis band itinerary: fairgrounds, juke joints and clubs of the chitlin’ circuit. Otis rarely focuses on the star, instead weaving a wealth of detail, from the Super Dog stand in “The Blues” to the long, gold watch fob dangling from the waist of the dancer in “Little Esther.” That comes from the unique perspective he gets as bandleader; while we’re watching the band, they’re checking us out, too. “From my vantage point at the piano and up on the bandstand, I see a panoramic view, left to right – the bar, bartenders, dancers, waitresses, patrons, hangers-on.”

Like any artist, Otis doesn’t want to talk much about what motivates such work. “How do I know what I’m going to do tomorrow? I do whatever strikes me. I don’t have any boundaries about style. I just like to throw that shit around on the canvas and paint.”

Still, he’s giggling with anticipation at his next work. “The cartoon I’m going to do tonight is for my fishing buddies. One of us was charged with fixing the bait, and he fucked up, and we were so mad.” He laughed again.

Besides his current fishing jones, Otis is particularly proud of his band, which is working regularly on weekends at a local supper club called Lena’s and choosing assorted dates elsewhere. “The band is so strong,” he enthuses. “Every instrument has an exceptional person, and the singer is great.”

That he’s so excited about music should mean that he’s painting or sculpting again, but during the hot summer of 1995 Otis chose fishing. He prefers cooler weather so he can fire up a little wood stove in his home studio, where he’s working on a couple of large-scale paintings “If I can keep the pot belly full of wood and coals, I can paint for a long time.”

We received a letter from Otis soon afterwards and published it in the magazine:

I really like Blues Access a lot. Thanks for the article on my art. The bright colors on your covers is a good format. It makes the publication stand out against other magazines.

I hope the page-after-page of ads means you’re enjoying commercial success. And if you’re that successful, I think we should arrange a loan. Two or three hundred thousands dollars should be about right. Let’s do it in small bills — in cash, OK? And no IOUs please, because I’m allergic to paperwork.

If you ever get up to the California boondocks, let me know and we’ll hook up.

Johnny Otis

Sebastapol, CA.

January 20, 2012   No Comments