O Come All Ye Grousers

Season’s Greetings — and here’s my annual Christmas message. A shorter version ran in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend; this version has all the good stuff in it. Not recommended for the easily offended.

O Come All Ye Grousers

Thanksgiving is the season of the turkey. Christmas’s official bird should be the grouse.

As always, the run-up to Dec. 25 has unleashed a national moanfest. Crèches set some teeth to grinding, while others complain that the Baby Jesus is being treated like a leper. Almost everyone complains that the season is too “commercial,” though they’ll carp to high heaven if they don’t get everything they asked for.

There are too many calories, too much booze, plus all those family members you hope to see only at funerals, preferably in a horizontal position while holding a couple of orchids. Aesthetes are horrified by tacky lights, and environmentalists wail about the additional fossil fuels needed to fire them. Unbelievably, there is even complaining about one of the season’s most endearing spectacles – the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

Admittedly, Christmas has gotten to be unwieldy. Thanksgiving is now a mere speed bump on the road to yuletide. Christmas songs infiltrate radio playlists while there are still leaves on the trees, and tinsel and candy canes go up even before the Pilgrims get their annual nod. By mid-December the only reindeer some of us want to see is on a platter with a side order of rice.

But the larger fact is that contemporary Christmas offers something for everyone, from traditionalists to scoffers, enthusiasts to scolds (nearly 20 percent of Americans are not affiliated with any religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, though only 6 percent call themselves atheists or agnostics). If you don’t want to praise the Lord you can sing the praises of the other two members of the seasonal Trinity — Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge, both of whose affiliation is unknown. All three bring unique, helpful and evolving messages. Our cups runneth over. Let us consider a few of the ways.

First off, there’s Jesus, whose message of eternal hope and peace continues to illuminate the season. Yet he also can be considered apart from the religious claims that have consoled and inspired believers through the ages (and sent a few heads rolling too). The Christmas focus is an infant in the humblest of circumstances: a stable, which for the four-legged co-occupants doubled as a latrine. There’s tension in the back story as well: Has the earth ever known a more profound silence than just after Mary revealed to Joseph that she was with child, and that the only one passing this paternity test would be the Almighty? How does one prepare for such a moment?

At the very least, it’s a story that provides a profound lesson in trust and positive thinking, both of which are in short supply these days.

Life outside the manger was no carnival ride either. The ancient world was a very tough neighborhood. Routine infections could be fatal. The shadows were full of cutthroats while palaces brimmed with tyrants. Battlefield casualties could be stunning: Cannae (92,000), Arausio (84,000) and Carrhae (24,000); the siege of Jerusalem, later in the first century, would claim over 1,100,000 mostly Jewish lives, according to the historian Josephus, with an additional 97,000 captured and enslaved. Remember, this was before the advent of automatic weapons. And so when Herod commanded his goons to slaughter all the male children in Bethlehem with the hope of whacking the newborn king, he was very much in step with his times, during which collateral damage was considered a Virtue.

Despite these challenges, the Baby Jesus ended up doing pretty well. According to Pew, there are today 2.18 billion Christians, nearly a third of the world’s population, despite an inner circle that included Judas the snitch and no social media to speak of. All of which offers a valuable insight to our pampered youth, who think they’ve entered the Valley of Death when their Internet service is interrupted: Man does not live by Bandwidth alone. And while you’re at it, eat your peas.

On the secular side, Santa Claus — aka Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, and (in stricter households) the Son of Mammon – is a bit newer to the scene, though he does trace his roots to Saint Nicolas, the fourth century Greek bishop best known for giving dowries to three poor girls so they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes (reminding us that there’s nothing like a little seed money to keep you out of a tight spot). Other variations include Nazi Germany’s “solstice man,” modeled after the pagan god Odin, who urged mothers to buy swastika-shaped biscuits for their children.

These days, Santa has morphed again.

In the spirit of disclosure, I once had serious issues with Claus, whose impersonators began popping up in U.S. stores sometime around 1890. We know the drill; he invites children to sit on his lap and tell him what they smuggled down the chimney. Despite society’s best efforts to destroy rote learning the tykes recite well-rehearsed wish lists of obscenely expensive toys as Claus, often an unemployed actor or hefty friend of the store manager, leers at the parents, knowing that many of us got little more for Christmas than a stick horse and a few lousy tangerines.

While Claus remains the face of commercial Christmas he has become a far more sympathetic, and heroic, character. The reason is simple: he’s under attack by scolds – who, like the poor, we will apparently always have with us.

The primary complaint is that Claus is fat, as is his wife, whose spirit has never been broken by Jenny Craig. Indeed, perhaps the second most profound silence on earth would follow Santa suggesting to Mrs. Claus that she join Weight Watchers. There is no denying their immenseness. Boiled down to their tallow, the Clauses could light Manhattan for a long weekend.

Nor is their persecution any surprise. We live in a time when office-purchasing mayors tell us how big our sodas should be and what type of oil to fry our food in, while many schools send “parental notification letters” to the homes of chunky youth (in direct contradiction to anti-bullying programs and the war against “size shaming”). Claus, the patron saint of porkers, is a standing rebuke to these outrages. With every corpulent, unrepentant corpuscle Claus tells the Man to Stick It.

The favor is happily repaid. Then-U.S. Surgeon General Rear Adm. Steven K. Galson, teed off on Santa a few years back, proclaiming “It is really important that the people who kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise.” In the same spirit Australian heath expert Nathan Grills insisted that “Public health needs to be aware of what giant multinational capitalists realized long ago – that Santa sells, and sometimes he sells harmful products.” Mr. Grills added that in the U.S. Santa’s name recognition with children is just behind that of another demon: Ronald McDonald. Similarly, Roy Pickler, whose public health credentials include a stint as a contestant on “The Biggest Loser” and part time work as a Santa impersonator, pronounced that “The world is going to have to change their acceptance of what Santa looks like. Santa is a role model, and kids don’t want to have a role model that’s fat.”

Not only is Claus an alleged threat to youthful waistlines. He’s blamed for mental and spiritual mayhem as well. In a 2012 Psychology Today essay entitled “Say Goodbye to the Santa Claus Lie” Dr. David Kyle Johnson argues that the “Santa Lie” risks damaging parental trustworthiness and increases “credulity and ill-motivated behavior.” He also notes an incident in which a child, when told that Santa doesn’t exist, turned atheist.

Men have gone to the stake for far less, and the indictment goes yet further. Claus smokes a pipe (contents unknown, though his continuous laughter raises suspicions) and drinks alcohol – brandy, by most accounts, and judging from the flush on his cheeks plenty of it. Tippling fictional icons, of course, are catnip to scolds: James Bond was recently flogged in the British journal BMJ for drinking at levels allegedly detrimental to his marksmanship and famed sexual prowess, the latter certainly startling news to one of Bond’s most vivacious and medically astute leading ladies – Dr. Holly Goodhead.

Most of us, of course, don’t mind well-intentioned advice to shed a few pounds, though unfortunately these admonitions often come from those joyless, hectoring types whose main purpose in life is to parade their own superiority and push other people around. If they weren’t ordering us up on the scales they’d be annoying us some other way. The situation is made worse when the messengers have legislative powers. Just as most of us want government to stay out our bedrooms it should stay out of our kitchens as well. Claus no doubt agrees, which is why he’ll likely end up on a Wanted poster any day now.

Which finally brings us to Ebenezer Scrooge, who is also experiencing a transformation, though one of a different kind.

Scrooge, of course, is best known for a late-life personality switch from tight-fisted taskmaster to doddering sugar daddy. The pre-sugar Scrooge has historically exemplified the qualities denounced in a sermon delivered earlier this year to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“Our society is for better or worse grounded on individualism and this notion of personal freedom versus communal responsibility,” intoned the Rev. Fred L. Hammond, who posted the message on his blog. “This is manifested in a false illusion that the American Dream is attainable by all, if we do as Ebenezer Scrooge did and put our nose to the grindstone and grind away. What our contemporary society fails to see is that our capitalist mindset is a spirituality that is detrimental to living a full and abundant life.” This spirituality, the reverend also noted, rules the U.S. Congress and can be found hovering around Wal-Mart.

Yet there’s a vibrant revisionism afoot that insists Scrooge was actually a better man before he became victim to that dramatic drive-by spooking. A small but virile band of bloggers, analysts, and others who are not likely to be Unitarians hail the pre-conversion Scrooge as the “original one percenter.” Russell D. Longcore, for example, thinks Scrooge was spot-on when he denounced Christmas as “a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you.” These days, Longcore observes, Americans pay for Christmas with plastic while their savings rates “are near zero.”

Scrooge is also hailed as a job creator who paid clerk Bob Cratchit a reasonable wage. The revisionists, in fact, are hard on Cratchit, who they insist is not to be mistaken for Mr. Hustle.

“If Cratchit’s stagnating in the backwaters of Scrooge’s shop was due to his basically poor work skills,” wrote author and law school professor Butler Shaffer in a classic 2004 essay, “we are once again confronted with the question: why did Cratchit not seek to enhance his skills, as by learning a more remunerative trade? That would certainly have been a great benefit to his family, including affording additional resources with which to possibly rescue Tiny Tim from his malady. But, alas, Bob Cratchit was, once again, either too unambitious or too unimaginative to pursue this course of conduct… Such is the extent of his courage, ambition, and love for his family.”

In the generous spirit of the season, Professor Shaffer let Crachit have it with both barrels instead of only one. He also gave a clear sign that those who prefer the unreformed Scrooge are not alone, so if kicking Cratchit is your idea of holiday fun, go at it (and maybe get in a lick at Scrooge’s treacly nephew Fred while you’re at it). As Scrooge himself said, “keep Christmas in your own way,” which is perhaps the best seasonal advice of all.

The long holiday season offers other delights: paid holiday time, an opportunity to sing, sober or otherwise, the Hallelujah chorus, and nourishment of the dark and lurid hope, a variation of which is also present at NASCAR races, that someone in those Black Friday mobs might get trampled. Verily, there really is something for everyone.

So perhaps grousers, as a revised Tiny Tim might observe, should “stick a cork in it, every one.”

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Season’s Greetings

There’s a new Johnny Cash biography out. This one is fairly exhaustive. Did you know that Johnny named his daughter Roseanne after his pet names for his first wife’s breasts (Rose and Anne)? Me either.

It’s well-written and might have more info on the departed icon than you’re looking for. Here’s my review for The Washington Post that hits some of the high points:

Book review: Johnny Cash The Life

By Dave Shiflett

Johnny Cash rode a boyhood dream and three chords to country music stardom. But as Robert Hilburn’s definitive biography vividly chronicles, that dream spawned a sizable brood of nightmares.

Cash grew up poor, mostly in Dyess, Ark., where his parents took part in a government-backed farmland “colonization” program. While poets, philosophers and singers rhapsodize about living close to the land, Cash knew better. Working in the cotton fields was hard, and the early death of his brother in a sawmill accident further darkened the charms of rural life. Soon enough, he decided he’d rather pluck a guitar than a chicken and dreamed of singing on the radio.

The dream was somewhat audacious, for Cash was no musical prodigy. He left high school not for Nashville but for Pontiac, Mich., where he worked in the auto industry. This was followed by a stint in the military that took him to Germany, where he helped intercept Soviet Morse code messages. He formed a band on his return and performed his first radio gig in May 1955 at age 23. According to Hilburn, it was an amateurish performance, though his first recordings were better (and should have been: “Cry, Cry, Cry” required 35 takes). He was on his way.

Hilburn, a former music critic for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed Cash often during his journalistic career, and, while an admirer, he goes fairly light on the whitewash. He tells, in great and sometimes harrowing detail, how Cash’s professional advancement and personal decline blossomed simultaneously.

One red-letter day in that decline occurred in the fall of 1957, when a fiddle player gave Cash his first amphetamine after hearing him complain about the exhaustion that accompanied constant touring. Cash, who started smoking when he was 10, was quick to form a new addiction, later telling a friend that “one pill was too many and a thousand wasn’t enough.”

Nor was he a slacker in the skirt-chasing competition, despite having expressed undying fidelity to his first wife, Vivian, in his early hit, “I Walk the Line.” Still, he was far more restrained than musical contemporary and fabled horndog Elvis Presley. “One night,” Cash recalled, “we counted nine girls that he had sex with in the dressing room.”

To no surprise, Cash’s first marriage was not one for the record books, due in part to an evolving romance with June Carter, also married at the time. The turmoil was hard not only on Vivian and their four daughters, but on the local wildlife as well. In 1965, after retreating to the Los Padres National Forest to escape home life, he started a fire that killed most of the condor population.

The rings of suffering spread yet further. Fans struggled through mediocre performances; at times, Cash missed more gigs than he made. Yet he suffered the most, not only from the ravages of addiction, which dropped his weight to 125 pounds, but from the agonies of not living up to his Southern Baptist convictions.

Cash’s desire for redemption seemed as powerful as his desire for drugs. He and June, who married in 1968, became regulars at Billy Graham crusades, “testifying” before nearly 2 million people, despite ongoing drug use and a soft reading of the commandment against adultery. Cash, perhaps in a generous mood, described himself as “a C+ Christian.”

He earned much higher marks for his music, though, as Hilburn reminds us, many of his most iconic songs were written by others, including “A Boy Named Sue” (Shel Silverstein), “Ring of Fire” (June Carter and Merle Kilgore) and “I Still Miss Someone” (which was “mostly written” by a nephew). His signature song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” relied so heavily on “Crescent City Blues,” by Gordon Jenkins, that Cash eventually paid Jenkins $75,000 to waive his composer rights. Nonetheless, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame , the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame .

But he also went through a long recording slump, earning recognition by USA Today for making one of the 10 worst albums of 1987 (“Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town”). Fortune smiled again in 1993 when he met producer Rick Rubin, with whom he made a series of sometimes stark recordings that ended his career on a high note. In perhaps the most searing section of the book, Hilburn recounts the making the 2002 video for Cash’s version of rocker Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was in ill health, and June had learned the day before that she had a leak in a heart valve. She died in 2003; Cash held on four more hard months, dying at age 71.

Cash had a dream and enough talent and desire to see it through, for better and worse. Interestingly, late in his life he suggested he also benefited from good timing. If he tried to make it in today’s music industry, he mused, “I think the only job I’d be able to get would be singing in a coffeehouse somewhere.”

Dave Shiflett posts his original music and journalism at http://www.daveshiflett.com

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Graham Nash, Ray Davies, Donald Fagen: Older and Crankier

Life staggers on. The economy is flat, the earth is round, the leaves have fallen and Elvis is still dead. Meanwhile, lesser rock deities are still with us; some are writing memoirs revealing the glories and horrors of the musical life, plus their innermost thoughts, which can be fairly dark and cranky.

Here’s a Wall Street Journal review I did of new memoirs by Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen. If you’re an old crank yourself, Fagen’s your man.

^^^

It’s a popular complaint that America no longer produces anything when in fact we churn out vast quantities of music and musical merchandise—T-shirts, posters, ball caps, thongs—and a steady stream of celebrity-musician memoirs.

Three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees—Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen—have now set down their guitars and picked up their pens (or signed on a ghostwriter), joining such illustrious predecessors as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards in reliving their glory years, or at least the parts they care to remember.

Their books include standard features of the genre: early struggle, breakthrough, truckloads of money, rapacious promoters, and nonstop drugs and women, plus arrests, overdoses and rehab. But there’s another story line: Ambitious young men working their way out of difficult upbringings to make it big in the Promised Land—America—where they eventually grow old and cranky. Just like the rest of us.

Graham Nash, now 71, is best known for his work with the Hollies and with Crosby, Stills and Nash (sometimes joined by Young). But he grew up in Salford, possibly the worst slum in the north of England. The toilet was al fresco, his wardrobe was provided by the Salvation Army and his father’s room and board were supplied, for a time, by the local prison.

Fortunately, Mr. Nash had a talent for singing. As he tells us in “Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life,” he and a classmate opened each school day harmonizing the Lord’s Prayer, though he was not cut out for the ecclesiastic life. He had been transfixed by radio broadcasts of American pop stars: Elvis, the Platters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Everly Brothers. He left school at age 16, in 1958, to make a go of it as a performer.

The Hollies (named after Buddy Holly) got their big break in February 1963, after a talent scout caught one of their gigs. Mr. Nash, who makes no pretense of being a master musician, admits that his guitar playing was hardly stunning: At this performance his instrument had no strings. Nevertheless, the band cranked out a string of pleasant pop hits that still haunt the oldies airwaves, including “Bus Stop” (written by teenage songwriter Graham Gouldman), “On a Carousel” and “Carrie Anne.”

Soon, though, the young man grew “bored with the moon-and-June rhymes, singing about schoolboy crushes and forbidden sex.” He had also fallen in love with America, where he was introduced to future love interest Joni Mitchell, singer David Crosby and drugs.

Readers still amazed by rock excess will get a fix in this breezy memoir. Mr. Nash, turned on to marijuana by Mr. Crosby and to LSD by Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas, became something of a stoner prodigy; one sometimes senses that he considers getting high a heroic act, like storming Omaha Beach. Yet he supplies a cautionary tale by chronicling Mr. Crosby’s gruesome transformation into a bloated, lesion-covered addict.

Mr. Nash, whose later hits included singalong standards “Teach Your Children” and “Our House” plus “Just a Song Before I Go” (written after a drug dealer bet him he couldn’t compose a song in under an hour), reminds us that rock stars live in a different financial universe than most fans. Soon after moving to California, he found himself short on cash. No problem. Mr. Crosby cut him a check for $80,000. When touring, the band might make $50,000 a day, though Mr. Nash adds that most of the money ended up in other pockets: After one $12 million tour he, Mr. Stills, Mr. Young and Mr. Cosby pocketed $300,000 each. “That left $10.8 million unaccounted for,” he writes, and no doubt highly appreciated.

Yet like other mortals, rockers grow older and are susceptible to putting on a righteous grump. He calls Neil Young “utterly self-centered” and takes aim at fatter targets, including George W. Bush, the tobacco lobby and rifles with “hundred-round clips.” He seems surprised that 10% of his audience sometimes headed for the exits after the political grumbling commenced, especially in the South. The nerve of those hicks! Despite the manifest flaws of his adopted nation, Mr. Nash loved it enough to become a citizen, settle down, get married—36 years and counting—and otherwise live like a member in good standing of the Rotary Club. He’s not alone.

Ray Davies, also from a working-class family in England, found fame and fortune in the U.S., plus a few other things. As a former frontman (with brother Dave) of the Kinks, whose catalog ranges from rock blasters “Lola” and “You Really Got Me” to the serenely beautiful “Waterloo Sunset,” he came to the U.S. in 1965 as part of the British invasion, where he rubbed shoulders with people less glamorous than Joni Mitchell, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy, “at the time a community organizer” involved in a fundraising concert. After the Kinks went toes-up in 1996, Mr. Davies continued recording and touring, despite later health problems; his most recent record was released in the U.S. in 2011.

In “Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road,” Mr. Davies is more reserved than Mr. Nash, offering fairly temperate accounts of the music life’s agonies, ecstasies and ennui. Though Mr. Davies was shot by a New Orleans mugger in 2004, he is far more critical of drugs than firearms, complaining how dope is used to prop up touring musicians: “Pamper them; give them all the drugs they need (legal or otherwise) just to get through. Once the tour is over they can be left to look after their own wreckage.”

But Mr. Davies, too, is upbeat on America, even praising how students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, “which I think in a strange way helps form a bond among all new Americans.” In his spare time he works on an exchange program between high-school bands in New Orleans and London, which suggests he could rise high in Optimist International.

Not so our third musical great, Donald Fagen, a founding member of Steely Dan. If there were a Cranks Hall of Fame, he’d be a multiple inductee.

Mr. Fagen escaped Kendall Park, a New Jersey suburb, after a youth he claims was made bearable only by jazz radio broadcasts and the “subversive” radio talk show of Jean Shepherd (whose “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” would be made into the film “A Christmas Story”). At Bard College, Mr. Fagen met Walter Becker, with whom he eventually founded Steely Dan (named after a Japanese sexual aid) and produced a string of Classic Rock stalwarts, including “Reelin’ in the Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” and “Deacon Blues.”

Mr. Fagen, 65, is a good writer and highly talented musician—many rockers would have a hard time reading his charts—but what makes his brief book sing is his sharp tongue. He could teach Bill O’Reilly and Alec Baldwin tons about how to deliver a proper tongue-lashing.

Post his tour journal on the Internet? “Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record,” he snarls. Mr. Fagen, who once wrote a song called “Godwhacker,” in which he envisioned putting out a hit on the Almighty, is similarly harsh on his Earthbound enemies, citing a British study alleging that conservatives have an “inordinately large amygdala” that makes them delusional. “It’s got to be the amygdala thing,” he insists. “Period. End of story.”

Some listeners might point out that such absolutism is also considered a conservative trait. Indeed, Mr. Fagen sounds like his amygdala is a bit swollen when noting that “I’m deeply underwhelmed by most contemporary art, literature, music, films, TV, the heinous little phones, money talk, real estate talk, all that stuff” and when praising the lack of “soul-deadening porn or violence” on 1960s television.

But what fun is old age if you can’t grouse a bit? Geezers do not live by oatmeal alone. Mr. Fagen describes a 2012 concert at which he was performing. The crowd was so “geriatric,” he says, that he was “tempted to start calling out bingo numbers.” Eventually, the fans were all “on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking out” to the music. “So this, now, is what I do: assisted living.”

There’s a bright side our author may be overlooking. Should Mr. Fagen tire of the music biz he, along with Mr. Davies and Mr. Nash, have an excellent crack at endorsement deals from the manufacturers of adult diapers and other products for decaying oldsters. For some folks, America’s blessings never end.

 

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Still Alive — With New Tunes

SimpleThingCover2

Aloha!

I’ve been away for a while. Not actually away — but otherwise occupied. Just finished a new novel, which I’m now shopping to agents (if you happen to be an agent, get in touch: Dshifl@aol.com). The long-suffering Peach and I also moved my parents in nine months ago; my dad’s doing hospice at the house. He’s hanging in there.

I plan to resume writing Alive Without Permission this spring, so stay tuned. Meantime, I have a new collection of songs, called “A Simple Thing.” The songs are sung by Buttafly Vazquez, who had a vocal scholarship to Julliard at age 15 and went to the Professional Performing Arts high school in New York with Alicia Keys.

How did I meet her? In a bar in Richmond, Virginia. Which is a reminder to visit bars as often as possible.

The songs include “My Beautiful Friend,” a jazz ballad featured by the New York Times in a standing feature on the Great Depression; “A Simple Thing,” a majestic rumination on enduring love;  “Autumn Love,” a latin-flavored meditation on romantic dissolution, and “Darlin’ — a murder/suicide song you can dance to.  If you’re looking for a song about patching up a shaky romance, there’s “Somehow,” which starts out grim but develops a smile halfway through. Here’s the musician lineup: Buffafly Vazquez, vocals; Matt Boon, bass; Jim Mohr, mandolin; Giustino Riccio, percussion; Jonathan Greenberg, trumpet and flugelhorn; Dave Shiflett, guitar. I wrote all the music. CD cover design, Evan Davies; technical support, John Girimont.

In an unprecedented move, I’m going to try to recoup the recording costs for the project. You can listen to the songs at my website — www.daveshiflett.com — and if you’re interested in downloading them the five-song collection is $4.99 (the price of two pints of quality beer at Joe’s Inn 3-6 weekdays, or one pint at other times) while singles are $.99.

Many thanks for your support and hope you like the Buttafly songs.

 

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The Poor Farm Festival

Kofi Baker and Carolyn Stephens

Do you have to be crazy to start a music festival?

I wondered that  after seeing a notice for the second annual Poor Farm Festival in Williamsburg, West Virginia. There seems to be at least three strikes against success: a resoundingly flat economy, declining attendance at music venues (down 20 percent by some estimates) and gas closing in on four bucks a gallon.

So maybe the organizers are munching a bit too much of the local loco weed.

But there’s something to be said for people whose madness benefits musicians and their listeners. The Poor Farm Fest (www.poorfarmfest.com) listed 29 performing bands  this year, and organizer Carolyn Stephens was kind enough to offer me a last-minute slot, bringing the number to an even thirty (to keep the ethics tidy, I did not ask for remuneration).  The festival was providing work for over 100 musicians. The only act I’d heard of was Nora Jane Struthers, although the sons of two rock stars – Ginger Baker (Cream) and Greg Allman (Allman Brothers) – were billed as headliners.

Besides all that, I could use a good airing out. Website photos showed a terrific setting – mountains, meadows and deep blue sky. I packed up the camping gear, found a bottle of retsina and off I went.

The drive from Richmond to Williamsburg is nice, as Interstate drives go; I-64 provides dramatic (for this part of the world) views topping Afton Mountain outside Charlottesville and re-enters mountainous terrain just past Lexington. Goshen is a beautiful stretch of mountain and valley; if I end up ashes I wouldn’t mind a few spoonfuls being sprinkled thereabouts (heirs take note). The first kiss of fall (the festival opened Sept. 6) had started to turn the leaves around Clifton Forge and an hour or so later I exited at Lewisburg, W.Va. for the final 25 minutes of the trip. The Williamsburg Road covers the final eight miles or so. It is of interesting design: a paved lane with two gravel shoulders; when cars approach it’s onto the shoulder to avoid collision. Eventually you come around a curve and there’s the Poor Farm: 1,000 acres of meadows and forest, some hilly, plus a house, a stage, and a herd of cattle. Atop a distant mountain ridge a dozen or so white wind turbines twirl away.

The site gets its name from its former function. When residents of Greenbrier County were down and out they could go to the farm and work a section of land. The terrain rolls and in some places dips dramatically – the result of limestone cave collapses – but the concert area is fairly flat and the stage – a sturdy structure enclosed on three sides –  has a sound system powerful enough to cover the fairly vast camping area, which for my money is nicer than the camping spaces at Floydfest, Clifftop, and certainly Galax.

All in all, a superior festival site. Only one thing was missing: people.

When I arrived Friday afternoon, the second day of the festival, musicians on stage sometimes nearly outnumbered the audience. If I were running things I might have gone hunting for a cyanide pill. But organizer Carolyn Stephens (aided by husband Pete) was unruffled. Her attitude brought to mind the motto of a childhood hero: What, me worry?

Carolyn is tall, slender, and apparently unflappable. On Saturday morning we talked things over during a drive to make a bank deposit. My first question: What on earth possessed you to jump into the festival biz?

Well, she began, she had booked acts during her school days  at Curry College, near Boston. She brought in people like Livingston Taylor, who might not have sold tons of records but who knew how to win over audiences. Later, she worked in radio – once doing shows on three stations in the same market. “One of the stations was adult contemporary, one was country, and the third was a religious station.”

But love of music isn’t the main reason she started her festival. Wal-Mart played a crucial role – the kudzu-like retailer opened two superstores within an hour of Poor Farm at a time she was making her living selling plants.  Her horticulture business soon shriveled.  If she was going to stay in the area she’d have to create her own job.   She recalled the good times booking acts back in college, and she did have a nice0 site for a festival.

“When we decided to do this, I had 45 days total to get ready. We had to put in roads. We had to build a stage. We had to get a vendor, and line up volunteers. I had to get permits, including an ABC license.” There was also promotion, and the small matter of finding bands that could be booked on short notice. “I hadn’t been to a festival since 1978,” she said. “I do everything on the fly. I mean everything.” Internet research helped her find talent. She ended up hiring seventeen acts, cutting deals with many that included a promise to book them the following year in return for a reduced fee.

Yet Carolyn was unable to cut a deal with the Weather Deity – it rained off and on during the festival. But the festival did attract around 600 people. “Four hundred of them were my neighbors who wanted to see what the hell we were up to,” she said. “They didn’t like music. They’re farmers.” But the other 200, she believed, might become repeat customers and would also talk up the festival to their friends.  “The rule is, one talks to ten, so by our second year we’d have the possibility of 2000 people coming.” Word of mouth seemed to be working.  “The first year, our Facebook page had 200 friends. This year, we had 2,000,” she said. She also developed a list of about 20 newspapers she targeted with press releases (which she wrote) and pictures. “Some of these papers ran the releases without altering them,” she says, adding that she studied journalism in college. She eventually took out an ad in Relix magazine, which she said was hugely expensive.  I sensed Relix won’t be getting any more of her money.

After depositing a wad of currency, we headed back to the Farm. Like many of this year’s acts, the Rain God made a return appearance. She acknowledged that bad weather can dampen attendance. But she also said that the first two days of the Poor Farm 2012 were improvements over year one, and that she was very enthusiastic about some of the new acts.

“I avoid agents like the plague,” she said, but two of her stronger acts for 2012 came through agent John Laird at the Americana Agency. “John has a reputation for being both good for the artist, and good for the venue. In the long run they both have to succeed. I told him I had a small festival and he said he had some up-and-coming people who were really good, and who I could get for a good price.”  One act was Nora Jane Struthers and her band, TheBootleggers. The other was The Steel Wheels.

“Nora Jane wrote a song about Greenbrier County – about the effect the coal mining and limestone industries have on residents of this county,” she said. “It’s a great song – and she had never played in Greenbrier County. I thought, ‘this is serendipity. This girl needs to be here!’”  The Steel Wheels, meantime, had been well received at Merlefest.  Another acoustic act, Johnson’s Crossroads, had also played Merlesfest, and while now based in Asheville its two core members are from the area (I’ll profile Nora Jane Struthers and Johnson’s Crossroads soon).

She was also very enthusiastic about Friday night’s headliner: Kofi Baker’s “The Cream Experience.” I had liked them as well. Kofi, son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker, could give his dad a run for his money and his band mates left no one pining away for Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. With a few exceptions (including  a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”) they stuck to Cream and Blind Faith hits; Kofi also warbled a version of “Pressed Rat and Warthog” – a tune that goes well with retsina and which probably doesn’t get covered very often.  Though he has a top-flight musical pedigree he’s very accessible and good-natured. His running joke had it that Ginger Baker actually wrote all the Cream’s music, only to have it stolen by Eric Clapton (Kofi’s godfather, Carolyn tells me). He also got off a good joke at Jack Bruce’s expense: “How are a cup of 7-11 coffee and Jack Bruce alike? Both are best with Cream.”

The audience loved the band. But from what I could tell there might have been 1oo  listeners, max. And that was huge compared to the next day. To be fair, the stage talent had declined a bit by then, at least early on.

Carolyn had given me an 11:30 slot; the plan was to play tunes from my new collection of instrumentals (free here: www.daveshiflett.com) and gently draw festivarians from their tents to the stage area in time for the opening noon act. A consummate professional, I rehearsed earlier than morning, sitting on the stage and playing for a woman with three children plus a security guy who had been up until five drinking moonshine.

But as show time approached it was hard not to notice that the lovely meadow in front of the stage was nearly empty. Indeed, had I left my chair in the meadow for the stage when 11:30 arrived, I would have taken the entire audience with me. Yes, I was the only person awaiting my performance. I’m accustomed to playing for small houses so this was no worry. But it raised a vital question. How long can this festival last without bringing in more people?

Carolyn doesn’t seem worried. She said she would give the festival 3-5 years to succeed, and believes that as word gets out  – especially about its excellent site and stage – larger acts will want to make the trek down Williamsburg Road.  One band she hopes will help put Poor Farm on the festival map is Donna the Buffalo. “I’ve tried to get them before,” she says. “I really want to get them here next year.”

Donna would seem a perfect musical match for Poor Farm, and if the band’s loyal followers — AKA ‘The Herd” – showed up, that should make the cash registers sing as well. Other good fits would be Hot Tuna, Tim O’Brien (a West Virginia boy), and Lyle Lovett (who told me last year he was probably going to go independent) plus returning favorites (Nora Jane Struthers, the Steel Wheels, Johnson’s Crossroads, Kofi Baker). The roster could be  rounded out with younger rock/roots/blues acts trying to climb the ladder.

Can Carolyn pull it off? She said she is putting in as many as eighty hours a week to make Poor Farm fly.  She seems determined to succeed, come hell or high water.

There was no lack of the latter on Saturday afternoon. Just as Nora Jane Struthers was about to go on, a ferocious rain/wind storm struck. Canopy frames were twisted like pipe cleaners. My faithful chair, parked directly across from center stage,  blew away, never to be found.

I know a sign from heaven when I see one and decided to vamoose. Just before departure,  Carolyn drove up, surveyed the situation, and declared that the chance of rain was down to about ten percent. “I can live with that,” she said. Later, she filled me in via email about the final day:

“On Sunday, the sun came out and so did the families. We had tons of kids and families sitting in chairs with winter clothes on…We had a full-fledged super light show, smoke, strobes, and covers from the greats like Black Sabbath and Rush, a huge wild show ending with a professional fire dancer on the audience side of the stage who whirled her fire-pots to the music and just made a grand finale for the weekend…I left the festival feeling like a huge success, and I can’t wait to do it again next year!”

Here’s hoping Carolyn Stephens can find a way to make Poor Farm grow and prosper. I’d like to return, maybe even find my vagabond chair.

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New Tunes

Greetings

This is Clifftop week — when old time musicians from around the world gather in West Virginia to keep that tradition alive, which involves lots of fiddles, banjos, mandolins, basses, guitars, booze and very little sleep. I’m not gonna make it this year: life is a bit hectic around my place. Maybe make it to Rockbridge in September.

Meantime, I have been busy with some tunes of my own. The collection is called ‘Down The Road’ and includes eight instrumentals (solo guitar), recorded in the chapel at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Which brings us to the drawing above, which depicts a fugitive slave making his dash for freedom (artist unknown).

The title tune was inspired by research into the life of a family slave that I published in The Wall Street Journal (you can find it at my website: www.daveshiflett.com; the article is in the News section and is called ‘My Family’s Bones’). During my reading I came across advertisements for runaway slaves from the Buckingham County, Virgina area. One of those runaways was named Tom, who appears to have been caught and returned to captivity, after which he fled again. ‘Down the Road’ imagines him finally getting away. Way to go, Tom.

There are seven other tunes, including ‘In My Father’s House,’ inspired by my father’s struggle with dementia, ‘The Girl in the Meadow,’ about a friend who buried her mother (dug the grave herself), and a neo-old time tune called ‘Possum Got A Peg Leg.’ All told the songs total just under fifty minutes. They are at my site, in the Music section, and can be downloaded for free.

In an unusual move, I’m planning to get out and play these new instrumentals, with perhaps a few singing songs thrown in here and there. I also plan to write about all that for ‘Alive.’ I hope to go to some interesting places, and meet some interesting musicians/promoters/publicists/ etc. If you happen to know of a place that might be suitable, please let me know.

Meanwhile, hope you enjoy the new music. Let me know what you think, especially if it’s good: DShifl@aol.com

 

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New Book, New Review, No Olitsky

Aieee! Who’s that ugly creep?

Well, that’s me, and it it gets worse. I have a new book out and am deep into the horrors of self promotion, which is never pretty. So, a quick plug for the book, and then on to other things.

“Workingman’s Ink” is an ebook collection of  journalism originally published by The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, National Review, The American Spectator, Salon.com, The Los Angeles Times and other places too noble to mention. 

Subjects include alcohol hysteria, celebrities (Elvis, Fred Astaire, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, King Farouk, Hugh Hefner and many others), a son’s military deployment, remembering a family slave, trial lawyers, gambling, scapegoating, health mania, sex, marriage among the very rich, deer hunting from an Oldsmobile, the demise of country music, bluegrass and old time festivals, Apollo 11 and the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. The book is around 63,000 words. Most of the pieces are in the 1,000 word range, while a handful are 3,000-4,000 words. Here’s the point of purchase: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007PFY4GY.

Enough of that. I am still in pursuit of an interview with clawhammer banjo great Mark Olitzsky, who is as self-effacing as he is talented. Mark thinks I can find other banjo players who are more worthy of interviewing, so I will have to wear him down a bit. As a world-class pest, I have little doubt of eventual success, but it could be a while. It also happens that I have been using an alternate spelling of Mark’s last name. He prefers Olitsky. So from here on out, Olitsky it is.

Meantime, here’s my Wall Street Journal review of a new book called “Hit Lit,” which is about blockbuster novels. The author identifies shared characteristics of “megahits” including “Jaws,” “The Exorcist,” “The DaVinci Code” and “Peyton Place.” If you’re out to create a large literary revenue stream, this could be the book for you.

You Wanna Sell A Million Books?

By Dave Shiflett

If you want to make the big money in fiction, don’t skimp on the friction—especially the sexual, spiritual and political varieties—and go light on the navel-gazing. So counsels James W. Hall in “Hit Lit,” a study of what makes best sellers tick.

Mr. Hall, himself no stranger to the best-seller lists as a thriller writer, teaches a college course on 20th-century mega-best sellers. “Hit Lit” offers insights from his own study of these books and from his classroom discussions.

“Hit Lit” focuses on a murderer’s row of commercial best sellers from the past couple of decades: Tom Clancy’s “The Hunt for Red October” (1984), John Grisham’s “The Firm” (1991), Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” (1992) and Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (2003). It looks back at earlier sensations, too: Stephen King’s “The Dead Zone” (1979), Peter Benchley’s “Jaws” (1974), William Peter Blatty’s “The Exorcist” (1971), Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” (1969), Jacqueline Susann’s “Valley of the Dolls” (1966), Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960), Grace Metalious’s “Peyton Place” (1956) and Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” (1936). These literary cash cows may tell us something about prevailing tastes, and they certainly share many features that wannabe blockbuster writers might keep in mind while going for the gold.

Job one, Mr. Hall writes, is to hook readers quickly, perhaps by having a naked young woman chomped in half by a shark or a man murdered by an albino monk, or by flashing some thigh (and perhaps adjacent real estate). Once hooked, customers must be goaded to keep turning the pages, the quicker the better. If they hesitate, you are lost. “Hit Lit” warns sharply against going introspective. People in blockbuster land don’t have navels. “These characters are not self-absorbed or contemplative,” Mr. Hall explains. They are “pitted against large forces, not characters in conflict with themselves” (take that, William Faulkner). Also, don’t dillydally with needless personal detail. He notes that in “Gone With the Wind,” Scarlett O’Hara “is married and becomes a widow in a single sentence at the beginning of Chapter 7.”

Mr. Hall and his students found that protagonists with mass-market appeal tend to be mavericks, misfits or loners and that they often come from fractured families and communities. (In real life, aren’t these types often deeply self-absorbed?) They are also often in pursuit of the American dream, variously defined, and find themselves acting against “a sweeping backdrop” such as the Cold War (“The Hunt for Red October”) or the civil-rights struggle (“To Kill a Mockingbird”).

Then there is the sweeping backdrop of humanity’s eternal yearning to legally invade someone else’s nether regions. “Sex sells,” Mr. Hall reminds us, which is why even non-blockbuster readers have heard of “Peyton Place” and “Valley of the Dolls,” books that benefited by being published in the pre-Internet era. They offered glimpses of furtive gropings long before it was possible to find every possible sexual permutation in the sanctity of a palm-cradled electronic device.

All the books surveyed, Mr. Hall writes, include at least one central sexual incident. Some are salacious, some melodramatic—Scarlett being carried upstairs for a thorough pillaging—and some criminal, such as the alleged rape at the center of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Many of the episodes shine a light on sexual hypocrisy. “New Englanders were outraged and offended that their folksy cover had been blown and their steamy bedrooms laid bare” in “Peyton Place,” Mr. Hall writes. Warming to the subject, he declares that ” ‘Peyton Place’ is America, the polite, mannered façade pulled back to reveal the squirming reality below.”

Not to throw cold water on this literary hot flash, but if Americans were, en masse, really so sweaty and squirmy, would they buy a book describing what they already knew? Safer to say it was the novelty of the “Peyton Place” story that made the cash registers sing.

Religion is another hot-button subject in the most popular fiction, we’re told. The church ladies in “To Kill a Mockingbird” are a flock of hypocrites, according to Mr. Hall, and they’re hardly alone in best-seller land—you won’t find an uncritical portrayal of traditional religion in any of these books. “It would seem that the bestselling authors of all time are a collection of freethinkers and agnostics who share a tendency to ridicule religious hypocrisy and aggressively challenge standard orthodoxy.”

Or perhaps the authors are protecting their own orthodoxy by ridiculing those outside it. In any event, Mr. Hall informs us that religious works of an affirming sense sell so well that “most bestseller lists shunt them off into a separate category so the mainstream nonreligious books will have some slim chance of survival.”

You’re not likely to learn much about the Beatitudes in best sellers, but the books are instructive in other ways: Blockbusters almost always include an “abundance of facts and information,” Mr. Hall says, by offering peeks inside glamorous or closed-off subcultures. He calls them “secret,” but we may call them mysterious or little understood. For example: big-time law offices (“The Firm”), the entertainment world (“Valley of the Dolls”), organized crime (“The Godfather”) and Opus Dei, the Catholic organization (“The Da Vinci Code”). Mr. Hall dubs this the “didactic function,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that the publisher has a fact-checking department burning the midnight oil. While Tom Clancy’s detailed descriptions of military technology may be fairly accurate, Dan Brown’s premise that Jesus was a baby-daddy is no more factually based than “The Wizard of Oz.” Then again, they don’t call these books fiction for nothing.

Mr. Hall, who writes with a light, amused touch, doesn’t pay much attention to the literary quality of the books in his survey, and he can sound dismissive of writers who vastly outshine the multimillionaire club. “I’d wager there is more pure data on a single page of ‘The Hunt for Red October’ than in many entire novels by Faulkner or Hemingway,” he writes. Here’s a counter-wager: There are more moments of pure literary pleasure on a single page of Faulkner or Hemingway than in the entirety of “The Hunt for Red October.” Here is a typical passage in the Clancy novel, describing the hero at a tense moment: “Ryan was chain-smoking at his station, and his palms were sweating as he struggled to maintain his composure.” Faulkner might rather jump off a bridge than commit such pablum to print.

“Hit Lit” seems to take these books a bit too seriously, as when Mr. Hall contemplates the greater meaning of the opening dining scene in “Jaws,” in which the main course has gone for a skinny-dip: “One could ask if the self-sufficient woman who abandons her man in a drunken haze is being punished for the sin of independence.” Perhaps the shark ate Quint for the sin of drinking too much brandy.

Faculty-lounge politics pop up here and there in “Hit Lit.” In a discussion of the “nuclear family” (a presence in many blockbusters), Mr. Hall dismisses William Bennett’s lament over the dissolution of the family as a “a somewhat dire description of what some would say is simply a modernization of the family structure or a set of changes that reflect other transformations in modern culture.” As Scarlett O’Hara might say: Pshaw—that professor needs to visit the projects.

But he also makes some sensible observations. “These days it’s harder to profitably press the hot button of sex because that button has just about been worn out from overuse.” And while acknowledging that seven of the books he studied were first novels, he notes that the other authors needed nurturing before hitting pay dirt, an increasingly rare corporate indulgence. “These days, if a writer does not succeed on the first or second try, his or her career is likely to flatline.”

Mr. Hall includes some interesting tidbits. Ben Franklin—”lustful Ben,” as he calls him—”was one of the first Americans to own a copy of John Cleland’s scandalous novel ‘Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.’ ” He quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s put-down of the “horde of female scribblers” and observes that women make up nearly 80% of fiction readers. Which raises a question. Are male readers kept at bay by design, purposely neglected by publishers? Or were they brainwashed by Opus Dei to avoid fiction? There’s a novel in there somewhere.

—Mr. Shiflett is author of a lightly
read novel called “In the Matter
of J. Van Pelt.”

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