Tuesday, February 12, 2013

I Got The Blues, Honey

"The Blues are the true facts of life expressed in words and song, inspiration, feeling, and understanding."
~Willie Dixon

Maybe I don't fit the typical profile of a blues fan. Then again, I don't know if such a profile exists. The blues is something that grabs a hold of you. If you have at least a little musical soul, the blues is going to stick with you. I love the blues like I love my nephews; unconditionally and without exception.

I grew up in a religious, middle class, sports loving, suburban home. White as the day is long. I'm very white. Greg-Brady-white. And yet, the blues lives in me as much as my Scottish heritage.

My older cousin Mark got me into music when I was 13 or so. I had no older brothers, nobody to teach me. A young person trying to find music on their own without a mentor to guide them is a dangerous thing. (That's how I ended up lost in the wilderness with a Jackson 5 Victory cassette in the Walkman. It took a while to right the ship.) Those are the people that bought Fat Boys and Falco records. Those are the people listening to top 40 disposable radio. When we would go to visit our family in Bellingham, Washington, Mark would play music for me. Something I'm eternally grateful for. When my friends were listening to Poison, Ratt, Motley Crue and the rest of the interchangeable, hair-sprayed, eyeliner-wearing hair bands, I was listening to The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Cream, The Yardbirds, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. I didn't understand the butt rock bands. I wasn't rock and roll to me, just a bunch of pricks in tights. Why were they all trying to look like drag queens? Why did all the guitar solos sound the same? What is this dreck? I was a snotty little bugger.

As I went through high school listening to those great old records, I began to want to know more about what influenced the bands that I loved. Zeppelin quoted Robert Johnson. (And J.R.R. Tolkien, by the way.) Clapton played songs written by Muddy Waters. The Doors had blues songs. Dylan had a cut about Blind Willie McTell. The more I dug, the more I saw that the majority of the bands I loved were influenced by early American blues artists.

I vividly remember hearing Robert Johnson for the first time. He was mentioned the most by Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page. It was "Cross Road Blues." "I went to the crossroads, fell down on my knees. Asked the Lord above 'Have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.'" It sounded so guttural, so gut wrenching. Reading about Robert entranced me. Did he sell his soul to the devil at The Crossroads - where highways 61 and 49 meet in Clarksdale, Mississippi - to play guitar like that? Was he poisoned by a jealous lover's husband? Was he out barking at the moon the night before he died? It was amazing to me. To this day, we still don't know how he died. Or which one of the three gravestones is the correct marker. I still can't believe that is only one guitar on those records.

From there I started listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B.B. King and Willie Dixon. That's where I began. A few of my friends thought I was nuts listening to music that was more than fifty years old, but I didn't care. They didn't know what I knew. The blues mattered. The blues spoke to me. The songs were about love and pain. They told stories. They had wit and depth and soul. Songs that were written for black, juke-joint audiences in segregated southern America decades before I was born moved me; a pasty-white son of a public school teacher. Those songs were just as important to me as they were to Slowhand and James Patrick Page.

My love of the blues has grown. It has matured. Spread like small pox. Many modern bands that mean something to me still have blues influences. From Mike McCready's blues infused solos on his 1959 Strat, to Jack White's damn near reinvention of the blues. I read an interview with Jack a while back and the interviewer asked how he would like to be remembered. Three Quid coolly replied, "A good husband and father, good upholsterer, and he loved the blues." Here here, Jackie. Selah...

From the core blues artists I progressed to more historical greats. Tommy Johnson, Son House, Lead Belly, Mississippi John Hurt, Charlie Patton, Taj Mahal, Big Bill Broonzy, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Little Walter, Freddie King and Blind Blake. Just to name a few. Sniffing out clues and following leads like a reincarnated Sherlock Holmes in a Tom Waits t-shirt I continue to find a gem-of-a-song here and there. Not too long ago a found a song called "Rabbit Foot Blues" I didn't know from Blind Lemon Jefferson. What a beauty.

So much of modern music is pre-packaged, over-marketed, saccharine-coated garbage. I have read about record companies using an algorithm that can figure if a song is going to be a hit or not. You plug in a verse, a chorus, another verse and a scantily clad girl "singing" and presto; a top 40 hit. That is offensive to me. People complain that the arts are suffering. Music stinks, films are watered down, novels are boring. This is true, sadly. The reason - partly - is because the suits are killing the arts. Jackasses that are more concerned about where they are having lunch and with who than letting a burgeoning musician grow and mature. They believe they can predict what will sell, not what is good. Nobody in an office building in Santa Monica told Son House not to record a song about a dead girlfriend in the morgue. (See: "Death Letter Blues", a blues classic and my favorite song.) The blues was - and is - raw and unfettered. The songs were about life around the artists. They matter.

Part of my definition of good or important music, whether I like it or not, is it must last more than one generation. The blues lives. The blues breathes. She has a life of her own.

Thank God she's a part of mine.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Modern Plastic Surgery & The Elephant Man

Joseph Merrick, The Elephant Man, is one of the most endearing people in history. He endured mockery, humiliation, being spit on and beaten, called every nasty name the British children could think of. And yet, through the kindness of some sympathetic figures, he made it through hell and become a beloved historical figure and Londoner. Some of the royal family (The Prince and Princess of Wales) even came to meet him in his little apartment under the London Hospital.

What if Merrick had lived today? His life would have been much different. Joseph never had elephantiasis. His nickname, The Elephant Man, was given to him by a freak show owner who told the rubes paying to see him that his mother was trampled by an elephant when she was pregnant. Thus the deformity. Merrick was then billed as “Half-a-Man, Half-an-Elephant.” Most scholars believe that Joseph’s medical condition was Proteus syndrome. Which is now somewhat treatable with a drug called Rapamycin.

Now to the point. With modern day plastic surgery, could Merrick have been treated enough to live a more normal, mock-free life? To a degree, I believe the answer is yes. (Merrick was operated on a couple times, but with little success.)

Here’s the irony: We live in a culture, a frighteningly shallow society, where the famous and wannabe famous go to outrageous lengths to make their appearance worse.

The celebs think they are improving themselves. Nothing is farther from the truth.

There is direct dichotomy between The Elephant Man wanting more than anything to live a quiet, “normal” life, and the faux-famous who go to any length to alter their appearance to “look better” and stay in the tabloid headlines.

Ask yourself; have you ever seen a facelift, Botox treatment or collagen lip injection that makes a woman look more desirable? I’d bet no. Even with real actresses – many of whom are naturally beautiful – have made horrendous mistakes by altering their face and by extension, looking plastic and fake. Like their personalities. Think of Meg Ryan or Nicole Kidman or Nikki Cox (yikes) or Dolly Parton or half the cast of Desperate Housewives. We could make jokes about Joan Rivers, but that almost seems sad now that she’s gone so far. I read a feature not that long ago, where Rivers expressed that the plastic surgery started because no man ever called her beautiful. That just makes me feel sorry for her.

It isn’t just women. Have you seen Kenny Rogers and Wayne Newton lately?! They are barely recognizable. Faces taut as a tom-tom drum. My bet is they regret having the work done. Tell me Tony Bennett doesn’t still look distinguished. Untouched by a hack surgeon’s knife.

Merrick, ironically, joined the freak show to escape the cruelty of a London workhouse. He thought the only way out was to the join the traveling carnivals that took advantage of his condition and subjected himself to more horrible abuse. There he endured cruelty that none of us can possibly imagine. It looked hopeless for Merrick until he met Dr. Frederick Treves. Dr. Treves’ heart went out to Merrick and after some time, it was arranged for The Elephant Man to live under The London Hospital. (The apartment is now bricked over.)
When Merrick went into public, if he mustered the courage to step outside, he wore a dark, floor-length cloak and a custom-made hood to hide in plain site. The desperate-to-be-famous have their publicists call the scumbag paparazzo’s so they can show off their new oddly altered face and circus-boobs.

A glaring example is the pathetic case of Heidi Montag. A girl – along with the Paris Hilton, the Kardashians and others – that are willing to be despised by America in exchange for people knowing their name. We live in a strange world where being on the cover of the tabloids is worth being a national punchline.

Montag was so shallow, so insecure, that she endured 37 (or so) plastic surgeries in one day to achieve what she feels is “beauty.” The result was shocking. She went from a decently attractive person with no business being on television, with nothing interesting to say and a dinosaur brain, to an X-Files-looking alien hybrid with nothing interesting to say and a dinosaur brain An unrecognizable mess. She’s 3 procedures away from looking like Admiral Ackbar.

(When I read that Montag was writing an action film script for her to star in – delusion is an odd beast – I couldn’t help but imagining her trying to write the dialogue. To be a fly on the wall to watch that debacle… “How do you spell Ferrari? This is going to have a Ferrari chase!”)

The almost-famous flaunt their man-made deformities under the false pretense they look improved, while Merrick went out of his way to hide his condition. He didn’t want to scare anybody or be mocked for something that wasn’t his fault. He didn’t choose his appearance, he was cursed with it. The socialites and celebutantes looked through a catalogue and picked their freakish features.

Quick note for those that are referred to in the media as “socialites and celebutantes.” 1.) This is because you have no definable talent and the media doesn’t know how to categorize you. 2.) It’s actually a veiled insult.

The new-famous will show up to anything to get their picture taken. Sometimes I doubt they even know what the event is. “The premier for Toddlers & Tiara’s? Are there going to be cameras there? Sure, we’ll show up. I just got my ears pinned back.”

Joseph Merrick, again, was the opposite. He never tried to capitalize from his notoriety. I’ve read two books about Merrick, both told the following story. One of Joseph’s dreams was to attend the theater. He was a voracious reader and wanted to see actors portray a story he knew. The fear was that his presence would shock the theater patrons and potentially cause a panic. Dr. Treves had an idea. He contacted one of Merrick’s friends, Madge Kendall with whom Joseph exchanged letters and gifts. They made an arrangement at the Theater Royal, Drury Lane and arranged to sit in a Baroness’s private box. Then Dr. Treves asked some young nurses to accompany Joseph to the theater. The cloak and hood was donned, they waited until the theater crowd was seated, then Merrick slipped into the box. The nurses and Dr. Treves sat in front of him, hiding his presence. After the show, the crowd filed out. When it was clear, Merrick and his nurse entourage quietly went out the back. Nobody even knew he was there. Merrick called it the thrill of his life. All done with dignity.

I have told this story to people over the years and have a hard time doing so without getting choked up.

Theory: Montag has such serious mental problems that she unconsciously turned herself into what inside she believes she actually is: a circus freak.

It’s my belief that the cast of The Hills, select members from The Real World, everyone from The Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Milwaukee should be put into circus train cages like in Dumbo. Traveling the country to be gawked at and have peanuts thrown at them by innocent children. Maybe it’s more appropriate if juiced needles are chucked at the Jersey Shore douchebags. They’ll put a cap on the needles, it’ll be safe. We could throw books, but they’d just eat them.

The kind of celebrities were are talking about (let’s throw Lindsay Lohan into the pot, though I know she doesn’t fit in the plastic surgery gang) engage in almost weekly poor behavior. Fist-fights, cat-fights, DUIs, drug busts, poor grammar, grave robberies, rehab stints, really childish nonsense. In Merrick’s whole life, despite all the abuse he took, he remained kind, thoughtful and seemingly happy. Never lashing out because he has treated like an unwanted animal and chained to walls as he was mocked.

The way Joseph died was tragic. How he slept was odd but necessary. His head, due to the many tumors, weighed over 30 pounds. (Yours weighs about 8-10 pounds.) So he sat in his bed, raising his knees to his chest, then rested his massive head on his knees. One afternoon, Dr. Treves’ house surgeon went to check on Joseph and he was motionless in his bed, laying on his back. The sheets were unmoved, no sign of struggle. Joseph was dead. He was 27-years-old. What Dr. Treves believes happened is that he was sick of sleeping as he was accustomed to. He had expressed the sentiment several times. So Joseph simply tried to lie down. The weight of his head snapped his neck and he died instantly. The death certificate lists “asphyxia” as official cause of death. Joseph died trying to do what he wanted his whole life; live normally. To “sleep like other people.”

That story, made “The Elephant Man: A Study in Dignity”, the only book that has ever made me cry. (Okay, maybe “Charlotte’s Web”, but I was 9 and Wilbur was some pig.)

The point of this bollocks; Plastic surgery can be an amazing tool to those that use it wisely. Fixing a cleft palate or assisting the recovery of a burn victim. Pumping your lips full of your own ass-fat is not one of them. Had The Elephant Man lived today, he could have been the beneficiary of miracle surgeries and lived a very different life.

Joseph Merrick’s skeleton is stored with care in the basement of the Royal London Hospital. To be visited by the lucky and compassionate. The desperate-famous are soon to be forgotten, only to become punchlines on VH1’s I Love the Teens.