In my latest blog-free zone, I spent a good chunk of time returning to seriously playing the drums after having laid off for decades, which led me to one of those pointless questions we ask ourselves: in my case, "Why the %##@! didn't I keep on playing drums all these years?" There is, of course, no good answer to such a question, except to say, "Well, hell, I'll do it now." So now I am, along with my uphill foray into the saxophone, and I've never been happier.
I'm telling you this because one of the side-effects has been my spending a whole lot of time lately on YouTube, which for musicians is your basic heaven: free video clips of virtually every major musician (and a lot of minor ones) of the past 100 years either playing the music or talking about it. As I said to a friend the other day in the midst of my belated plunge into this addiction, YouTube is like an unofficial national archive of everything: music, politics, art, history, film, humor, how to make cabbage rolls or restore a Ford Falcon.
Which brings me to Eric Clapton and public racism.
I like Clapton the musician. A lot. To me, he is the most melodic of rock guitar soloists, and also among the classiest of the legions of white blues-based rock guitar gods who founded their careers on the music of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, and other black American blues immortals. While white rock fans were scrawling "Clapton is God" on bridge abutments in England, Clapton and a handful of other white guitar heroes (the late Duane Allman comes to mind) were insistently, in concerts and interviews, acknowledging their debt and their homage to the black musicians from whom they gained their inspiration and their fame. Clapton continues to do so to this day. (The classic contrasting example is guitarist Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, who pirated the black blues canon and never looked back.)
But it turns out, as I learned just recently but many already know, that Clapton has had a virulently racist thread in his public life as a musician. At a concert in Birmingham, England in 1976, at the height of his alcoholism, a drunken Clapton ranted at length into the microphone in support of politician Enoch Powell and Britain's infamous National Front, a radically racist organization that called for white power and that cheered mob murders of nonwhite immigrants.
"Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. Wogs I mean, I'm looking at you. Where are you? I'm sorry but some fucking wog...Arab grabbed my wife's bum, you know? Surely got to be said, yeah this is what all the fucking foreigners and wogs over here are like, just disgusting, that's just the truth, yeah. So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country. You fucking (indecipherable). I don't want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch's our man. I think Enoch's right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I'm into racism. It's much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking (indecipherable) don't belong here, we don't want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don't want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don't want fucking wogs living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck's sake? We need to vote for Enoch Powell, he's a great man, speaking truth. Vote for Enoch, he's our man, he's on our side, he'll look after us. I want all of you here to vote for Enoch, support him, he's on our side. Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white!"
Quoted in Rebel Rock by J. Street. First Edition (1986). Oxford: Basil Blackwell. pp. 74-75. Street's sources are editions of the New Musical Express, Melody Maker and the Guardian and Times newspapers from the time. Other Sources: Virgin Media: Clapton's Shocking Rant; Guardian Unlimited: The Ten Right-Wing Rockers.
(These statements were allegedly made on stage by a heavily drunk Clapton during a concert in Birmingham, UK, in 1976. Clapton is referring to British anti-immigration Conservative MP Enoch Powell. Clapton later made similar further comments to the audience later in the evening. Clapton has never denied making these statements and has refused to apologise for his remarks or distanced himself from them, although he denies that his views are racist and states that he is merely an opponent of mass immigration. This incident was the main inspiration for the formation of Rock Against Racism.)
So there it is.
Clapton has deservedly taken searing public heat for this. As far as I can tell he has never fully accounted for what he said and why. Sure, being drunk and a junkie makes for atrocious behavior, but it does not create vehement racism out of whole cloth. In his recent autobiography, Clapton mutters grouchily about his Powell outburst, and he complains that he was unfairly branded as a racist as a result. But he provides nothing like an explanation.
So we're left to wonder why a white man who has spent his entire career paying tribute to black genius would take a prolonged public stand praising something close to white ethnic cleansing.
As the price of gasoline drops from the unbelievable to the unaffordable, and as Barack Obama grapples with trying to turn government in the general direction of the public interest while John McCain pretends to do so, here are some figures concerning the most efficient form of transportation -- rail -- that are worth thinking about:
Percentage of transportation project costs for which Federal support dollars are available to states:
Air: 90% Highway: 80% Rail: 0%
–From Maryland Secretary of Transportation John D. Porcari, speaking on NPR station WYPR-FM, 9/3/2008
For someone who claims to not be George W. Bush – McCain's best line in the third and final presidential debate – the Senator from Anger does a fine imitation. He is reckless, pissed-off, and stubbornly prone to self-injury, as he proved once again in his inexplicable decision, in a do-or-die TV debate no less, to continually riff on "Joe the Plumber" without his staff's having done the least bit of fact-checking on this purported poster child for the Upright Working White Guy.
"Joe," as most of us now know whether we wanted to or not, is the 34-year-old Ohio working stiff who buttonholed Barack Obama on a campaign stop and enjoyed a full six-minute exchange with the would-be president in which Joe (his full name is Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) demanded an answer to his accusation that Obama's plan would raise his taxes as a would-be small businessman who hopes to buy the business at which he is now an employee. Obama gave the man a run-down on why he needn't worry and why his plan is fair, the substance of which was ignored by media reports (including McCain's) in favor of an Obama soundbite to the effect that the candidate wants to "spread the wealth around."
Come the debate, Obama knew enough to let sleeping Joes lie and to simply home in on the issues. But McCain, in his addled wisdom, dove in for the kill with his wholly unverified "Joe" story, causing Obama to cautiously jump on board the Joe Talk Express so as to not appear short on Sympathy for The Plumber.
We now know, courtesy of a cursory check of the public record by the New York Times and a herd of other media (New York Post headline: "Oh, No, Joe!") that Joe is not a licensed plumber as required by law for the work he does; he is not a member of the union he claimed to have joined; his allegations of his having to pay higher taxes under an Obama plan are unfounded according to nonpartisan tax experts; his plan to buy the business is pretty much a daydream in any case; and he owes back taxes.
Chalk up another one to the experienced and thoughtful judgment of John McCain.
All of this, of course, makes McCain and his operation look even less presidential now than five minutes ago.
But it also says a lot about a certain blindly belligerent sense of entitlement in a guy like Joe, the kind of guy to whom McCain's braying and Sarah Palin's winking strives to appeal, a guy so intoxicated with his us-poor-ignored-white-guys angst that he would confront Obama (on television!) with moral outrage about tax policy while he himself is a tax scofflaw, a secret illegal in his own field, and a nonunion deceiver.
You could call this chutzpah on steroids. Or naivete. Or stupidity. Depending on your attitude toward Joe, or at least toward what we know of him.
And, make no mistake, there is an element of race at work here as well. Whatever Joe's attitudes about race and crime and property values and illegal immigrants, and in spite of his (likely truthful) declaration that he wanted to confront either Obama or McCain to try to get a straight answer, you can bet that Joe's televised in-your-face approach toward Obama netted lusty cheers among a subset of white voters who are irked by Obama's "uppityness," skittish about black males in general, and privately leery of what a black man might actually do in the White House. For some, Joe the Plumber in his indignant glory is – or was, for his 15 minutes – a kind of miniature Great White Hope, a defiant Our Guy taking his swings at an outsized bronze swaggerer who needs to be brought down a notch or two.
And then there was Joe's remark to the Times about Obama's "tap dance" on the issue being "almost as good as Sammy Davis Jr."
Meanwhile, it is being driven home to more and more voters that it's still the economy, stupid -- and that's a problem not even a phalanx of mythical Joes will solve.
I'll be in a blog-free zone until mid-October. I'll see you then. In the meantime, here is a reality check you might like:
A tiny speck on the horizon.
Which doesn’t move or doesn’t seem to yet Must be on the move; has enlarged, is now
The size of a thumb, and now still larger, look, A newly gilded vehicle rocking and racketing Down the pike. Besides the band—uniformed,
Gold-braided, their brasses aglitter— A few grand figureheads clutch a post, They wave and fire off grins at onlookers, who, The boldest, respond by grabbing and climbing
A ladder dangling from the wagon, dragged Onto the flatbed by earlier troops and welcomed As opportune endorsements of their clan, Another, another and another! And some Impressive knot of adherents they are,
Arms on shoulders, the victor’s strut, A promo for dazzled joiners farther on, Who scuttle and jump to swell their ranks. Each wheel turns faster, revving up For the straightaway, hickory spokes A blur like an electric fan at top speed,
Scribbles of gleam smeared across it. Faster, closer, numbers snowballing According to an exponent that also mounts. Yet, nothing daunted, they swing aboard, dying To be part of it, the A-list, the blue-chips. Hup! It’s party-time, tap this keg and chug Your suds, we won-won-won, and we’re one
High roller of a club, hotshots all, bigger, louder, United stumpers we stand, sterling but humble. Of course we commiserate with you hangdogs Out there who fumbled the ball, who didn’t latch on
Quick enough. But rest easy, we’ll help you out When we get a chance, why, sure. Meantime, ha ha, Eat our dust! And then—then, like a flashbulb, it’s gone. Sudden stillness. Still here. In open space, morning sun.
Which toplights the trees and their strange, shining leaves.
If a future encyclopedia ever needs a defining example of the difference between the gibberish of a poser and the forceful argument of a knowledgeable politician, the 2008 Palin-Biden debate will fill the bill.
I listened to the debate on my car radio rather than watching it on TV, so I missed the winks and smirks and eye contact and body language. But what I heard was this: Biden lays out blistering specifics about McCain's record on an issue. Palin ducks them and changes the subject to fire allegations about Obama's position on something else. Biden answers the allegations in surgical detail, then launches more blistering specifics about McCain's statements and actions. Palin dodges (or maybe answers by saying, "No he didn't"), then lobs a slogan about McCain's maverick reputation and his strong character. Biden replies with more blistering specifics that decimate McCain positions. Palin dodges without answering the critique and then changes the subject.
And so on.
This happened with Biden's devastating dissection of McCain's and Palin's stances on deregulation, and on tax cuts, and on Iraq, and on Afghanistan, and on health care, and on oil and alternative energy, and on global warming and the environment. Palin -- as an ex-bandmate of mine once said after we watched a rockumentary about the wit and wisdom of guitar hero Angus Young and his band AC/DC -- is a great act but has nothing to say. Except that Palin doesn't even have a great act. She has attitude, and a high-school slacker's grasp of government and the world, and a proud inability to pronounce "nuclear." And that's about it. She is, I have to say, the sorriest candidate for national public office I (and likely most of you) have ever seen. She would never even make the cut in the mayoral primary in my town, Baltimore. We'd laugh ourselves deaf after her third sentence.
I listened to National Public Radio's Mara Laisson chirp after the debate about how Palin, through her language and her staring directly into the camera, "went a long way" toward redeeming her fading image as a president-in-waiting, and I marveled at how little some of our media critics will now settle for in a would-be public leader. Fortunately, some others in NPR's stable of commentators, both conservative and liberal, begged to differ with Liasson's shallow assessment, and with any luck American voters will as well as they stare into the abyss of war, recession, and climate change. For style-centered reporters, George W. Bush's successful campaigns may have spectacularly lowered the standard for candidate performance. But for survival-conscious voters, the real world now raises the standard.
Biden, even on his worst day (and the debate was one of his better ones), comes off like Abraham Lincoln in comparison with Palin's low, stinking hucksterism. As I've said before, if white middle-American voters allow themselves to be fooled this time by the likes of Palin, they will deserve the broken government and the bombed-out economy they will get.
Best Palin moment: Her gotcha response to moderator Gwen Ifill's question about Palin's having said she doesn't know what a vice president does. Palin replied to Ifill, "It was a lame attempt at a joke, and yours was a lame attempt at a joke, too, I guess, because nobody got it." The audience snickered, and even through the radio I felt Ifill's face turn red.
Best Biden moment: Virtually every statement of substance in the debate.