A Late Encounter With the Idiot

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I’ve seen horrors… horrors that you’ve seen. But you have no right to call me a murderer. You have a right to kill me. You have a right to do that… but you have no right to judge me. It’s impossible for words to describe what is necessary to those who do not know what horror means. Horror… Horror has a face… and you must make a friend of horror. Horror and moral terror are your friends. If they are not, then they are enemies to be feared. They are truly enemies! I remember when I was with Special Forces… seems a thousand centuries ago. We went into a camp to inoculate some children. We left the camp after we had inoculated the children for polio, and this old man came running after us and he was crying. He couldn’t see. We went back there, and they had come and hacked off every inoculated arm. There they were in a pile. A pile of little arms. And I remember… I… I… I cried, I wept like some grandmother. I wanted to tear my teeth out; I didn’t know what I wanted to do! And I want to remember it. I never want to forget it… I never want to forget. And then I realized… like I was shot… like I was shot with a diamond… a diamond bullet right through my forehead. And I thought, my God… the genius of that! The genius! The will to do that! Perfect, genuine, complete, crystalline, pure. And then I realized they were stronger than we, because they could stand that these were not monsters, these were men… trained cadres. These men who fought with their hearts, who had families, who had children, who were filled with love… but they had the strength… the strength… to do that. If I had ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly. You have to have men who are moral… and at the same time who are able to utilize their primordial instincts to kill without feeling… without passion… without judgment… without judgment! Because it’s judgment that defeats us.

- Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now

The reason I am starting with the above quote will become clear later.  Last night I had the extreme displeasure of playing The Redneck Country Club in Stafford, Texas.  I want to make it clear this was not because of its patrons or staff, as the staff were very kind to me and the crowd was a mixture of people, but because of the owner:  conservative radio talk show host Michael Berry.  

I also believe as entertainers that one should play for any audience as long as one does not rubber stamp an audience’s worst tendencies or ignorant political positions.  There were people in the crowd last night that I know and who I am sure do not share Berry’s political views.  However, even the people that do, it is possible that art may, at its best, change them, and at its worst relieve them of the daily pain of being a human being for a few hours.  We can’t know their life experience and how they arrived at such closed minded political positions.  Possibly they are even kind to people in their real lives, and are just fans of an idiot.  Unless you have committed a crime, or have the power to influence people, I try not to judge people other then based on my own individual experience with them.  My main distaste for playing the club was not only that it was owned by Michael Berry, but that it seemed to be a brand extension of his radio show.  I didn’t like playing a place where people might think that I agreed with his often disgusting and moronic political positions.  

I did not know quite what I was getting into last night.  I simply showed up like I would to any gig, not aware that Michael Berry owned the club, or not even completely aware of who Michael Berry was.  

During soundcheck I started to see signs that I was not in Kansan anymore.  (Although, being how conservative Kansas is, I possibly could have been in Kansas.)  First even if Berry wasn’t conservative, it is clear that he is a supreme egoist.  His venue was full of pictures of the man.  Now I’m not talking pictures of a club owner with famous musicians or whatever, as is often common in the club world.  I am talking about giant posters of Berry hocking his various products.  Also, when his radio show came on, the club decided to pump it into the place at concert volume.  Make no mistake, at every moment you were supposed to be aware that Michael Berry owned the club, and that this club was again part of the Michael Berry brand. 

Let me give those of you that don’t know who Michael Berry is a taste of his brand.  Throughout the club there were bumper stickers that said, I shit you not:

Micheal Berry
Country Fried – Southern Pride – On Your Side

‘Merica

This was all printed over a confederate flag.  Also, while listening to his show, which I couldn’t have avoided unless I put an ice pick in my ear, he kept referring to his audience as “white people”.  I should also note two other things.  When I walked into the club there was an exact replica of the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazard.  The other being that there were all kinds of dumbass slogans strung up around the bar like “The 2nd Amendment – The First Version of Homeland Security.”  

While I was at soundcheck a very in the know Houstonian messaged me and told me that I was, “playing the most racist club that I will ever play.”  

How did i justify playing such a place?  Trust me, i thought many times over about getting in my car and driving straight back to Austin.  However, I decided that one should experience everything once.  People that had bought tickets and were coming out were possibly coming out to see us and in no way supported Michael Berry, and even people that supported him may have some kind of artistic experience that might slightly alter the way that they view the world. (We do plenty of covers of black artists, one of our horn players is Mexican, and one of our horn players always wears a Rasta hat.)  I decided that if Michael Berry was going to be giving me money, I would use it to spend a day not working and writing about what a dumbass he was.  I also decided last night I would give some of the money to a charity that is in direct political opposition to something Michael Berry believes in.  

Now despite all of these troubling signs all around me, both literally and metaphorically, the staff was actually very kind to us.  Other than the clueless man that I saw wearing a Ted Cruz for President t-shirt, I have no way of knowing if these people were actually believing the bullshit that was around them, or were just Americans that were hard up for money and needed a job.  Even if they were died in the wool believers, I don’t believe that they would have been mean to anyone of a different race.  If the club had hired a group of black blues musicians I still believe they would have been treated kindly.  Often people that hate the “other” have enough cognitive dissonance going on in their brain to allow their hate to exist on some imaginary plane that effects their voting and what they talk about in private, but not their face to face behavior with other human beings.  Don’t get me wrong there is a certain percentage of these people that are just extremely hateful, but most of them are just hard up looking to blame someone else for their problems.  They are preyed upon by people like Berry to hate the “other” instead of focusing their anger on the corporations and leaders that are fucking them up the ass every day.  People like Berry rely on corporations to sponsor his behavior.  

Now this is where things get strange.  While spending time in my car, to avoid spending any more time in this bar than I had to, I did some research on Michael Berry.  Apparently he has an Indian wife and two black sons.  Now this is someone that is often anti-immigrant and who takes shots at minorities on his radio show.  How do you square the two things?  The first being that Michael Berry, if he is a true believer, is really attacking not minorities because he is an across the board racist, but because he must be able to view them in different categories.  There are the ones that are American and upstanding, and the ones that are destroying the America that he loves.  Basically he dislikes the poor ones.  There is no greater sin in America then being poor.  If he is not an true believer then he is simply gaming his audience because being a conservative talk show host is highly lucrative.  I am unwilling to guess what goes on inside Berry’s head, but being that his bar was filled with posters of himself hocking products…you get the idea…

And this is where the Kurtz quote comes into play.  Although I believe that there is a certain amount of gaming going on with his audience, I also believe that he is someone that loves his family and in some way thinks he is doing good things for the community.  Much like Kurtz, but in a much stupider way, he is embracing the evil in the world because it allows him to provide for his family and because he believes at least in part that what he is doing is will help “the cause”.  

I am not going to go into all of the idiotic things that Berry has said on his radio show.  A quick google search will supply you with a wealth of information.  I would just like to mention a few things based on last night.  (A quick search will bring up things like, although he apologized for it and still wished it had never been built, he said the the mosque built near Ground Zero after 911 should be blown up. “I hope that someone blows it up.”)  Here is some more dumbass comments from when he was a City Councilman!:

http://watchingthewatchers.org/news/1194/houston-councilman-stop-apologizing

When Berry showed up he looked like the stereotypical shock jock.  In fact, something about him reminded me of Jeff Bridges at the beginning of the movie The Fisher King.  He was constantly walking around with a cigar in his mouth just like good old Rush.  He introduced the band on stage.  In order to avoid looking like I supported him, I came out on stage late so that I didn’t have to shake his hand.  In private I would be happy to meet with anyone, even someone that has wildly different views than me.  I have many conservative friends.  I just didn’t want to look buddy buddy with someone in a public way that could be misconstrued.  

His introduction was long winded as this man clearly loves to hear himself talk.  I guess anyone that creates a bar and puts pictures of himself everywhere is going to want to be the center of attention.  The speech was filled with the kind of the middle of the road unthinking patriotism that fills so much of our public discourse.  Support the troops, support traditional marriage, love of the tribe, etc.  He clearly had a giant hard on for the troops because he called anyone that served to the front of the stage for a giant round of applause.  On the front of it this may seem like a nice gesture.   But I believe this is the kind of feel good nonsense that allows people to feel good about themselves while supporting politicians that would gladly send the troops into harms way to be killed or mutilated.  Let’s applaud the troops when they come home all fucked up from the war front, but let’s not actually talk about peace and understanding and try to make sure that they never go on another mission of imperial conquest again.  Anyone can say let’s support the troops now that they have PTSD and get a big round of applause.  It takes a much bigger person so say that we have started too many wars and that these poor troops should have never been sent anywhere in the first place.  The best way to support the troops isn’t to applaud them while you are drinking and smoking a cigar, but to try to get a real conversation going about about peace, so that these poor men and women never have to come home mangled and full of trauma, if they come home at all.  An empty gesture by a lesser mind.  In fact, clapping while drunk, is one of the easiest and least committal things a human being can do.  He was also happy to talk about loving your wife, traditional marriage, while never bringing up that maybe there are people that aren’t married or that are gay that love who they are with with the truest commitment.  He also kept going on about how great the cops were.  This is at a time when our justice system is completely corrupt and our cops more and more look like they are soldiers in occupied territory.  There was also the usual conservative shout out to small business owners.  (Trust me, I have worked for small businesses and there ain’t nothing that separates the leaders of those fine organizations from the general public.  I knew a small business owner that was such a drunk, that after he was busted for a DUI and had a breathalyzer installed in his car, he started driving the company vehicles to the bar.)  It wasn’t so much that he was bringing his radio personality into the bar, saying the stupid and often ignorant shit he says on the air, but that he was going for easy soft applause lines that don’t really mean anything if you think about them, and actually muddy the waters if you really think about them.  I never once heard him make a plea for humanity, peace, empathy, or understanding.  It is easy to support your tribe.  We need people of influence that are going to go outside of tribal mentality.  

Michael Berry couldn’t quit lapping up attention all night.  He came out on stage, or came to the side of it where the audience could see him, more times then I wished.  Every time he did, I kept wishing to make myself smaller, unseen, but there I was, in a compromised position, wondering what fucking gods I had offended to end up there.  

So my senses were destroyed by the end of the night.  I had to sit around with idiotic slogans plastered around me.  I had to listen to dumbass gibberish.  One more thing, I don’t get this whole championing of redneck culture, as I didn’t grow up in the South.  I am part Irish.  To me claiming that you are proud to be a redneck would be like an Irishman claiming that he is proud to be an alcoholic.  It is such a low bar.  

There also was reportedly someone from Duck Dynasty there.  In the words of Richard Pryor from Moving, it was like an, “asshole convention.”  

I’m still trying to make sense of last night.  Even though I was in hell, I was glad for the experience, to see what is going on out there is this strange and often frustrating country.  Even in a crowd that came out to a bar that was owned by Michael Berry, there were still decent and kind people.  We need to not do what Berry does and condemn people just for the way they look or what tribe they belong to.  

I must thank Michael Berry last of all.  Thanks Mikey, for paying me, so I could sit around this morning and write this.  Also thanks again for the money.  I look forward to giving some of it to a charity that works in opposition to your closed minded rhetoric.  

End of Tour and Back to the Heat

 

I’m finally back in Austin after being on tour with Shinyribs in Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.  Tomorrow I will resume my regular posting schedule.  It’s hotter than hell here, of which I have had a brief respite from in the last twelve days.  Here is one of my favorite bands, Marah, playing their song Long Hot Summer.  If you don’t know who they are I highly recommend that you check them out.  

Shinyribs Tour and Poetry

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Starting this Wednesday I am going on tour with Shinyribs.  We will be in New Mexico, Colorado, and Texas.

For a list of full tour details here is a link to the Shinyribs website:

http://www.shinyribs.org

Usually when I go on tour, mostly due to lack of service, but also from trying to type things on my phone, and sheer exhaustion, my blogging input decreases.  One thing I am going to try to do on this tour is to post some kind of poem every day based on what I see on the road.  There may be a day or so without service, but if that happens I’ll just post two the next day or whatever.

Lately I’ve been posting poetry, which until recently I have never written before, although I have written plenty of song lyrics.  I don’t even feel comfortable calling it poetry as I have no experience in that field.  I think of it more as prose in verse form.  There is something Zen about it for me.  I enjoy trying to write something that translates some kind of image or idea without all of the explaining that comes with writing prose.  I’m having fun with it.  Hopefully you all will enjoy some of it as well.

In the Shade of Those Trees

If I want to possibly catch a glimpse of God
I’ll go out into Hill Country
Where the majestic oaks are more beautiful
Than any art made by man
How many people died raising the pyramids?
How many died building the cathedrals in Europe?
Not one died creating those trees
I’ll tell you where I won’t go
To church on Sunday
Where a person the same as me
No matter what kind of funny outfit they have on
Claims that they have some kind of
Supernatural information
Even though it was probably
Passed down to them
By some ancestor
That slew another
In the shade of those trees

Austin 7/28/14

No Show Ponies to Go On Hiatus

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It is with equal parts sadness and joy that I announce that my band, No Show Ponies, of which I have been a member of for probably close to 15 years, is going on hiatus while my brother, and partner in the band, attends law school in Pennsylvania.  I am sad that my best friend and band mate is moving away, but I am happy that he is pursuing something that he has a passion for.  I will be starting a new musical project, but I will talk about that at a later date.  For the time being I would like to talk about how much working with my brother has meant to me.

My brother, Ben Brown, is one of the most talented musicians that I have ever come across.  I’m talking about a guy that could learn a Beach Boys song with 15 chords in it in five minutes by ear.  I’m talking about someone that I have almost never heard sing off key in the 15 years I have worked with him. (And I personally know something about singing off key!)  This is someone that has cultivated an original voice AND an original guitar style.  These are not easy things to do.  He wrote great songs and always made my songs better by adding little twists and turns that were extremely musical.  If I got stuck on a bridge or a chorus, I would ask him what to do, and he would always come up with something inventive and catchy.

When we decided to become a three piece Ben moved to electric guitar.  He had very little experience on this instrument as he had primarily played acoustic guitar.  If necessity is the mother of invention, he soon developed a style that I have not heard anywhere else in Austin.  He could jump from the fast picking jangle guitar of someone like Johnny Marr to post punk art noise solos in the drop of a hat.  Listen to the way he works the fretboard on our song I Love You All the Same.  There is only one guitar going on there, but it seems like two.  On my song You’re Never As Good As You Think You Are, he manages to put both extremes of his playing in one song.  While most guitar players rely on stock blues and pentatonic licks, he just ignored those and went his own way.

You can hear examples of my brothers guitar playing, songwriting, and singing at www.noshowponies.bandcamp.com.  He plays all of the guitars on that record and is the one with the baritone voice.

Throughout the years we got to do some pretty neat things together.  We opened for some of our favorite bands in The Gourds and Marah.  We opened for Hillary Clinton at one of her political rallies, and one of our songs was chosen by her for a campaign commercial.  Jon Dee Graham and members of the Gourds played on one of our records.  We got a day dedicated to us by the Austin City Council and Mayor.  Numerous nights of fun are too many to mention.

For those of you that don’t know what it is like to sing and play with your brother, it is simply magical.  We could work without language.  We had the same rhythmic timing and could harmonize with very little effort.  Something happens when you play music with family that goes outside the normal realm of reason and explanation.

More than being just a great musician who I have had the honor to work with, Ben is my best friend.  It’s not anyone that you could be in a band with for 15 years.  Through low times and high times he had my back and I had his.

I have lived with Ben for all but three years of my life and in the same city for all but two.  Words can’t express how much I will miss him as my musical partner and as my roommate.  I will carry on, but just because that is what one must do in life.  We have had many ridiculous adventures along the way.  I wish him the absolute best as he moves on to this next chapter in his life.  I know at some point we will play together again.  This is but a momentary lapse in the proceedings.  I am not losing a friend or a brother, but just a band mate for the time being.  I know this, yet I still feel that these are titanic days for myself.  In closing I want to leave with a few selected lyrics from Morrissey’s song Forgive Someone.  Most of you might not understand why I am leaving it with this song, but it will bring a smile to Ben, and that is all that matters to me:

Use a weapon of words
Or a fight with your fists
But can you forgive someone?
Stand your ground and persist
And be the last one to blink
But can you forgive someone?

And if you do I’ll run to you
Betray you with a word
I would slit my own throat first of all
I will

Our truth will die with me
Our truth will die with me
Our truth will die with me

The Immorality of the Death Penalty

California Executions Death Chamber

Many executed here / by the awful lawfully good – Morrissey in his song Mountjoy

I was astounded the other day when I was looking up Governor Perry’s death stats.  If you read my recent blog on him you would know that last year, I’m not even sure what he is up to now, he hit the 500 mark.  Some of those people were mentally retarded.  

Right now I am reading Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt.  She talks about how the gas chambers began with the extermination of the mentally retarded and the terminally ill first.  It was talked about in terms of mercy killings and medical procedures.  

I also just finished reading Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow.  This is a play that takes place in the 24 hours before someone is hanged in Mountjoy prison.  The person that is to be hung apparently killed his brother and chopped him up.  It’s never clear if he is guilty or not.  In fact the person to be hung is never actually seen onstage.  What the hanging seems to do is demoralize everyone else in the prison, from the lowest prisoner to warders and prison officials, whether they believe the quare fellow is getting his just deserts or not.  The play may sound like a downer, but it is actually quite full of absurd comedy.  

I believe the death penalty is immoral.  In saying so you must face the fact that often the people that receive it, though not always as our justice system is full of flaws, have done absolutely horrible things.  Some of these people have killed children in the most horrible ways imaginable.  One shouldn’t think about these things in terms of abstract principles.  

But I can’t help but feel that after reading Arendt and Behan, that what the death penalty does is make our society more barbarous.  When you institutionalize extermination in some way you are saying that it is OK to kill people depending on circumstances.  

In you believe in the death penalty, but in no way participate in the actual process, you are also forcing other human beings, who may be altogether decent, to perform horrible tasks.  My Dad knew former Governor Casey of Pennsylvania.  He was telling me last night that one time he went into his office and the only book on the Governor’s desk was one about the pros and cons of the death penalty.  Clearly he was wrestling with that subject in some kind of existential matter.  As Governor it was his duty to uphold the law and sign off on the death penalty when the law recommended it.  What about the prison guards that must take those on death row to their deaths, or those in the medical field that must administer lethal injection?  If you support the death penalty, do you really want those people to have to carry out that act?  Do you think about how those acts might weigh upon their conscious?  These people are technically carrying out a legal act under the law.  However, the law is making these individuals carry out an act that is one of the worst things a human can do to another, which is to take someone’s life.  

Also, if we say that killing is OK under certain extreme circumstances, does it not make it morally easier to perpetrate acts of death around the world.  Are we not normalizing killing to some degree?  

Again, I want to go back to Behan, whose The Quare Fellow I believe is a read that you should check out if you want to think about this subject.  It is entertainment because it truly does entertain.  I can’t say enough how funny it is.  But it also makes you think, without any of the soapbox moralizing that so many works that deal with this issue would normally do.  It is both seriously funny and dead serious.  In the play one section talks about how horrible death by hanging actually is, as many that hang do not die instantly.  Think of the botched executions that have taken place in Oklahoma and Arizona recently.  No human should die in such a way even if they are guilty.  But what about the smallest sliver of a chance, if one knows how flawed our justice system is, that they might not be guilty?  I think it was Andrew Sullivan the other day, that called it death by torture.  I am reminded of the torture museum I was in in Sienna Italy and all of the horrible ways they killed people in the middle ages.  

But why I want to bring The Quare Fellow back up most of all, remember the person that is executed in the play never actually is seen on stage, is that I think you can make an argument against the death penalty by removing the person at the very center of the argument, the condemned.  I believe this act of killing slowly degrades our society from top to bottom.  It again makes those that are forced to uphold our laws perform horrible acts.  It also gives the message to our entire society that revenge killings are OK.  It puts something immoral at the heart of our “justice” system.  We should be better than an eye for an eye, even if the animal inside all of us occasionally tells us something different.