Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Anniversary

Healing Book Giveaway

I think McMurphy knew better than we did that our tough looks were all show, because he still wasn't able to get a real laugh out of anybody. Maybe he couldn't understand why we weren't able to laugh yet, but he knew you can't really be strong until you see a funny side to things. In fact, he worked so hard at pointing out the funny side of things that I was wondering a little if maybe he was blind to the other side, if maybe he wasn't able to see what it was that parched laughter deep inside your stomach. - (from One Flew Over Cuckoo's Nest)

Always comes the moment when it's time to take the Prankster circus further on toward Edge City. And always at this point some good souls are startled. Kesey can remember them all, people who thought he was great so long as his fantasy coincided with theirs. But every time he pushed on further -- and he always pushed on further -- they became confused and resentful. - (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test)

And one day the King's most loyal servant came into the royal chambers and said, "Your Majesty, all of the kingdom's wheat has been infested with a fungus that turns the people crazy when they eat it!" The King sadly contemplated this news then replied, "If we are going to be able to understand the people, then you and I must consume the fungus and become crazy too. But before we partake of the grain, let us make a mark on each other's forehead so that later, when we see one another, we will know that we chose to become insane, while everybody else is just crazy." - (Ken Kesey's Twister)

One of these days you're going to have a visitation. You're going to be walking down the street and across the street you're going to see God standing over there on the corner motioning to you saying, 'Come here, come to me.' And you will know it's God, there will be no doubt in your mind -- he has slitty little eyes like Buddha, and he's got a long nice beard and blood on his hands. He's got a big Charlton Heston jaw like Moses, he's stacked like Venus, and he has a great jeweled scimitar like Mohammad. And God will tell you to come to him and sing his praises. And he will promise that if you do, all the muses that ever visited Shakespeare will fly in your ear and out of your mouth like golden pennies. It's the job of the writer in America to say, 'Fuck you God, fuck you and the Old Testament you rode in on, fuck you.' The job of the writer is to kiss no ass, no matter how big and holy and white and tempting and powerful. - (Kesey's Advice to Young Writers)

Ken Babbs, Zane, The Merry Pranksters, Skypilots, Hog Farmers, et al, had a great idea for commemorating September llth. They suggested taking a book you think has mind-expanding properties and leaving it somewhere in a public place where someone might find it and take it home to read. They even provided a little marker that you could print off their webpage and stick in the book so people would know to take it home and not leave it at a lost and found or something. The concept is that an occasion that is a real bummer, like remembering the horrors of September 11, may be alleviated in a positive way by people sharing books that would give each other a more enlightened and hopeful view of life.

Well, it was just whimsical enough an idea to convince me to try it, but then of course that posed the question of what book I should leave out for discovery. I'm not normally one for parting with books. I still have some I've had from childhood and my whole place is messy with books tucked in every cranny while my shelves are ready to collapse with the weight of them. Yet whenever I try to throw any of them away I get all nostalgic and remember the circumstances behind how I first read the book and the people and the places associated with it, some of them gone forever, and the next thing you know I feel like I'm betraying old friends and decide I can't throw the books away.

But this was for a good cause and besides I wasn't really throwing the book away. I was sharing it with a stranger who may need a kindly dose of consciousness raising on a sad anniversary. So not knowing who this stranger might be, or what his tastes are, I decided to go with the Norton Anthology of American Literature, a big fat doorstopper of a book with gossamer thin pages from my own college days, a book predating the revised politically correct version. None of the evil Dead White Males were censored from this edition to be replaced by inferior talents elevated by virtue of having neither a penis nor white skin. I figure that until the day when sanity returns to academia and the Dead White Males are returned to their rightful pedestals, than those of us left who still know the true masterpieces should share them with others.

So sure enough early on the morning of September 11 I went to the benches in front of St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church in downtown Amherst and placed the big fat anthology with all the writings of the Dead White Males in it, and the Prankster/Skypilot marker with the picture of Ken Babbs on it sticking out the top and I put it on the bench and walked away.

When I came by about four o'clock that afternoon the book was gone without a trace. Now I wish I had sort of lurked around awhile, somewhere out of view, to see who took my book. Oh well, whoever you are, I hope you're enjoying it.

The Perfect High
by Shel Silverstein

There once was a boy named Gimmesome Roy.
He was nothing like me or you.
'Cause laying back and getting high was all he cared to do.

As a kid, he sat in the cellar,
sniffing airplane glue.
And then he smoked bananas --
which was then the thing to do.
He tried aspirin in Coca-Cola,
breathed helium on the sly,
And his life was just one endless search to find that perfect high.

But grass just made him want to lay back
and eat chocolate-chip pizza all night,
And the great things he wrote while he was stoned
looked like shit in the morning light.
And speed just made him rap all day,
reds just laid him back,
And Cocaine Rose was sweet to his nose,
but the price nearly broke his back.

He tried PCP and THC,
but they didn't quite do the trick,
And poppers nearly blew his heart and mushrooms made him sick.
Acid made him see the light,
but he couldn't remember it long.
And hashish was just a little too weak,
and smack was a lot too strong,
And Quaaludes made him stumble,
and booze just made him cry,
Till he heard of a cat named Baba Phats who knew of the perfect high.

Now, Baba Phats was a hermit cat who lived up in Nepal,
High on a craggy mountaintop,
up a sheer and icy wall.
"But hell," says Roy, "I'm a healthy boy,
and I'll crawl or climb or fly,
But I'll find that guru who'll give me the clue as to what's the perfect high."

So out and off goes Gimmesome Roy to the land that knows no time,
Up a trail no man could conquer to a cliff no man could climb.
For fourteen years he tries that cliff,
then back down again he slides
Then sits -- and cries -- and climbs again,
pursuing the perfect high.

He's grinding his teeth, he's coughing blood,
he's aching and shaking and weak,
As starving and sore and bleeding and tore,
he reaches the mountain peak.
And his eyes blink red like a snow-blind wolf,
and he snarls the snarl of a rat,
As there in perfect repose and wearing no clothes --
sits the godlike Baba Phats.

"What's happening, Phats?" says Roy with joy,
"I've come to state my biz.
I hear you're hip to the perfect trip.
Please tell me what it is.
For you can see," says Roy to he,
"that I'm about to die,
So for my last ride, Fats,
how can I achieve the perfect high?"

"Well, dog my cats!" says Baba Phats.
"Here's one more burnt-out soul,
Who's looking for some alchemist to turn his trip to gold.
But you won't find it in no dealer's stash,
or on no druggist's shelf.
Son, if you would seek the perfect high --
find it in yourself."

"Why, you jive motherfucker!" screamed Gimmesome Roy,
"I've climbed through rain and sleet,
I've lost three fingers off my hands and four toes off my feet!
I've braved the lair of the polar bear and tasted the maggot's kiss.
Now, you tell me the high is in myself. What kind of shit is this?
My ears 'fore they froze off," says Roy, "had heard all kind of crap,
But I didn't climb for fourteen years to listen to that sophomore rap.
And I didn't crawl up here to hear that the high is on the natch,
So you tell me where the real stuff is or I'll kill your guru ass!"

"Ok, OK," says Baba Phats, "you're forcing it out of me.

There is a land beyond the sun that's known as Zaboli.
A wretched land of stone and sand where snakes and buzzards scream,
And in this devil's garden blooms the mystic Tzu-Tzu tree.
And every ten years it blooms one flower as white as the Key West sky,
And he who eats of the Tzu-Tzu flower will know the perfect high.

For the rush comes on like a tidal wave
and it hits like the blazing sun.
And the high, it lasts a lifetime
and the down don't ever come.

But the Zaboli land is ruled by a giant who stands twelve cubits high.
With eyes of red in his hundred heads, he waits for the passers-by.
And you must slay the red-eyed giant, and swim the River of Slime,
Where the mucous beasts, they wait to feast on those who journey by.
And if you survive the giant and the beasts and swim that slimy sea,
There's a blood-drinking witch who sharpens her teeth
as she guards that Tzu-Tzu tree."

"To hell with your witches and giants," laughs Roy.
"To hell with the beasts of the sea.
As long as the Tzu-Tzu flower blooms,
some hope still blooms for me."
And with tears of joy in his snow-blind eye, Roy slips the guru a five,
Then back down the icy mountain he crawls, pursuing that perfect high.

"Well, that is that," says Baba Phats, sitting back down on his stone,
Facing another thousand years of talking to God alone.
"It seems, Lord," says Phats, "it's always the same,
old men or bright-eyed youth,
It's always easier to sell them some shit
than it is to give them the truth."

Now Online

Former Northampton City Councilor and beloved curmudgeon Mike Kirby has released his sixth installment chronicling the Hamp banking scandals, focusing on a car business that may not be all it appears to be:

It was September 12, l997. Richard Egbert, lawyer for Irving Labovitz, had Mike Smith, former chief of commercial lending at Heritage Bank, on the stand. His intent that day, as it was most days, was to undercut Smith’s credibility. This day the spotlight was on the relationship between Smith and Northampton businessman Matthew Pitoniak. Pitoniak helped him get his condo in the Virgin Islands, and a grateful Mike Smith had made Matthew Pitoniak a millionaire virtually overnight, funneling money to trusts with winsome names out of “Lord of the Rings” such as Rivendell, Treebeard and Quickbeam.

He got $700,000 to acquire Splash Car Wash in Springfield, $610,000 for 180-182 Main Street, $1.1 million for Fitzwillys, $950,000 for 492 Pleasant Street, and $490,000 to acquire 19 Fulton Avenue. The last loan in this string enabled Matthew Pitoniak and Edmund Komansky (Quickbeam Realty Trust) to construct the building where the Northampton Pro-Lube facility is today.

According to the papers, Mike Smith was now managing an auto shop, earning about $250 a week and living up over the garage. An innocent juror or newspaper reader like me would probably think that this new career of his reflected credit on him. Bank executive starts life over again managing a garage. Puts past behind him, goes straight. Shows contrition for his sins, gets back to his working class roots.

Read the latest installment in this epic work of citizen journalism by clicking here:

There's also an interesting new blog about the old Paramount Building in Springfield.

The Paramount Theater was purchased in the summer of 1999. The Theater hadn't been opened for years, employed no one, and paid no taxes. We made a huge investment, saved a local landmark, employed over 150 people, and paid approximately $220,000 in back taxes to the city of Springfield. The Hippodrome opened in December of 2000 after a year of renovations.

Check it out by clicking here.

Around Amherst

I see that the Munson Hall Annex at UMass is fenced off and headed for demolition.

Unlike Munson Hall proper, the annex has no real architechtural or historic significance. Still, I feel a little sad when I see anything associated with my own time at UMass disappear.

Elsewhere on campus there have been small improvements made since the students left for the summer. They finally took down that ugly fence that was up while the Grad Research Center was being painted and are shown here removing the bushes and high grass that had grown behind it.

The grounds crew ripped out all that unattractive shrubbery in front of the Student Union and replaced it with lovely rows of roses.

In downtown Amherst the Black Sheep Deli has a fancy new chalkboard sign.

And Motown Bernie got himself a scooter to putter between panhandling spots.

Today's Video

Amherst bluesman Damon Reeves playing at home.

Monday, June 29, 2009

McCullough in Houston

A Literary Flashback

In the spring of 2002 I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at the University of Houston by the world-famous historian and best-selling author David McCullough. If forced to describe McCullough's lecture in a single word, the term I would choose is "inspiring." I don't mean that flippantly, as in the manner in which the word is thrown out by self-help gurus who "inspire" you to quit smoking or lose weight. I mean inspirational with a capital I, with the concept linked to Big Ideas and the Highest Idealism.

When I arrived at the lecture with my uncle, retired Professor John E. Devine, it appeared as though we wouldn't be able to see McCullough in the flesh. Despite having reserved tickets in advance, we discovered when we went to pick them up at the box office shortly before the lecture was to start that our tickets were for an "overflow" room. That meant that we would have to watch and listen to the lecture on a giant TV screen in another room, since so many people had reserved tickets ahead of us that there were no seats available in the Lecture Hall.

Actually sometimes seeing a lecture that way can be an advantage, since you can usually see and hear better over the closed circuit TV than you can from a lousy seat in the actual Lecture Hall itself. The major disadvantage of seeing it on TV, however, is that you miss out on some of the more subtle aspects of the experience, in particular the interplay of energy between the speaker and audience.

After taking our seats before the giant TV screen, McCullough himself completely unexpectedly appeared in the overflow room. He thanked us for coming and apologized for the lack of space for us in the main hall, then promised to keep our presence in mind as he gave his talk. As it turned out, shortly after he left we were all invited into the Lecture Hall anyway, since many people who had reserved seats failed to show up, thereby making the overflow room unnecessary. Yet I would estimate that by the time the lecture began the hall was still 99% full.

McCullough's impromptu visit to those of us who had been originally exiled to the overflow room was one of the classiest gestures of respect for an audience I've ever seen a public speaker perform. A literary prima donna would have taken the news of an overflow crowd as food for his ego, not as cause for concern and a personal display of gratitude. That kind of endearing humility simply cannot be faked.

The emminent historian was introduced by U of H President Arthur K. Smith, who did a solid job of summarizing McCullough's mind-boggling list of accomplishments, stretching from his Yale graduation in 1955 through virtually every literary award you can imagine, ending finally with a humorous counterpoint to his highbrow resume by stating that McCullough "likes to cook spagetti on Sunday nights."

McCullough began his talk, entitled "First Principles," by observing that since the tragic events of September 11 it has become commonplace to hear people say that, "everything is different, everything has changed." While conceding that "we are probably changed in more ways than we realize," he dismissed the notion that this is a time of special hardship for the United States.

Instead he urged us to regard current events from a historical perspective. He pointed out that even in the lives of people still living there were such extreme trials as the Great Depression and World War II. In a particularly apt and original example, McCullough referred to the great influenza epidemic of 1918, which took over 500,000 lives, a death toll that completely dwarfs the 3000 people who lost their lives on September 11. Of course history is not a contest where challenges are rated on a scale defined by body counts, but the point he made was that America has faced many hard challenges, and that our current threats are not unique in either size or severity.

McCullough compellingly made the case that the most difficult period in our nation's history was at the very beginning. In bringing this point home McCullough proved to be a virtual fountainhead of facts, figures and anecdotes which vividly brought to life the Revolutionary War era. I doubt that I was unique among those present in feeling as the talk progressed that I really don't know enough about our Founding Fathers and Mothers, and should probably begin reading up on them, perhaps beginning with McCullough's famous books. Of course part of the reason authors such as McCullough make lecture tours is to generate interest, and thereby sales, in their own writings. But there was no hint of the huckster in McCullough's talk and it was very apparent that he believed - and passionately - in everything he said.

That sincerity was the quality that elevated McCullough's speech above the usual fare one encounters from the literary lecture circuit. As he recounted the terrible hardships, the steely determination, and the unflagging idealism of the heroes of the American revolution, McCullough effectively brought to life the commitment required of the revolutionaries noble vision of "the life of the mind without boundaries."

For example, he read this electrifying passage from the correspondence of Abigail Adams: "These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, waken to life and form the character of the hero and the statesman."

This is heavy stuff, which McCullough presented with a motivational sense of historical drama, made all the more compelling because he made clear the extent to which we moderns who were sitting in the audience are a part of that same dramatic and historic heritage. It would've been a person with a very cynical heart who could've left that lecture without a renewed sense of patriotism and civic responsibility. Indeed the lecture was on one level the kind of intellectual scolding that leaves one feeling somewhat like a shmuck for all that we take for granted. Fortunately the wisest people, such as McCullough, recognize the need for such scoldings.

Receiving a more than deserved standing ovation at the conclusion of his speech, McCullough entertained a half-dozen questions from the audience. Among them:

-The incongruence between the fight for American liberty and the institution of slavery was raised in the context of John Adams, to which McCullough responded by pointing out that Adams was the only Founding Father who refused to own slaves on principle, and that Adams supported public education for blacks.

-McCullough was also asked what he thought of the literary scandals involving plagerism surrounding his fellow best-selling historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Describing both of them as personal friends, he refused to comment.

-Someone asked McCullough to compare the father and son presidencies of John and John Quincy Adams with George and George W. Bush. At first hesitant to reply, McCullough, who is notoriously proud of his Yale pedigree, drew laughter by declaring that the Yale graduated Bushes were superior because "the Adamses only had a Harvard education."

-He dismissed as inaccurate the suggestion that Adams and Benjamin Franklin did not get along, insisting that they had enormous respect for one another. He also humorously pointed out that Franklin, author of the maxim, "Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," was himself rarely out of bed before eleven o'clock!

If the role of a historian is to give the public a useful perspective on the present by examining the past, then David McCullough perfomed that role beautifully at the University of Houston. In all it was an unusually entertaining and informative evening which provided much sincerely felt inspiration.

Nostalgia Trip

Here's some hijinks by the Subway on King Street in Northampton in 1990. I used to work in the convenience store across the street.

Jim Neill shares this picture of himself and a friend playing the Ted Nugent pinball machine at UMass around 1980. I remember that game as well as the Evil Kneival one next to it. People have forgotten what big stars Nugent and Kneival were at one time.

I ruled the pinball machines at UMass, which was just a natural progression from my lordship over the machines at the Two Guys snack bar on Boston Road in Springfield. Eventually the pinball machines at UMass were replaced by computer games, but now there are no games at all, since everyone can play them for free at home or on their laptops. Here's the gaming area after the games were removed forever in 2007.

Pictures of Lilly

Ya gotta hand it to the Florence section of Northampton, it's got attitude.

Of course what exactly one is supposed to be resisting is not clear. Florence has a great library named after someone named Lilly.

Lilly is a He, and the bewhiskered Mr. Lilly gazes down upon the patrons from his golden frame.

The children's area has a cool starship section.

How come the kids get to have all the fun?

Saturday Night

I stopped in at the Yellow Sofa Cafe in downtown Hamp.

There was a band playing consisting primarily of juveniles.

Again, kids having all the fun!

Today's Video

Tony in England sends along this evidence that the Brits are keeping a stiff upper lip over the Michael tragedy.

Tony also shares this video of Neil Young performing at London's Hyde Park on Saturday night. Although not included here, I'm told that Paul McCartney made an appearance.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Hot Fuckin Tuna

Assorted Valley Tuna Shit

Back around 1968, if you were to have asked serious rock fans who the best three guitar players were, you would probably hear most suggest Jimi Hendrix (many would still say that today) Eric Clapton (a bigger star today than he was then) and probably a third name far less well known today, Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane.

In their heyday Jefferson Airplane was dominated by its three prolific singer songwriters, Grace Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner, who mostly overshadowed the extraordinarily creative and complex lead guitar playing of Kaukonen and the band's bass player Jack Cassady. But if you listen to the Airplane today, the 60's "Up Against the Wall" credo of the Slick/Balin/Kantner axis often sounds dated, while Kaukonen and Cassady's wonderful guitar playing has passed the test of time beautifully. Kaukonen and Cassady quit the Airplane in disgust when the Airplane morphed into the commercial hit-machine Starship, voluntarily exiling themselves to their side project Hot Tuna, whom Rolling Stone magazine once called "America's longest lived cult band."

Hot Tuna never had any hit records and never wanted any. Kaukonen rejected the record industry's star-making machinery, touring and recording only when he felt like it and strictly on his own terms. So while tragedy transformed Hendrix into a permanent icon, forever frozen at his peak by death; and Clapton aggressively pursued and obtained mainstream megastardom, Kaukonen remained on the fringes of the music industry. Yet Hot Tuna won a hard-earned reputation as one of the ultimate guitar bands, despite never being widely recognized by the general public. Kaukonen always had a following here in the Valley however, performing at places like the Iron Horse and the old Quonset Hut on Rte. 9. Hot Tuna played in Springfield several times, most memorably at the Civic Center with Bob Weir and at the Paramount (now Hippodrome) with Taj Mahal.

But no one as good as Jorma Kaukonen could remain underground forever, and in fact a Jorma revival is now underway, led by a new generation delighted to rediscover what an older generation forgot. Now all of Jorma's old solo albums, most of which have never been available on CD, are finally being re-released in order to blow the minds of modern listeners.

The latest re-release is 1974's QUAH, which was Jorma's first solo effort following the crash of the Jefferson Airplane. It is one the few records Jorma made without Jack Cassady, featuring instead the late San Francisco folk legend Tom Hobson. It also includes wonderfully erzatz album cover art by Jorma's late wife, psychedelic poster artist Margareta.

The oddness of the album cover art matches the eclectic music of the record itself. The opening song "Genesis" is as fine an acoustic love ballad you could want and it's worth buying the CD for that song alone.

But there is so, so much more. The rest of the record is an amazing blend of styles and sounds ranging from the primal blues of Rev. Gary Davis covers to stoner songs like "Flying Clouds" and "Hamar Promenade," to the outright daffy guitar showpiece "Sweet Hawaiian Sunshine." There are also previously unreleased songs from the original recording sessions, including an instrumental that later appeared with lyrics on Hot Tuna's The Phosphorescent Rat and a deeply weird but profound cowboy tune called "Barrier." There is even an unintentionally corny hidden track that I'll let you discover for yourself.

No date for the following photos of Hot Tuna, but I do know that they were taken at the Music Inn in Lenox in the mid-70's. I kid you not, but the show was so loud that the surrounding farmers complained in the paper that the next day their cows wouldn't give milk. Guess cows don't like Hot Tuna. I admit it was a show that probably damaged my hearing, but if so it was worth it. I don't think I've ever had as much fun at a concert since.

Here's an old review of a concert I went to where Hot Tuna was the back-up band for the Allman Brothers.

Damn, I was hoping to produce for you a big ol’ concert review, but frankly I’m not much prepared to write it. The truth is I really didn’t act much like a music reviewer at this concert. I talked to people, walked around and at times just plain ignored what was happening on stage. Therefore the best I can do is offer you these handful of observations, and I hope you can get something out of that.

I’m no expert on these things, but security in the parking lot seemed tighter than it needed to be.

I thought there might be a lot of drunken yahoos running around, but the vibe was more Grateful Dead than Molly Hatchet.

Shame on the people who lingered outside and missed Hot Tuna.

Hot Tuna’s Mike Falzarano is a good vocalist, but personally I prefer that all songs be sung by Jorma.

The Meadows is a great place to see shows, even if you have lawn seats. God bless the giant overhead TV screen. Sound quality was also excellent.

Unfortunately, the person running the TV seemed not to know what to show in relation to what was happening on stage. Sometimes the camera was on drummers during a guitar solo or similar mismatch of image and sound.

Hate to say it, but the absence of Dicky Betts was not as profoundly felt as you might have expected.

When did the Allman Brothers get so psychedelic? That was not their original image. A band for bikers maybe, or for good ol’ boys for sure, but flower power acid heads? No, that's something new, a transparent attempt to cash in on the void left by the demise of the Dead. Still, the Allman Brothers is such a great band, I forgive them for whatever they've had to do commercially to survive. Besides, their light show was as trippy as anything the Dead used to do, so even though the Allman’s may be guilty of copying a trend, they are not lowering their standards.

"Whipping Post" was an obvious and perfect encore.

Therefore, let me close by simply saying that a good time appeared to be had by all.

Below is a ticket stub from a very, very loud show in Springfield, Massachusetts. I actually feared afterwards that I had damaged my hearing, but it returned to normal within a few days.

Did you know there is a plant called Hot Tuna?

Houttuynia is a plant that tastes nothing like hot tuna; the botanical name merely resembles the words "hot tuna." It's a lot easier to remember and say than houttuynia.

Although hot tuna doesn't taste like hot tuna, it is, in fact, edible. The plant is native from Japan down to Java, and across Asia to Nepal, and people in those regions eat the boiled leaves or use them as flavoring. Some people find the flavor to be citrus-y; to others, it is more reminiscent of cheap perfume laced with diesel fuel.

Some cautions must be exercised in planting hot tuna. The plant can be invasive. It spreads vigorously by underground suckers, and although growing only about a half a foot high, it can climb over and engulf a dwarf shrub. Also, hot tuna's wild colors would not be welcome everywhere -- it's not a visually sedate plant.

With these two cautions in mind, you might want to give hot tuna a try, mostly for its looks and maybe even to eat.

Here's the musical Hot Tuna.


Have you seen Brendan Fraser lately?

Undressed for Success

Mugshot of a woman arrested this week in Springfield for drug dealing.


Somebody got obscene with this crosswalk sign in Northampton.

MassBike had a table set up this morning at the Hamp Farmer's Market.

I'm stunned by the closing of the Aurora Borealis store in downtown Hamp.

Thus the Obama Depression claims another victim. Rolando's in downtown Amherst has been closed for some time.

But I notice that inside it still has this poster hanging up of what I assume is an imaginary farm.

Actually I may have known a few dealers who worked on that farm. Of course still open is the nearby Pub, which boasts of being open since 1968.

Despite the 60's pedigree, The Pub has always had the reputation of being a rowdy fratboy bar. Here signs of peace in several languages hang beneath the gay pride flag at Amherst's Unitarian Church.

At Amherst's Newbury Comix a poster advertizes the new Dinosaur Jr. CD in the band's hometown.

Haymarket Scenes

A Cape Cod Grateful Dead shirt in Northampton's Haymarket Cafe yesterday.

Michael on the Haymarket tip jar.

True love.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Death Penalty

A Threat to Liberty

"About the issue of capital punishment: I would say, in principle, morally, I approve of capital punishment, in cases of first degree murder. That is, if someone by conscious, deliberate intention has murdered someone, he does morally deserve to forfeit his own life. But the issue of objective proof enters here, and I think a good argument could be made -- and I would be inclined to agree with it -- that precisely because errors in proof and evidence are always possible, capital punishment should be outlawed: not out of moral consideration for the murderer, but precisely in order to protect the possible, rare instance of an innocent man being convicted, on the principle that it is better to sentence nine actual murderers to life imprisonment, rather than execute one innocent man." - Ayn Rand

A jury in 2002 refused to impose the death penalty on Andrea Yates, the infamous Houston Texas mother who methodically drowned her five children in the family bathtub. It was the right decision not to put her to death, but in all the media madness surrounding the decision one heard every imaginable reason to spare her but the best one.

Nowhere was the media frenzy more intense than in Yate's hometown of Houston. While the trial made the front pages of most newspapers around the country, few could compare with the screaming headlines that appeared daily in the Houston Chronicle. I was visiting at the time in a middle-class neighborhood right next to the Clear Lake area where the Yates family lived. My cousin works at NASA, as did Russell Yates and thousands of others in Houston, which likes to call itself in its promotional campaigns, "Space City." To the rest of the country the Yates tragedy was about that weird woman down in Texas who did that unspeakable thing, but in Houston it was a hometown story about a hometown girl. That gave the coverage a personal quality which only made it all the more melodramatic.

I was walking downtown near the courthouse on the day when Yates was sentenced to prison rather than to death, and the street was so clogged with media personnel and broadcasting technology that it was almost impassable. In Houston, the Yates case was not just a nighmarish abstraction conveyed through the mass media, but an actual physical presence.

Yet for all of that intimacy with the case, the local media coverage in most ways parroted the national commentary and coverage, including the death penalty stage of the trial. Everyone asked all of the predictable questions: Is mental illness a sufficient excuse? Was the husband in some ways negligent? Conservatives predictably declared the case to be the ultimate example of the collapse of family values. Liberals just as predictably blamed society. Most of the public sentiment fell somewhere in the middle, disgusted and saddened simultaneously. Yet for all the questions and all the chatter about Yate's fate, most of it missed the point.

There is no question that there are situations where it is difficult to argue against the death penalty. In fact in some cases the behavior of the criminal is so despicable that even execution seems too kind. The serial killer Ted Bundy (above) was convicted for killing (among others) a 15-year-old girl whose body was found with dozens of cigarette burns all over her body. The autopsy revealed that she had been alive when those burns had been inflicted. The death penalty for a monster like Bundy? That seems far too compassionate; it feels more like justice to torture him first!

Yet it still remains inappropriate to execute people, even when it is fiends like Ted Bundy. The primary reason is that capital punishment is incompatible with a free society. Supposedly in a free society it is the people that are in charge. The government should act only in the role of the servant of the citizens, existing primarily to preserve their rights - foremost of which is the right to live. Have you ever heard of a servant who had the right to kill the people they are serving? If our government is truly our servant, then it shouldn't have the right to kill us either.

In other words, in a free society the government should purposely be kept small and weak, the better to leave its citizens alone to enjoy their lives free of the interference of undue government authority. A free people should not allow the death penalty for the simple reason that no government acting genuinely as a servant of the people should be allowed to have that kind of power.

Liberals, despite being the ones who usually campaign most stridently against the death penalty, generally don't like to use that argument. Liberals tend to like government power so they can impose their agenda of control over people's income and social behavior in behalf of what liberals consider the greater good. An anti-death penalty argument based on the principle of freedom from Big Government undermines the rest of their agenda, which requires the government to be fat and powerful. For that reason they argue against the death penalty primarily on the grounds of compassion, insisting that it is simply too cruel to put someone to death. Opinion polls show that this argument for compassion has little public support, which is no surprise. Any argument against the death penalty that is based upon pity for murderers will not only fail, but deserves to.

As for conservatives, who generally support the death penalty, they seem strangely blind to their own logical inconsistencies. Conservatives usually have no problem recognizing government overreaching in other matters, yet when government tries to assume the greatest power that that any government can claim to have, the power to kill its own citizens, they are oddly unable to see the glaring inconsistency of supporting the death penalty and their otherwise pro-freedom philosophy.

It was right that Andrea Yates was spared, not because we felt sorry for her, or because she was mentally ill, or because her husband was a shmuck or her minister a creep or because society was somehow to blame. She should not have been killed for the one reason that no one seemed to state, here in Houston or anywhere else.

That reason, and the only reason necessary, is that free societies as a matter of principle do not grant to their governments the power to kill their citizens, no matter what they do or why they do it. In all the millions of words written and said regarding the death penalty in the Yates case, how unfortunate that so few ever suggested anything like that. If they had, then the senseless deaths of those children would at least have had the virtue of sparking a real debate over an essential issue. Alas the coverage, in Houston and everywhere else, never seemed to rise above the level of just another ugly public drama, with the media merely rehashing all of the predictable bromides. So although Yate's life was spared, an important opportunity for public enlightenment on the proper role of government was lost.

Down Dixie

While we're talking about Texas, here's some old pics of me in the City of Devine, located in Texas near San Antonio, in 2001. This is me in front of the Chamber of Commerce.

Here I am in front of the local internet provider.

The editor of The Devine News poses with my Dad, my Uncle John and myself.

Panties Man

The ageless Tom Jones played Northampton the other night. Jim Neill took this photo showing all the ladies undies that were thrown on stage.

Jim brought a pair to throw on stage, but Tom Jones seemed mysteriously reluctant to accept them.

Today's Video

Tony Pierce saw Amherst's Dinosaur Jr. perform in Los Angeles Wednesday night and thought the sound quality sucked:

you know what i like? rock concerts

you know what else i like? being able to hear the singer sing at rock concerts.

you know what i didnt hear last night at the Dinosaur Jr. show? J Mascis' beautiful singing.

being that this is the second show in two years at the Troubadour where the vocals were clearly missing from the dinosaur mix, it would lead me to believe that either the band doesnt want the crowd to hear the singing - or that the sound engineer was overwhelmed with the literal wall of sound produced by a trio of Marshall amps placed behind the gray haired rock god.

funny thing happened on the way to thinking that the band didnt want J's vocals to be heard: the two songs sung by the bassist Lou Barlow

couldnt hear him neither.

fortunately beers were cheap and inspired the crowd to get over the fact that the show had turned into a rock band karaoke night and the last four songs of the set included some spirited moshing and crowd surfing.

let it be known that i will gladly get the new dinosaur record that came out yesterday but i probably will pass if they ever play the troubadour again.