Nancy Reagan

I guess I shouldn’t be puzzled by the media beatification of Nancy Reagan, who always seemed nice enough–though I’m among the apparent minority who always found her lovely but cold with an icy smile, perfect hair and clothes notwithstanding. And leave it to the “new” MSNBC to lead the way Sunday, with its solemn funeral music and Nancy portrait and lifespan after every commercial break–and especially Boy Wonder Chuck Todd, who if I heard him right, said that she was the most influential First Lady in American history, forget Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama–perish the thought, of course, that he say anything nice about Michelle Obama.

But perhaps I slept through the Reagan years, for about all I remember about her was that Godawful 1980s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign slogan. True, it was quite effective–but not in winning the unwinnable “War on Drugs.” Rather, its biggest success was forcing Highway 101, and their label Warner Bros.–lest it be accused of not falling in line–to put in the parenthetical in the title of their great 1988 country hit “(Do You Love Me) Just Say Yes.” God forbid a country song about love be misconstrued with advocating drug use!

Looking back at it now, “Just Say No” prefigured the Republican Party mantra of the Obama years, and is a symbol of the personal and social repression that the GOP has come to represent by embracing the negative over the positive. And if anyone did in fact say no to drugs–and perhaps many did–it didn’t stop the current highly publicized heroin epidemic. All it accomplished for certain–besides modifying a country song title–was saying no to research on the potential benefits of marijuana usage, that and the continuation of a war that has wasted billions of dollars and immeasurably harmed countries whose products supply our insatiable demand for that which we’re supposed to say no to.

To her credit, Nancy did finally say yes, but only in as it applied to stem cell research, and only once her beloved Ronnie took sick with Alzheimer’s. Too bad for her, her husband and the rest of us that George W. Bush, in this and so many other regards, had taken her Just Say No campaign to heart.

Paris, 2015, and music

A comment by Bono re Paris got me thinking.

“If you think about it, the majority of victims last night are music fans,” he told an Irish radio personality in an on-air interview Saturday, U2 having been scheduled to perform that night at AccorHotels Arena in Paris in a concert to be broadcast on HBO.

“This is the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called War on Terror or whatever it’s called,” he added.

I’m not so sure about it being a “direct hit” specifically aimed at music so much as hitting an easy and obvious target, much like the soccer stadium, much like the World Trade Center and the Boston Marathon. Strike where there are a lot of people focused on something else.

But I do find significance in hitting a music venue, because music is something ISIS and Al Qaeda and the Taliban–and any dreadfully repressive power–lack.

Music, and the arts in general, is a beautiful thing, the most beautiful thing about being human. It gives us pleasure beyond instinct, though for many of us it’s essentially instinctive and instinctual. Without it I know at least I, for one, would certainly be much less human, if not altogether empty spiritually.

But these groups that I’ve mentioned want none of it. Rather, they’ve shut themselves off from it and have sought, not without success, to destroy all the beauty of humanity, all that is good and of meaning that we share as human beings on this planet.

“It’s very upsetting,” Bono said. “These are our people. This could be me at a show. You at a show, in that venue. It’s a very recognizable situation for you and for me and the coldblooded aspect of this slaughter is deeply disturbing and that’s what I can’t get out of my head.”

I can’t get it out of my head, either, but it doesn’t stop me from humming a tune.

You can’t call back a tweet

I tweet a lot, and when I’m watching something like the Grammys or the Republican debates, fast and furious–sometimes too fast and furious.

Case in point: After listening to Lindsay Graham blather on with his Obama hatred and warmongering–and noticing how tiny he looked next to the other three junior debaters (Pataki, Santorum, Jindal), I tweeted, “Why Lindsay Graham didn’t ask for a step ladder is beyond me. #RepublicanDebate”

I know I actually gave it some thought in the wording, so that I had to be somewhat aware that I was kind of making fun of his height. As my tweets go directly to Facebook, I got a couple responses, but when I saw them a couple hours later–and they were favorable–I felt embarrassed, and compelled to admit, via another tweet, “Kinda regret snarky comment about how little Lindsay Graham looked at #GOPDebate. I ain’t so tall, either. Small-minded observation stays.”

I looked it up and Graham is 5′ 7″–only one and a-half inches shorter than me. Then I thought of my friend and music hero/genius Paul Williams, who always jokes about how short he is, but I’m sure he’s the only one who ever really notices it.

Then again, Paul’s a giant in terms of talent. Graham is a political pygmy. But like I said, in terms of my original tweet, I ain’t so big, either.

Elizabeth Lauten takes us lower

Elizabeth Lauten, communications director for Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-Tenn.), did the right thing today by resigning following the furor over her abhorrent Facebook post criticizing Malia and Sasha Obama’s appearance at the annual White House turkey pardon ceremony.

“Act like being in the White House matters to you,” Lauten wrote. “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at a bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised public events.”

But she wrote way worse in her seven-sentence piece of shit, when she called out the girls’ parents for setting, in her mind, a bad example.

“I get you’re both in those awful teen years, but you’re a part of the First Family, try showing a little class. At least respect the part you play. Then again your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter, so I’m guessing you’re coming up a little short in the ‘good role model’ department.”

The media jumped on the direct attack on the girls for their dress and demeanor, but gave Lauten a pass for her vile suggestion that the President and First Lady neither respect their position nor the nation.

I get that you despise the President and First Lady, Elizabeth Lauten, and their kids. And I get that you don’t like him enough to defend him against such scurrilous slights, media. But really, to state–and let slide–such filth about a man who has shown nothing but loving devotion to his family, and the health and welfare of those who elected him twice by landslide, only succeeds in further lowering the standards of what was once common courtesy and decency to unfathomable depths.

A conversation with Nina Khrushchev about Grandfather Nikita, Putin, Stalin, Pussy Riot, Cheney and Obama

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It’s a given that those of us who were alive remember where we were the instant we learned of the JFK assassination, much as those around in 2001 remember where they were when they learned of 9/11.

Almost a year after JFK, I distinctly remember another chill when I learned of the removal, on October 14, 1964, of Nikita Khrushchev from his position as head of the Soviet Union.

I would have been 12 then. I don’t remember exactly where I was, or what I thought of him. But I well knew the gravity of the suddenly uncertain leadership situation of America’s sole nuclear rival.

Back then, and maybe again as now, we were taught to fear the Russians, if not hate them outright. But we were soon to have our own problems, what with Civil Rights and Vietnam and Watergate, not to mention the mind-expanding influence of The Beatles and the British Invasion, Muhammad Ali and psychedelia.

By the time I got out of high school I was rightly radicalized, and in the mid-‘80s, when I was writing for Billboard in New York, I jumped at the chance to meet and befriend Russian correspondents at the New York bureau of the official TASS (now ITAR-TASS) news agency—eventually attracting the suspicion of the FBI, which put me under surveillance.

I have kept my ITAR-TASS friendships to this day. In 2007, I attended the annual ITAR-TASS Christmas party and met Nina Khrushcheva, Nikita’s great-granddaughter, now a professor of International Affairs at New School University in New York and author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics. As remarkable as it was to be at an ITAR-TASS Christmas party—many of them over the years, in fact—here I was meeting the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, whose sister, coincidentally, was now married to my friend and former New York TASS bureau chief Igor Makurin.

Nina has now published another book, The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, in which she tells the story of her grandfather Leonid Khrushchev, oldest son of Nikita. It begins 30 years ago, with a chance conversation with Vyacheslav Molotov, Joseph Stalin’s ruthless foreign minister, from which the term Molotov cocktail comes. Molotov informed her that her grandfather, a World War II fighter pilot, was in fact not shot down in 1943 at age 25, but was executed by Stalin for desertion and service to the Nazis.

Molotov’s allegation had been used to discredit Nikita, himself a former Stalinist who tried to loosen Stalinist tyranny after succeeding him, following his ouster and replacement by the repressive Leonid Brezhnev. Nina, whose late father Lev Sergeevich Petrov was a journalist (like most alumni of the Military Institute of Foreign Languages, he had “unofficial” Soviet espionage credentials), took the female form of Nikita’s surname (Khrushcheva) in order to counter the official discrediting of her great-grandfather, whom she always calls “Grandfather” in the book.

In The Lost Khrushchev, then, Nina, who was seven when Nikita died, provides an extraordinary window into the mostly hidden, often dark soul of today’s Russia, from the point-of-view of an unusually worldly woman who grew up among the Soviet Union’s most powerful figures. As much an account of her personal self-discovery, the book also features her thoughts on the likes of Putin, Gorbachev, Obama and Cheney. She spoke about it on the phone a few hours after returning from Moscow and shortly before a trip to Brazil.

Right from the first page, your book is gripping. You relate meeting Molotov, when you were 16, in what seemed like a rather bland housing project for someone who was once so powerful.

He was retired, and retirement communities are never the same as residences for those in power. Grandfather lived there, too, after he was ousted, and Grandmother. So it was not the first tier of retirement housing. Brezhnev died in office, but if he had retired he would have had his own mansion. Khrushchev had ousted Molotov, so they were all persona non grata, and it was second or third tier. They weren’t top leaders.

You were 16-years-old, and your cousin introduced you to Molotov.

It was a shock. For me he was a figure in the history of Stalin. I knew he was alive, but the fact that he was alive and visible was shocking—and that my cousin was friendly with him was shocking. I remember that meeting as shock upon shock upon shock, and I think that’s why it stayed with me so long. So in writing the book I started with that story. It was the beginning of my questioning of that story of my grandfather [Leonid], and indeed, there were many more shocks.

You mention at one point how when people hear your name, they expect someone like your grandfather Nikita. I’m sure I was guilty of that when I first met you.

It brings a certain interest—meeting a Russian whose name you know. Some people become friends and they don’t care anymore, and some become friends and make fun of me. They already know how I feel about it—when someone hears your name and is only interested in you because of your name. But it’s part of my identity.

Do people generally identify you with your grandfather?

Americans either don’t remember Khrushchev or know who he is, unless they’re very savvy or knowledgeable about Russia. And since my name is Khrushcheva instead of Khrushchev, my students often don’t know the connection until I bring it up during the course. Now it sounds a bit strange because I wrote the book, but my greatest achievement in America has been anonymity.

What about when you’re in Russia?

I haven’t lived there in almost 25 years, so they have no idea who I am now, and cannot imagine that I’m related. They don’t travel, and people from the Kremlin don’t run around the streets of Moscow. I don’t know how it would have been if I said, “Hi. My name is Nina Khrushcheva,” but people don’t make the connection.

Do you ever think about changing your name back to your given surname?

I do think about that, but by writing this book, I kind of explain it to myself that I’ll never do it, and I  don’t think I’ll be thinking of it further. For various reasons, [Nikita] Khrushchev still needs me to say he matters, and also Khrushcheva is my identity now–that’s what I am. That’s how I write. I was talking to an editor at he L.A. Times and was thinking about either using a pen name or going back to my father’s name, and he said, “No way! Readers already know you this way,” and it’s quite interesting, because it’s not about Khrushchev anymore, but that I’d written enough as Khrushcheva at this point.

I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s afraid of Khrushchev. What was he like?

He came to the U.S. in 1959 with the idea of bringing communism with a human face—and that describes him perfectly. He was a diehard communist to his last breath, but unlike Molotov–who was ideological throughout, though not without honor, as I find out in writing the book. But Khrushchev was a communist with a human face–it describes everything he did, and his time after he was ousted. Then he was like any pensioner, which is what he said–planting tomatoes and collecting strawberries.

What was it like growing up around him?

It was fun, but always much, much larger than that. I tell the story of jumping on the couch and he came in and told my mother not to scold us, because he would be doing the same thing. But my mother’s reaction was so negative to this, because he was the head of state–but so kind. There was always a connect and disconnect between personal and public and personal and political. He was human, but also a communist.

You portray him in words and pictures as a nice old man–a grandfather.

Yes! He was. That’s why I thought it was also important–nobody knows that about him, how fun he was. Remembering those stories compared to his political behavior–which could be scary. [His famous statement, wrongly taken literally] ‘We will bury you’—which was misused for propaganda, was a spontaneous and soundbite thing that made you scared as a little child, but it was no different from his way of behaving at home as well. He was always human, and in public, quick on his feet with a good line–and that was rare in the Soviet Union because there was always the façade of the ‘leader.’ I can’t say politician because we didn’t have politicians, but leader. Whatever they were like at home nobody knows, but in Khrushchev’s case, he translated his political behavior to his home behavior and vice versa.

He died in 1971, a year after the existence his famous memoir became known.

Grandmother and Mother and my aunt felt that the stress from the memoir made him sicker than he was and his heart gave in. My story is different than the official story–that he gave his blessing to the publication of his memoir [in the West]. In my story he gave no such blessing. Anything I really know about him, and from the conversations with Mother and Grandmother, he could not have given it. That would be betraying his communist beliefs. He was writing for the Soviet people. He would not have blessed the publication in the West. Dr. Zhivago was his scandal: He was the leader of the U.S.S.R. when it was published in the West, and he would not have followed in Pasternak’s footsteps.

“The Lost Khrushchev” is subtitled, “Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind.”

It’s kind of a slightly complex formula, but it’s also quite simple: The idea is that Russians are so oppressed because of oppressive government, fearful of consequences of opposition and protest–and dissidents are in the gulags. We’re afraid to lose freedom, suffer and, die and I argue that all this is true, but it’s also the gulag of the mind: The reason we’re so fearful and oppressed and have despots rather than democratic leaders is that we create a gulag in our mind—so there’s no need for barbed wire. The state is more important than the small man, and it’s exacerbated by the large size of Russia—or the Soviet Union. It continues to be very big, which makes for a strange mind set. Also, democracy is a choice. You decide you want to be free. You wake up every morning and think about your freedom to read, freedom to make choices and mistakes and serve the state or not serve the state. Russians either don’t have it or don’t want it, and I argue that they don’t have it because ultimately they don’t’ want it.

But there have been instances of post-Soviet protests.

People took to the streets in 1991 when there was the coup against Gorbachev, and the next time they were in the streets was 2011 when Putin said he would be president. Russians felt, “Wait a minute! You can’t tell us you will be president. Why don’t you at least pretend you care about our opionion?” The nation remembers freedom only once in 20 years? Something is wrong with this nation! The gulag of  the Russian mind. I essentially predicted Putin’s behavior, and he did exactly that–but also, we are the gulag people in our minds because we did go into the streets in 2011, and look at us now: We love Putin more than life itself!

You mention in the book that because you have been so outspoken in your writing, you once had passport issues in Russia.

I haven’t had any problems since then, but we always have to be aware of these things. But it’s also ridiculous. A puny little article [of criticism] and even that they can’t take. That’s another thing: How weak! Despite the popularity of Putin, how weak this president is if he’s afraid of people having debates about how they want to live, or articles written about this. He’s on clay feet. Why be afraid of a small little piece or article?

They’re very well-written, and you carry the Khrushchev name…

But I am not the competition, and that’s what makes him a very small man. That’s what freedom is: I have the right to say what I think, and he should convince me otherwise–and I’m happy to be wrong! I was writing this book about the gulag of the Russian mind way before Ukraine, Crimea, the end of protesting, and here we are. I don’t want to be right about Russia, but I am.

How often do you go back?

Four times a year. To see my family, but I need to touch the pulse and see if I’m right about Russia—and find what I should write about, what makes them tick? Otherwise I only watch Russian TV on the Internet and other specific things, so I do need to see what’s going on. But it’s getting firmer every year. More monolithic at the Kremlin. ‘Everyone’s an enemy. We are the greatest.’ So I watch specific programs, Russian state programs, Russian news. It’s very interesting, but essentially research.”

Are you ever hassled?

I have no problem. Nobody ever stopped me except that one time. I had to register at various places in Moscow including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mother is always afraid something will happen, and there’s a new law now that if you have a Russian passport you need to register with Russian authorities. But I live in the U.S. so I don’t have to register with anybody. My mother is afraid of various situations and problems, and I’m very grateful for whatever forces comprise my character, because it keeps me reasonably objective. And I’ve noticed that those who think something will happen–and nothing happens–become undue heroes. But some people are struggling with Putin and the regime and do have problems. With all the things I’ve written—not that I think they’re important—they’ve been critical. But I haven’t had problems. The state decides who is the enemy, and Putin is the state.

Is Putin a return to Stalin?

He’s not Stalin. His formula of behavior is Stalinesque—which does not make him Stalin. With Stalin, we lost millions in the gulags–not just the Russian mind, but Russian people. I’m not defending Putin in any way, but it’s a modern time, and he’s a modern despot. He doesn’t need to arrest everybody, but one person–and I’ll give an example: Pussy Riot. That also doesn’t work for him too well because they’re now celebrities–which I don’t think they should have become, but it’s their choice. It’s different between show trials today. People continue to speak out, so it’s not the same.

He’s “Stalinesque”?

His model is Stalineque. He’s a strong-handed leader who believes he’s the savior of Russia, similar not just to Stalin but Peter the Great or Ivan the Terrible. So in some way he is a part of the succession of Russian autocrats–but not just one.

What does he believe?

He believes in a strong Russia, that the West is out to get us, and decadent. And every time Russia follows the West’s example, we end up being humiliated and duped and what-not, so his Russia is that kind of Russia–hurt, vindictive, wants to prove it’s greatness at any cost, and greatness comes with what we own, like oil and gas. In some ways it’s a war behavior, with Crimea and Ukraine. What I saw in Moscow was war propaganda. It’s not at war, but Russia is at war–all the time. Even the Olympics was presented in very militant form. The whole conversation about the Olympics was war-oriented: All athletes were soldiers, their coaches were soldiers, we’re against the West and we’re not going to lose. That works for him, so Russia is almost standing against anybody else who wants to hurt it. Even if it’s not World War II, the whole world is presented in World War II formula, even today. Putin and Russia want to be recognized as great, and if we have to hurt someone, we have to do that.

I hate to say it, but it sounds very much like the U.S.

Both Russia and America are frontier cultures with that mentality: “If we don’t do it, somebody will come and get us.” And they’re both imitation cultures—they both imitate Europe. America was a colony and built by the French, Dutch, British and others. Russia is on the outskirts of Europe and the last line of defense between Europe and Asia. Russia formulates its existence on European formulas but it doesn’t want to compete because then you have to decide that every day you’re going to get better, which is difficult. So it decided it’s going to present itself as what the West is not—which doesn’t make it not imitation.

Other thoughts on the U.S. and Russia?

America and Russia are very similar. They’re big and both messianic–both think they save humanity. Russia is saving it in terms of its spiritual existence–that Russian soul–America through offering unparalleled comfort. It’s not a big choice today: People want comfort, but the reason I think that Putin is popular among certain people, is that there is the idea that people lose morality with the money that America puts forward. They do look for some spiritual values, and Putin, as Russia always had before, offers conservative values, not decadence. But of course it’s all fake. How can a man who divorced his wife preach conservative values?

It still sounds similar to the U.S.!

There is similarity, but also not similarity because America, as imperfect as America is—and who’s perfect?–still offers the world a better option for life, although of course it screws up a lot of countries in the meantime! The 1917 Russian revolution offered salvation, then Stalin and then Khrushchev, and now offers a solution for the future or betterment of human life–and what it did was through force and oppression and lack of freedom. Some countries managed to have social democracy, a combination of American and Russian [models] in a much more tame European way.

Where do the two countries stand today?

I think America remains a world power and Russia is really not, but is trying to become one through menace–which doesn’t make it a gerat power, doesn’t provide a solution.

What are your thoughts on President Obama?

Obama, regrettably, didn’t rectify the Dick Cheney problem. But he came in with an understanding of what needed to be done. Unlike you I’m very disappointed in Obama. He talks too much, and I don’t understand who advises him in foreign policy. I’d advise him to first think and then speak about it. He doesn’t sound too convincing when he talks about a “red line in Syria” and then goes to Putin with it. Putin thought he was saving Obama, and now he’s talking about sanctions against Russia. So why is he saying anything? So I’m disappointed in Obama. Cheney was a dictatorial leader, but spying on [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel was worse than Cheney. It upsets me. He should know better, and he does know better, in fact, and yet his advisors do not.

But you still support him.

I’m a disappointed supporter of Barack Obama. There’s, no reason for this sort of thing. It is so not good. I teach propaganda and commnications. Can’t they at least hire me—like The Washington Post suggested? I was the first to say Putin will take Crimea. The Pentagon is now studying his body language—why are they wasting the money? I could have told you all that for free! I’m really hoping the White House calls me! They’re bad on messaging: I’m totally happy with the affordable health care act, but first figure out what it will be instead of celebrating it and then screwing it up. And [U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.] Samantha Power should not be tweeting! And he picks lobbyists for a cause to positions of ambassadorial importance, which is wrong.

And the Republicans?

They just prove the whole dictatorial formula.

After all your research, are you satisfied that you know the truth about “the lost Khrushchev,” your grandfather—and Nikita’s son—Leonid Khrushchev?

Yes. I am. He died. I’m fascinated by him. His story is tragic, not only because he died, but he tried to prove to his father who was a communist that he was a human, and in that particular case, Khrushchev, who was a communist with a human face, did not want him to be a human, but just communist. So the things Leonid was doing–chasing women, crashing cars, being very brave–somehow became in Khrushchev’s mind sins that he couldn’t overcome in relation to his son. He was very upset that he was not a communist, and that I find very tragic. And it’s also very tragic that in dying under regular war circumstances he became someone whose fate in the 20th Century events rests on Khrushchev’s shoulders because of that rumor that [Leonid] was a traitor and helped the Nazis and Stalin punished him for that—and that’s the only reason [they give] that Khrushchev denounced Stalin in congress. So the importance of Khrushchev repenting to make the country better is now gone, only because [they say] he was avenging his son who Stalin allegedly killed. So part of 20th Century history rests on this very young man who died at age 25.

How do you feel about Leonid?

I love him tremendously. I find him fascinating, and wish I could be a friend of his. There are tidbits of his life that nobody even thought of investigating, that he and Stalin’s younger son were in love with the same woman, and she was in love with Leonid and when he died married Stalin. People knew, but no one thought of talking about it–but the Khrushchev-Stalin comparisons/disagreements are always political, and at the same time there are so many connections between the Stalins and the Khrushchevs: The younger Stalin son and Leonid shared love with the same woman. The older Stalin son had the fate of being captured and put in a concentration camp–though Leonid never was, but the story was that he was–and Stalin’s older son actually was and died as a hero.

And what of Leonid’s mother?

That’s very interesting, also. I found the remarkable story of my birth grandmother—who just died in March when the book was coming out, at 101—Lyuba. I’m sorry to say she’s dead–God rest her soul–but she was a horrible person and I never knew how horrible she was. I researched and discovered and for me it became the epitome of Soviet hypocrisy–communism with humanity. Formerly it had so little humanity that people would behave as absolutely perfect communists in public settings and go to the kitchen or wherever and not be perfect at all–and she was a great example of that: really quite scheming and deceitful and immoral in regular life, and hiding it from everyone until her last breath.

Anything else to say about the book?

It was a very interesting book to write. I learned things about my family that I didn’t know, but also thought about my family a lot, like Khrushchev’s wife Nina–my grandmother—and how she fit. I found out that unlike Nikita, she was an orthodox communist, like Molotov, her neighbor in her later years. They believed that communism and the Kremlin were never wrong. Nikita was much more democratic than she was, and yet she was very forgiving of family, since she thought family was most important. Another title of this book would have been The Contradictions of Communism.

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For more from Nina Khruscheva, I highly recommend her website and blog.

 

Concert Highlights–Tammy Faye Starlite’s ‘Broken English’ at Joe’s Pub, 5/13/14

Tammy Faye Starlite as Marianne Faithfull at Joe's Pub (photo: Kevin Yatarola)
Tammy Faye Starlite as Marianne Faithfull at Joe’s Pub (photo: Kevin Yatarola)

With Tammy Faye Starlite’s Broken English/Marianne Faithfull presentation, which she reprised Tuesday night (May 13) at Joe’s Pub after debuting it in March at Lincoln Center, she takes her embodiment of brilliant but troubled rock chanteuses—the first being Nico—to a new level.

Her interpretation of Faithfull is indeed that, to be sure, but the monologues that lead into the songs give her more of a chance to extemporize with topical material, being of course, that unlike Nico, Faithfull is still alive. Different, too, is that while both were once beautiful, drug-besotted blonds who struggled to step out from the shadows of iconic male artists, Nico was a tragic figure, Faithfull triumphant.

Fearless as ever, Starlite held nothing back, even making light of the recent suicide of Jagger’s lover (“Too soon!” groaned one audience member, though not without full approval) and jabbing at name writers in the house–hitting this one especially close to home when singling him out for not really living so much as observing. Ahead of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” she even gratuitously broke character in referencing “Jew New York”—a standard crack from her uproariously anti-semitic, pornographic and Born Again Tammy Faye Starlite country shows—and still in Faithfull English accent, copped to the confusion.

As a whole, Broken English is a masterwork. But listening to Starlite’s verison some 35 years later, the lead titletrack takes on new significance.

First, was there ever a song more fitting of the word “roiling”? Or “churning”? That’s how it opens, that’s how it stays. Faithfull singing—often croaking–with stark directness lyrics including

It’s just an old war,
Not even a cold war,
What are we fighting for?

Lose your father, your husband,
Your mother, your children.
What are you dying for?
It’s not my reality.

Don’t say it in Russian,
Don’t say it in German.
Say it in broken English,
Say it in broken English.

Starlite sang it perfectly, as she did with the entire album, as she did with Nico.

Reagan ratcheted up the Cold War when he took office shortly after Broken English came out in 1979. He ordered a massive military buildup, condemned the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” and instituted the so-called Reagan Doctrine of foreign policy, which heavily supported Afghanistan’s pre-Taliban mujahideen groups in their war with the Soviets, and engaged in the illegal sale of arms to Iran in order to fund the anti-communist Nicaraguan Contras (the Iran-Contra Affair).

Who knows what’s going on clandestinely today, that is, besides the use of drones—often with tragic collateral damage consequences. But we do know that we have a president—a “Dahomeyan pinko octaroon,” as Starlite has identified Obama in her Tammy Faye shows–who hasn’t resorted to name-calling, or to any kind of nationalist adventurism. In fact, he’s done everything he can to avoid the militarism of the previous administration, much to the contempt of those of it and its supporters.

In hearing the classic antiwar anthem “Broken English” at this juncture and upon reflection, we have much to be thankful for, for not fighting for.

Facebook follies

The two things friends aren’t supposed to talk about–religion and politics–pertain to Facebook friends as well.

The advantage of being atheist removes one of the anathemas. I’m surely never going to bring up religion as a conversation starter, though I do make religious references from time to time, most recently, the other day when I saluted the many responsible Jewish community leaders who quickly condemned the owner of The Atlanta Jewish Times after he suggested that the Israelis assassinate Obama. Also, a month or so back I commented on how the nicest guys in my Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood were Muslim, citing specifically the Yemeni grocery store owners and the Egyptian food truck guy.

I wanted, of course, to stand up for good people of different faiths on both counts; to this end, I often retweet the great Southern gospel singer/comedian Mark Lowry, and the big guy he works for (no, not that Big Guy), Southern gospel artist/impresario Bill Gaither–so as not to seemingly slight Christians.

Regarding politics, unfortunately, I can’t–or refuse–to shut up. My guess is that 99.9 percent of my FB friends are liberal, if not as far left as I am. I liberally tout my liberal positions and comments to FB via Twitter (as I do everything else), and usually it’s preaching to the choir. But I do have four, maybe five FB friends who are conservative, with one, maybe two who are active in responding snidely or rudely to my posts. I hedge on the exact number because I think I’ve finally managed to alienate one friend into unfriending me, which is fine: I think I’ve only asked two people to be my FB friends, both people I didn’t know but needed to get to them for information. As I use FB strictly for self-promotion and not networking, I don’t want to inflict myself on others, especially real friends–but if they sign up on their own accord, they bring it on themselves and this is what they get, so again, I’m perfectly fine being unfriended.

And I’m fine being criticized, but I find disrespectful mocking of this president, almost always with convoluted reasoning at best, intolerable. Frankly, I’m not much of a debater, nor am I as knowledgeable as I should be on most issues, hence I try to be as open-minded when it comes to challenging Obama’s–and my–positions and opinions as I would hope those on the other side would be to my arguments. But eventually reality must be faced: Very few conservatives play fair, it seems; they invariably resort to bullying bordering on paranoia if not thinly disguised racism, unable to substantiate any of their contentions with facts or words other than red flags, i.e., socialist, radical, Democrat, liberal, progressive–and to this add now Saul Alinsky.

But there is one area where the radical left and radical right come together–the newly discovered third thing friends can’t talk about: The Kennedy assassination(s).

Here the paranoia couldn’t be more pronounced. Last week’s Martin Luther King Day observation brought forth a new round: From a FB friend, inspired by my scornful response to his original post and those of his like-minded friends who followed, specifically, that a two-year-old could have killed Kennedy: “At this point in history, believing that the Kennedys, MKL, MX [Malcolm X] were killed by ‘lone-nuts’ (or, in MX’s case, religious fanatics) is like believing that the Tooth Fairy left those quarters under your pillow.”

This lone-nut was quickly joined by a long thread of fellow travelers, one of whom somehow found a way to inject his contention that Obama was “a complete sell-out.”

To me, an Obama-roader, them’s fightin’ words, so I responded, boldly, if I may say so myself, “I’m proud to support the president.” When this didn’t detonate the desired dynamite, I followed with the one surefire rejoinder: “Oswald acted alone.”

It didn’t take long.

“Mr. Bessman… Finally, someone who knows that Lee Harvey was able to change the motorcade route the day before JFK got there to include a 90 degree turn and a 120 degree turn directly in front of the build where he worked! BTW… Happy New Year.”

Before I could counter with my own new-year greeting, I was quickly double-teamed: “Oswald acted alone????How’s the weather on the planet you live on? Watch Black Power Mixtape. It talks about just what [name deleted to protect the stupid] is saying. Once MLK changed his message from racial injustice to economic injustice, the 1% decided he had to go. Also, MLK’s and Malcolm X’s death had nothing to do with each other, aside from being black.”

Well, good to get corroboration from such a knowledgeable researcher that MLK and MX killings weren’t related–though I still haven’t watched the Black Power Mixtape. But wait! There’s more: “JFK was shot by 3 Corsican gangsters hired by the CIA.I think they may have been older than two [years old].”

Okay, they may have been older than two. But you sure you’re not confusing the JFK and RFK assassinations–it being my understanding from another real friend (as opposed to Facebook) that RFK was killed by three spooks? And what about the Umbrella Man?

But what really set me off was a blanket condemnation of “the so-called Warren Commission whores.”

“One of my best friends,” I posted, “was one of ‘the so-called Warren Commission whores,’ and you sir, are an idiot.”

That didn’t go down well.

“The Warren Commission were not whores,” said one scholar, giving me hope–for half a second. “They were men in fear for their lives. They were ordered to come up with a plausible scenario for one shooter by the same people who had killed JFK, the same people who ‘supervised’ the autopsy.”

Okay, in the interest of selling my dear friend Bill Carter a few more books–and I’m proud to say I wrote the foreward to his memoir Get Carter–Backstage In History From JFK’s Assassination To The Rolling Stones (available at Amazon!)–I will say that Bill, a Secret Service agent for Kennedy and Johnson, is the most decent, law-abiding, upstanding citizen you’ll ever know, but please, don’t take my word for it. Go to the top line on Page 2 of Keith Richards’ Life to see how he single-handedly saved Keith and the Stones–on more than one occasion.

Bill also went on to manage Reba McEntire, Rodney Crowell, and numerous other country artists, and for many years has produced events for Bill Gaither–which is how this atheist is so blissfully and blessedly involved in Southern gospel. I once hooked Bill up with a Nashville record company exec who was a major Kennedy conspiracy buff, and knew, as did everyone, of Bill’s involvement in the investigation. Bill wasn’t in Dallas that day, but he was immediately dispatched to put Marina Oswald under protective custody.

The record company guy, of course, was bewildered to hear Ole Bill calmly and clearly state that there was no conspiracy, that yes, Oswald acted alone.

“But don’t you know that the Secret Service kidnapped Marina Oswald?” the exasperated guy blurted out.

“Yeah, I know it!” bellowed Bill, in his bigger-than-life Rector, Arkansas drawl. “I’m the one that did it!”

But I’ll say this: Bill will be the first to tell you that the Warren Commission was flawed. Very much so, in its haste to come to a conclusion. But he’ll also tell you that the conclusion was correct: “At that time, it was very easy to get to the president,” he once told me–and he wasn’t talking about shaking hands.

Not that it’s not still easy to get to the president, but back to the original point: Why was Martin Luther King assassinated?

“Because in early 1968, he started to espouse the belief that race was not the bottom line issue,” proclaimed the original poster. “Poor white kids were dying in Vietnam, too. It was about wealth vs. poverty… and the killing effect of poverty on all races. This was an extremely dangerous thing to point out. At that point, the powers that be/were decided ‘enough of this negro troublemak­er’. Ditto Malcolm X. He had started to speak of the economic injustice visited on all Americans just weeks before he was hit. The first two 99%-ers were killed for their revelations.”

My answer, and it was final, was Buffalo Springfield: “Paranoia strikes deep. Into your hearts it will creep….”

It prompted the inevitable, all-knowing response: “‘Paranoia strikes deep’ was about teenagers protesting curfews on the Sunset Strip….when I saw Ruby kill Oswald I knew the JFK assassination had been a conspiracy, I saw it happen & I knew!”

But of course!

Walter Cronkite

I was a CBS Evening News junkie growing up and remained so through the troubled Dan Rather news anchor regime. He and his predcecessor Walter Cronkite were my heroes, along with Eric Sevareid, and later, Bob Simon.

I highly recommend renting Good Night, and Good Luck to learn about the great tradition of CBS News—a tradition that is sadly long gone. It focuses on the legendary Edward R. Murrow, the man who virtually built the CBS broadcast news division. Murrow recruited the iconic Cronkite, who would host the network’s evening news from 1962 to 1981 and become known as “the most trusted man in America.”

I saw him in person three times.

The first time was at a record store signing of a box set of vinyl LPs that he was involved in, historic moments of the 1960s, I think. The second was a press promotion for a home video documentary about the first moon landing. He spoke about the 1969 event–which he covered, of course—and said something to the effect that it was the most important story he had ever covered, or the one he was proudest of, or the one that was his favorite.

I was deeply disappointed.

I tried to track him down after his presentation to complain but to no avail. But luck struck some time later, when I attended what must have been Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner’s 40th birthday party, in 1986.
I didn’t know Jann and I wasn’t invited. But he had the good sense to hire my friends Beausoleil, the premiere Cajun band, to perform, and I went in with them. It was at some trendy restaurant downtown that didn’t have any outer signage saying what it was or even the address. I was way out of my element.

All the big record company people were there, and the literary likes of Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Tom Wolfe. I was very excited to meet the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza there. And to get a second crack at Walter Cronkite.

I went up to him and introduced myself and told him I had seen him at the moon landing home video press gathering. I told him how he had been such a hero, such that I could not accept his citing the moon landing over his momentous coverage of Vietnam (his famous commentary expressing doubts about the chances of winning the war, which he made on camera in 1968 after returning from a trip to Vietnam, was a major turning point in popular opinion) and the Middle East (he brought Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat together to launch the peace process).

His response was unforgettable, if to this day enigmatic.

“Well,” he said, pausing. I think he was embarrassed. I probably should have been.

“Asking what my favorite story is, it’s kind of like asking, ‘What’s your favorite soup?’”

Neda and the Other Alison Krauss

I’d been thinking about it the last couple days or so, since seeing the horrific video of Neda getting gunned down in Tehran, than seeing the stills of the heartbreakingly beautiful girl, Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, who “enjoyed music and was looking forward to learning how to play the piano,” according to one caption.

The pictures sear the mind as did The Picture from Kent State, as its called on one web site. The picture taken by one John Filo, “a young undergraduate working in the Kent State photo lab,” was taken when he took a break on May 4, 1970—right in the middle of the latest round of nationwide campus anti-war protests, this time following President Nixon’s April 30 announcement that the US military had invaded Cambodia and 150,000 more troops would soon be drafted.

After rioting in downtown Kent, Ohio, on the evening of May 1, the Ohio National Guard had been called in to maintain order. A protest rally was scheduled for noon at the University on Monday, May 4, and Filo took his camera to see if he could come up with an interesting shot. What he came up with—a picture of a young girl kneeling in augnuish over the body of one of the four students slain in a fusillade of National Guard rifle fire—won a Pulitzer Prize and is forever embedded in much of my generation’s collective memory.

Lest they be forgotten, the girl was Mary Vecchio. The dead student was Jeffrey Miller. The others who were killed were Sandra Scheuer, William Knox and Allison Krause (being a close friend of the great bluegrass artist Alison Krauss, who would be born just over a year later, I sometimes refer to Allison Krause as “the other Alison Krauss”).

I was a senior in high school in May, 1970, at James Madison Memorial in Madison, Wisconsin. I used to march in all the big demonstrations downtown at the University of Wisconsin campus, often coming home at night with my clothes reeking of tear gas. I’d jump in the shower and the gas would seep out of my long hair and into my eyes.

One night I ran right into an exploding can of pepper gas and I had to be treated at a nearby First Aid facility. Another time I hid in the bushes along the campus banks of Lake Mendota, a National Guard chopper hovering above and shining floodlights on protesters for on-ground Guardsmen to kick the shit out of.

The day after the Kent State shootings—or massacre, as it was also called, linking it with the Boston Massacre of Revolutionary War times—I and 100 others were suspended from school for protesting. The Memorial 101, they called us—the one group I’ll always be proud of being a part of.

And now that another young student is slain by her state’s agents of repression as she protested its repressive policies, I hear the righteous outcry by our politicans against that state—and against our president for trying to exercise caution and restraint in his remarks so as not to further incite those forces of repression. And I wonder, Where were they in 1970?

Among the most vocal is John McCain, who was a POW in North Vietnam after being shot down while bombing Hanoi—the type of action that engendered the anti-war protest movement to begin with. I don’t know what his thoughts are on Kent State or if he senses the same connection between Neda and Allison as I do. But I happened to attend Fox News Channel’s “Huckabee” show taping Saturday afternoon, and heard its host (and McCain’s vanquished Republican presidential rival) Mike Huckabee’s disturbing link of Neda’s murder and “the massacre of Tehran” with the Boston Massacre.

The Boston Massacre had occurred in 1770–200 years before Kent State–when five people died after British troops fired into a large crowd of civilians, some of whom were hurling snowballs at them. Huckabee termed these and the Tehran fatalities as “pathetic victims,” and surmised that they might not have been so victimized had they enjoyed the right to bear arms—as Americans do today.

By extension, of course, had the Kent State students been as well-armed as the Ohio Guardsmen, they might not have been so pathetically victimized—though I very much doubt that this is what Huck, a very nice guy, had in mind.

Like the Iranian demonstrators, some of the Kent State students threw rocks at their opposing heavily armed and willing enforcers of the state (the Bostonians threw small objects at the Brits, too, in addition to snowballs). And like the Iranians (and the Bostonians before them), they were no match for firemans.

“When dissent turns to violence, it invited tragedy,” rationalized Nixon’s press secretary Ron Ziegler after the Kent State killings, which led to the closing of some 450 colleges in the U.S. due to the campus protests they engendered. For Ziegler and Nixon and those who sided with them, the kids brought it on themselves. And now Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is calling Neda’s killing “suspicious,” with the country’s ambassador to Mexico Mohammad Hassan Ghadiri suggesting  that it was carried out by U.S. intelligence.

Back in my day, the political establishment blamed it on “outside agitators,” generally meaning communists and/or Jews from out-of-state. But back in my day, too, there was Johnny Cash.

I was at “Huckabee” as a guest of Larry Gatlin, who performed his new hit “Johnny Cash is Dead and His House Burned Down”—an ironically-titled but terrific tribute to his friend and mentor Cash and his immortal music.

Cash had gone to Vietnam at the height of the war to entertain the troops and came back with “Singin’ in Vietnam Talkin’ Blues,” his horrific take on “that little trip into livin’ hell.” Then in 1970 he had a Top 20 pop hit with “What is Truth,” in which a father explains to his three-year-old son that war is simply a place “where people fight and die,” before Cash himself asks, “Can you blame the voice of youth for asking ‘What is truth?’”

It was the same year as Kent State. I very much doubt that country music fan Huck, or anyone else of his ilk, confronted the Man in Black then on moral grounds–or any other. Whether or not they recognize the lonely voice of Tehran youth as descendents of Kent State is another thing.

Good Morning Ameri-Can Idiot

I’ve always regretted never seeing Green Day live except for seeing them do “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Teenage Lobotomy” when the Ramones were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Having authored “Ramones—An American Band,” I can say with some degree of authority that no band of this era is more worthy of wearing the Ramones mantle.

That said, I’m glad I got in at their SRO show at Webster Hall Wednesday night—one of several small-venue appearances in New York last week to kick-off their new album “21st Century Breakdown”—though I didn’t get to see much standing in back of people in the balcony. But I heard plenty.

The Ramones. The Clash. All the great punk bands everyone compares them to are indeed credible comparisons. And I did at least see a packed room of fans ranging from Green Day’s contemporaries to music business veterans my age mouthing the lyrics to socially-conscious, politically-charged hits like “American Idiot” and “Minority” and current “Know Your Enemy” that make the band the only one of its time that I can pretty much guarantee will make it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its own right. All this, and encoring with the Isley Brothers’ “Shout”!

I mentioned this gig at Joe’s Pub the next night to my contemporary James Mastro, the versatile guitarist, formerly of The Bongos, who now plays with everyone from Ian Hunter to Iranian-American singer-songwriter Atoosa Grey (James was playing in her band at Joe’s Pub). He had asked the ever-dreaded question, “Is there anything you like now?”

“You know, I believe them,” he said, in response to my praise of Green Day. He then added, his tone as jaded as my own, “That’s all I want from music these days.” Incidentally, his 15 year-old daughter Lily was also a believer–and excited about seeing Green Day for the second time the following night.

Howard Stern being off on Fridays, I forced myself to watch “Good Morning America” to get a televised view of the band as they opened this year’s Walgreens-sponsored “GMA Summer Concert Series” in Central Park.

When I tuned in, it was in the middle of an apparent regular feature, “Americ-Cans Making a Difference”—or some such feel-good shite. No, I don’t mean to slight the story of the homeless vet who has a place to live thanks to the contractor who was supposed to tear down the house but fixed it up instead. Or the Florida State student who raised money to save the professor’s job. Or the other haves helping the have-nots.

No, I just very much resent the “Good Morning America” declaration that “the Ameri-Can spirit is all around us.” Like the vile Pepsi rip of the beautiful Obama “O” logo graphic, GMA co-opts the President’s winning “Yes we can!” campaign slogan, mixing it in with its irrepressibly self-promoting happy-talk. And talk about the anchors! These utterly clueless squares could never have ever listened to a band like Green Day—not that any of them ever would have wanted to. Like Diane Sawyer, the spineless celebrity interviewer and one-time Nixon assistant, listens to “Dookie” while lighting a doobie? I don’t think so! Or the whole lot of them singing along to the original version of “Money (That’s What I Want)” after the “Make Money in May” segment, and knowing it’s by Barrett Strong and not The Beatles? Shit.

Green Day were halfway through their first song when GMA disrespectfully picked it up after a commercial break, adding to the injury with intermittent sound trouble. The GMA team then cut in to hype an upcoming barbecue segment, break for the weather, and come back to ask Billie Joe Armstrong requisite morning network news show questions about whether they got any sleep the night before and if they were really awake.

Billie Joe took it a whole lot better than I did. He and the rest of the guys also took the dipshit-dressed-in-white’s inane exclamation, “There’s absolutely nothing cooler than this!” better than I did. Then again, they didn’t have to deal with the TV picture freezing, the dizzying camera zooms in search of the dumbest doofus crowd reactions (and any hint of moshing), the cutting in and out for commercials (whatever you do, don’t miss the “Here Come the Newlyweds” season premiere!).

Yet there was unintended joy in seeing the kids singing the heavily bleeped “Don’t wanna be an American idiot/One nation controlled by the media/Information nation of hysteria/It’s going out to idiot America.” And “Know Your Enemy”—the enemy being everything that “Here Come the Newlyweds” represents.

So here it is where Green Day actually beat the enemy: Beneath the banner of Walgreens, the band that steadfastly refused to censor “21st Century Breakdown” for Wal-Mart was accomplishing what its punk forebears could not even dream of, that is, getting the enemy to play their music. Not only that, showcase it!

There’s absolutely nothing cooler than that.