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Welcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

Do you fear this man’s invention
That they call atomic power
Are we all in great confusion
Do we know the time or hour
When a terrible explosion
May rain down upon our land
Meting horrible destruction
Blotting out the works of man

There are a lot of songs about nuclear war, more than I realized — a few of them passed by in nuclear war documentaries, and my Cold War history class senior year of college. But the first I heard, and so far the most epic is Alabama country-gospel brotherly duo the Louvin Brothers’ original composition “Great Atomic Power.”

There are two versions. Above is the more bluegrass-tinged one.

This song is awful, and wonderful, and creepy-Christian exploitative. It says the times are scary and uncertain, we might get nuked at any moment by the dirty Ruskies, but good news, there’s Jesus. Jesus will have your back, come mushroom cloud or nuclear winter. Indeed, that’s the only option available for those who want everlasting life free of the horror of man’s latest bad idea:

There is one way to escape it
Be prepared to meet the lord
Give your heart and soul to Jesus
He will be your shielding sword
He will surely stay beside you
And you’ll never taste of death
For your soul will fly to safety
And eternal peace and rest

It’s certain, it’s even cheerful, but then it ends with:

When the mushrooms of destruction
Fall in all it’s fury great
God will surely save His children
From that awful awful fate

It’s got the subtlety of Bert the Turtle singing “Duck and Cover.” It’s got the soothing spiritualism of  Jesus Camp, and is just as likely to traumatize the children. 

Except that it’s also pure poetry and strangeness. And that ending, well, Charlie and Ira sound convinced, but “God will surely save his children” sounds just a little hopeful, just a little desperate when you think about it. They believed it, but they were making damned sure all the same. This meeting of old-school fire and brimstone and new seemed a bizarre concept when I first heard it, but it works.

Any other favorite end of the world songs?

Burgess_Meredith_The_Twilight_ZoneWelcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

This week, I was planning to write about On the Beach — the original movie, and maybe the novel and the 2000 remake in passing — but instead I thought I would talk about two Twilight Zone episodes that deal quite differently with nuclear annihilation. Be warned, I had many classic Twilight Zone episodes spoiled decades ago by many classic Simpsons Halloween specials, but I’d rather not be the ruiner of even 50-year-old TV shows. 

Forgive the lateness of the hour, but remember the Andy Warhol joke about going to Pittsburgh in the event of nuclear war — everything, you see, comes to Pittsburgh five years late.

Time Enough At Last, season 1, episode 8

You know this one, or you know a parody. This is one of the most famous Twilight Zones — maybe the most famous not starring William Shatner (who was actually in two episodes, on a sidenote!). This is the story of poor bank teller Henry Bemis (Burgess Meredith) who seems good-hearted, if frustratingly absent-minded, and is the world’s biggest bookworm. A bookworm, but nobody in his life will let poor Mr. Bemis read. His boss’s scolding is one thing, but Bemis’ wife, portrayed with oddly-masculine coldness by Jacqueline DeWit, is simply sadistic. Who did she think was marrying, if not a be-speckled Burgess Meredith who only wants to lose himself in Dickens, poetry, and any other literature? I don’t think her husband was ever a dynamic, suave individual. Her fault, then, if she’s now unhappy. Indeed, you could write a whole story about Mrs. Bemis and what made her so cruel. The scene where she pretends to be interested in her husband’s poetry book is her peak of small, but sharp horribleness. The fact that he really believes she might be interested after God knows how many years of marriage is a testament to his infuriating fuzzy-headedness, perhaps, but his face when he sees what his wife has done to his book — blacked out every single word on every page — breaks the heart.

That scene is why the most upsetting part of this episode is not the destruction of everything. Yes, Mr. Bemis goes down to the bank vault and therefore survives what seems to the end of the world (though there must have been a few more people going into basements at just the right moment). The empty, H-bomb-wrecked world is a little tidy in it’s carefully-placed rubble, like a film set. But the producers did well for the times. It looks pretty bad, it looks well and truly destroyed. And Bemis has been portrayed and remembered and parodied as a character who is bothered by all the people around him, but he doesn’t suddenly adapt to this new, empty world. He is after all not really an introvert, so much as someone who needed time to read, and then meet some folks who shared his love of books. Didn’t they have book clubs in your time, Mr. Bemis?

Anyway, Bemis tries to cope. He talks to himself a little, finds some food, and mourns. Eventually, he very nearly commits suicide. With a pistol to his temple he tells himself he’ll be forgiven, considering the circumstances. Then he sees the books in the ruined bits of a public library! Suddenly it’s all turned around! After a few minutes of hopeful scenes where Mr. Bemis gathers enough stacks of books to keep him going for the next several years (assuming that rain and snow has stopped existing; find some shelter, Mr. Bemis), we get to the final, oft-parodied scene where Mr. Bemis breaks his glasses. In my case, breaking glasses would hinder my survival, but not my ability to read. Still, Bemis is probably doomed now. But worse still, it’s not fair. There was time now!

There is often justice in the twilight zone, but not always. Mr. Bemis didn’t deserve his fate, but irony chose him.

And the nuclear destruction is only incidental. The real tragedy is that what he asks for is so simple, and he doesn’t get it.

But at least his horrible wife is dead, I guess.

Third From the Sun, season 1, episode 14

Since the twist in this episode is much less commonly-known, I will again warn that readers wishing to remain unspoiled should proceed with caution.

I’m a connoisseur of well-crafted dread in movies or television that deals with subjects as heavy as nuclear war or worlds’ ends. It’s only so-so for most of this episode, perhaps because the character mostly speak of feeling it in the air. There’s a lot of tell, and the show of it is confined to Dutch angles and tight shots on nervous faces. It’s not unsubtle, but since the plot is fundamentally horrifying, I demand nothing less than soul-crushing. And it’s just not that. (Maybe the Richard Matheson short story it’s based on is that — I’d like to read it.)

The main character in “Third From the Sun” is Will Sturka a father who works at a military base on horrible weapons; we also see his wife, his teenage daughter, and a couple where the husband, Jerry Riden, works at the same plant, but on a secret spaceship. The antagonist is the boss,Carling, who seems to be a true-believer of striking first and watching what you say and think in such times as these.

What times? Well, the end times. Or nearly. Sturka and Riden know it’s coming. They plan to gather their families and flee. Their cover is an evening card game, during which Carling stops by briefly. Then there’s a whole lot of charged dialogue where everyone knows everyone else knows, but nobody says anything. Carling leaves, and the two families head for the base to steal away on the craft Riden has been building. At one point we learn that there has even been talk of other planets that contain people not unlike our characters. Riden and Sturka and their families hope to head for one.

When they reach the base, Carling is there — naturally — but the teenage daughter actually helps to save the day by smacking him with a car door.

We see that the ship looks an awful lot like a UFO, and we either get it now, or we don’t. The final shot is Sturka and Riden discussing how the ship is holding up (well), and if they can really image that there are people like them on this distant planet they’re flying towards. It’s third from the sun, and it is called Earth.

Is this a throwaway, “he was dead the whole time?!” type of ending? Perhaps, but no more than other Twilight Zones, which often dealt with the question of who was the real alien in various scenarios. (Man is of course, the real monster in all cases.) And in a greater context of Cold War terrors, it strikes a more effectively sinister note than all previous dialogue about man destroying man, and all the fear in the air; because if the same insane scenario of weapons build-up and worldwide suicide is happening on this other planet, what hope is there for little old Earth?

Walter M. Miller’s brutal and wonderful A Canticle for Leibowitz says humans will utterly destroy themselves not once, but over and over again through the course of thousands of years. With its twist ending, the more flawed but still thoughtful “Third From the Sun” suggests the same pattern can repeat across the galaxies. So much for Klaatu or other aliens coming to save us from our deadly impulses. Things are just as bad up in the stars.

Miracletheatrical

A terrible poster and tagline. Please ignore.

Welcome to The Stag Blog’s new series dealing with portrayals of the end times through movies, novels, docudramas, documentaries, instructional pamphlets and films, songs, and and people’s memories. The focus will mainly be on nuclear war fears during the Cold War, but we may branch out into some asteroids, aliens, or plagues. Let’s keep it loose.

Guests posts are particularly welcome on this subject — give me your best nuke movies, your memories of hiding under desks, or your childhood (or adult) worries over alien invasion.

Our first entry is the 1988 film Miracle Mile, starring Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham. It’s got some of the genre’s — or subgenre — conventions, but it’s got a different feel to it than many hyper-realistic movies dealing with Cold War terror. 

It’s hard to know how Miracle Mile would play out in the daytime. The majority of the movies takes place at night, and not just night, but the bleary-eyed, dead hours of 4 a.m. to just-about-dawn. And that’s the time to watch it, and let its atmosphere of dread and panic and strangeness take you over.

Romantic everyman and trumpet player Harry (Anthony Edwards) meets his dream girl Julie (Mare Winningham) at the museum. They have a date over ill-advised narration and a dreamy, synthy ’80s score. They make a plan to meet up at midnight after her shift at a diner. But Harry’s power goes out and he oversleeps, so he rushes to the diner at 4 a.m. There’s a cast of promisingly odd characters having their very early breakfasts, men who tell dirty jokes, a transvestite, a stewardess, and a 1980s businesswoman in a power suit. There’s also the cook/owner and another waitress. Harry calls and leaves a message of apology for Julie, and then the payphone rings. It’s a young, frantic-voiced man named Chip who thinks he is speaking to his father. He’s in North Dakota in a missile silo, and he’s trying to tell his father that the big one is happening. Nuclear war. The US will strike first, and then the Soviets will return it in 70 minutes.

The acting here is perfect. Harry has a quaver in his voice, but isn’t yet convinced. The voice on the phone is exactly right in its unhinged terror — a lot of post-50s and ’60s nuclear war fiction doesn’t have enough hysteria. (Even the hero should have a moment or two of terror, before they’re stoic again.) Chip realizes he has dialed the right number, but the wrong area code. He begs Harry to tell his dad he’s sorry for something unclear. Then a voice in the background, gunfire, and then, like a horror movie, the military man comes on the line and offers no apologizes for the hoax, no confusion over what’s happening, no gotcha!, just “forget everything you heard and go back to sleep.”

So begins the nightmare. Harry is so shellshocked he smacks his face into the diner door. At the counter, his food has arrived, and he stares at it as blood drips from his nose onto his overeasy eggs. After a few minutes of wondering if it could be true, he decides it is. He tells the other diner goers what has happened. A few minutes of argument later, a phonecall by the powersuit woman on her enormous, 1980s cellphone confirms that a mysteriously large number of important people in Washington are just now in South America.

Already, the understated, quiet dread that I am particularly partial towards in movies is leaving. Part of me wanted to stay in the cinematic possibilities of the 1987, 4 a.m. diner and its promising case of weirdos. But we’re going a different way. Everyone in the diner climbs into the owner’s van, while the competent woman — Landa — pulls in every favor possible, trying to charter a flight to Antarctica. Already, you, the viewer, should be thinking of the time and knowing it’s impossible that anyone will make it, but you’re caught up in the exhilaration of that slim possibility of survival.

Instead of sticking with the group, though, Harry needs to go and find his new love Julie. He’s on his own with that. But the diner owner won’t even slow down, though. He’s advised to tuck and roll and he does, taking the diner owner’s gun. Alone on an overpass, now with a cut head, Harry stops to tell himself this must be a dream. He fires the diner owner’s gun into the air and confirms that weight and heat of it, and no, it’s real. But alone, bleeding, carrying a gun, standing on a highway with the knowledge that it’s supposed to be an hour until nuclear holocaust. If that’s not a nightmare, what is?

Harry reluctantly highjacks a car driven by Wilson, who offers stolen stereos in exchange for his life. And so begins the part of the story where if Harry somehow is wrong about the call — well, some mistakes cannot be undone. They drive fast. They pull into a cabs-only gas station and bribe the owner for fuel. A cop car pulls up and demands that they lie on the ground because the gas station man has an illegal shotgun. Wilson squirts gas from the pump onto the female cop. She’s blinded and fires her gun. She catches fire. The fire spreads. The other cop burns. Harry and the criminal speed away in the LAPD cruiser as the gas station blows up. This is the first completely surreal moment. It should be cheesy. It somehow isn’t. They drive on.

Wilson drives off when Harry goes to get Julie. He manages to reunite her estranged grandparents in the process, and those two drive off to share a last breakfast together. Wilson is seen again, he crashes the cop car through a mall window. He is mortally wounded beside his girlfriend or wife who is already dead. Harry and Julie run in. At one point the Wilson his love and tries to walk up a down escalator. It’s still not funny, just troubling.  Even later when Harry frantically runs into an early morning gym searching for someone who can fly a helicopter isn’t funny. The bizarre ’80s workout clothes add to the surrealness, and you just feel a bit sick instead of amused.

“It was all a dream” is an awful cliche that nobody will dare use for another 50 years. But to say Miracle Mile is a nightmare isn’t to say there should be a moment of Harry waking up in bed, realizing he’s safe. There was supposed to be such a moment back when the screenplay was a hot item in Hollywood, and was going to be part of The Twilight Zone movie. Director and writer Steve De Jarnatt refused to include the relief of waking. He wanted it to be real.

The pacing goes deeper into a nightmare, with half a dozen versions of your worst one ever offered: there’s being chased — first by the police, then by a crazed man into a sewer; there’s hysterically trying to make someone else understand, trying to find someone who will help you; the fear that it was all a mistake, and now you’ve done terrible things and caused deaths for nothing; finding yourself the bad guy with the gun, yelling orders; the lonely panic of being the only one who knows the truth turning into the blind, crazed horror of the masses trampling each other in an orgy of fear, and the worst part, the clock ticking away and there isn’t enough time — there never really was enough time. The only hope of anything beyond Lovecraftian indifference and panic is the love Harry has found in Julie. But she’s only just been found, and being “the girlfriend” she never really has a compelling personality. (Maybe that doesn’t matter). All of this, though, may be less of a nightmare, and more of an insomniac’s waking, dazed horror while the whole world goes wrong around him and he must be getting it wrong, it can’t be real.

I won’t say how it ends, only that the uneasy pacing works, even when the quiet turns into the screaming, teeming mob in the morning. Instead of the myriad other versions of nuclear doom in movies, compare Miracle Mile to Signs. Signs isn’t necessarily unreal, or a metaphor for losing faith, or any of the other suggestions offered for the controversial/cop-out ending. But it has a quality of another world that isn’t quite our own. It doesn’t matter if Miracle Mile is “real” or even “realistic” in its portrayal of facing the end. Its lurching horror makes it a worthwhile and troubling watch — it feels more personal and more queasy in the guts than stern generals in war rooms ordering strikes against the enemy.

Tune in next Tuesday for what happens after those generals order those strikes in On the Beach, the huge downer of a movie that began my fascination with nuclear terrors. 

4657776_l21) TitanicOnce I would have said that James Cameron’s teen sensation blockbuster should be trimmed to a tight 45 minutes, but I am softening in my old age. Just trim every single piece of Cameron-penned dialogue. Remove scene-chewer Billy Zane entirely. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet can stay for the one lifeboat scene which demonstrates some acceptable eye acting. Kill all romance and implication that a making out couple distracted every single British sailor on deck watch right before they hit the burg. Edit out the tiresome Bill Paxton learns to love something more than mysterious lost diamonds subplot.

Oh hell, never mind. Just stick to the sinking. Pretend it’s the story of the myriad killer secondary characters and extras who make those scenes gut-wrenching. They are the reason I can’t fully advocate for tossing out Cameron’s film and going for A Night to Remember. The latter is much better overall, but Kenneth Moore is all too chipper as Second Officer Lightoller. It doesn’t hit the gut in the same way at all.

On a side note, someone British please, please, please make an epic miniseries about Lightoller. His life was one of those impossible adventure stories that you make a movie about if they happen once. His happened endlessly. The Titanic was just a fraction of a life that included an island shipwreck on a sailing ship, a diversion into nearly dying in the Klondike, and a late middle age moment of personally taking his beloved yacht across the channel to fetch 168 British troop badly in need of getting the fuck out of France before the Nazis caught them.

On a final side note, my two instances of what could loosely be described as fan fiction were about Charles Lightoller and  Titanic bandleader Wallace Hartley. I resented fanfiction.net for making me file them under the movie Titanic.

2) Straight to HellThere’s no way to edit a coherent plot into Alex Cox’s punk rock spaghetti Western parody, but editing out co-stars Dick Rude and Courtney Love and their method-whine acting would be a great start. Sy Richardson, some of the weird ’80s hotties Joe Strumer macks upon, Shane MacGowan, Elvis Costello, and director Jim Jarmusch in their bit parts can stay; definitely keep the off-kilter everything — like bad pacing that becomes funny — as well as the gory ending gun battle. But, just, trim off the annoying bits and focus more on sweaty, dusty Joe Strummer in a suit.

(Also, I find Jim Jarmusch, one of my hipster weaknesses if I must call it that, to be weirdly attractive. He can definitely stay. Also, the worst thing about his Coffee and Cigarettes is that he never got around to filming a vignette with Strummer!)

Turns out in 2010, Alex Cox released a new version of the movie, but they’ve only added five minutes of footage, some technical tinkering, and some CGI gore, so the above dream remains unfulfilled.

This is a terrible movie that I knew was terrible, even after searching Dormont’s (outside of Pittsburgh) Incredibly Strange Video for a VHS of it to rent (this is circa 2003). But either its humor holds up in spite of the no-plot plot, or sweaty Joe Strummer in a desert-covered suit is just that compelling.

3) The Towering Inferno: It’s been a while, but this movie was always completely dull for the first half hour. Cut to the fire — never mind the corruption and cost-cutting and bad villain — and cut out most everyone except Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. Sweaty Steve McQueen and Paul Newman are good for America.

I really want to share a sort of spoiler. Okay, are you ready? You have been warned — I used to say I knew this movie was awful because you could predict that at the end OJ Simpson would hand Fred Astaire a cat. But when I think about now, this movie is great because you can predict that at the end OJ Simpson will hand Fred Astaire a cat.

4) On the BeachThere’s no way to edit in even attempted Australian accents or radiation sickness, so let’s stick with just editing out the God-awful, over the top Ernest Gold score. Not so disturbing (or good) as the Nevil Shute novel on which it is based, this 1959 picture about the last remnants of humanity waiting to die after a worldwide nuclear war is still pretty damn bleak for its time. But whenever you start to feel that existential stomachache, the score aggressively demands your attention and heartbreak and sorrow, and then it’s all gone. Because it’s of course just a movie.

5) Good Evening, Mr. Wallenberg: Maybe a pet peeve of mine, but I disliked this Swedish film’s choice of beginning with an attempt at a motivation for Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s beyond-heroic efforts in saving 100,000 Hungarian Jews. The movie has to show Wallenberg witnessing the bodies of Jews being thrown from a train in order to explain his decision to accept the diplomatic post in Budapest. Why? I seem to recall that Wallenberg met some Jews who had fled to Palestine in the 1930s, but crimes against humanity in the cinematic way wasn’t why he went to Budapest. The man was looking for some purpose in life and he found it. And he was really, really good at it. By all accounts, he got a certain rush out of some of his audacious actions — at least before the actual battle for Budapest began. The movie mostly focuses on those rough, later days, which is an interesting choice — his triumphs where he pulled people off of trains and saved them from death marches are seen briefly at the start — to spend the most amount of time with our hero when he’s reached his limit.

This is a good film, but I have never found its way of telling the story quite satisfying. You want your perfect Hollywood man, with an arc from would-be profiteer to savior? That’s what Oscar Schindler is for. Wallenberg was less obviously interesting, more of a cipher, but that makes him all the more a superhero. Superman versus Batman, maybe.

6) Signs: My dad forgives any old movie not filmed on a studio lot. I forgive any terrible ending when a movie has done such a kick-ass job building an atmosphere of subtle, claustrophobic terror. And aliens just speak to me in a, I am technically 15 years old but I cannot sleep right now, way. The part where Joaquin Phoenix is watching the news in the closet and it is supposedly home video from a Brazilian birthday party, and then you see the alien for a second — I have never before or since made an involuntary and loud noise of alarm in a theater. Also, Abigail Breslin is so great. The Culkin kid is Culkinish, but Breslin always strikes me as such a believable little girl.

The edits I would make? The ending — spoilers! — with the water. Maybe it’s a metaphor, maybe it’s fluoride or minerals or something beyond H2o, but people just couldn’t abide that aliens could be killed by a substance that covers 70-odd percent of the planet. And I get that. The whole everything was meant to be and leading up to saving the Culkin bit was so purposefully unsubtle that I never fully minded, because it seems like a picture of a different world than the one in which we all reside. But as much as I find this movie a net good, the fact is that it deserved something better. The set-up is funny, scary, well-acted, and eerie. The idea of a man who has lost his faith in God having to face (potentially-allegorical) extraterrestrials is terrific. I am not sure how I wanted Signs to end. But like many a Russell T. Davies-penned Dr. Who finale, the lead-up was so great that the ending had to be a disappointment — but it didn’t have to be quite that cheesy.

Have any of your own suggestions? Lay ’em on me in the comments or wherever you like.

Photo by Lauren Pond/Washington Post

6.5) The Montana firefighter I heard of once who was named Charley Stillsmoking…

6) …who could ideally be combined with the story of another Montana firefighter  — the poor fellow was chased by a grizzly, he hid under a pile of logs, and the bear grabbed him and pulled him out by the legs. Mr. or Ms. Grizzly gave one slash with his mighty paw across the firefighter’s chest, then went on his way. This happened, by the way, right in the middle of his fighting a forest fire that endangered my family’s cabin. So thanks for braving those beasts, anyway. I’d like to reward you with a song if I knew how.

Actually, has anyone musically covered the tragedy of that Arizona hotshot crew yet? That could break some damn hearts. We may need to bring Johnny Cash back from the dead for this.

5) The story of the only pair of high heels I ever owned (less than two inches) — I bought them to go on Alyona’s Happy Hour. I wore them on RT probably three times and also to the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner, then I accidentally left them the backseat of a 22-year-old jazz drummer’s car, a stranger who gave my friend and I a ride back to my home after we had drank whiskey sours with him, playing at being interesting older women who had done things like go to Russia (her) and develop opinions about Gene Krupa (me, those opinions being he was awesome and attractive).

There are an awful lot of songs about shoes, and I feel like those 40-dollar beauties who did so much in their short time on my feet are worthy of that honor.

4) Songs that namedrop other songs are usually terrible earnest, but — front row center at the Ryman Auditorium on New Year’s Eve, Matt Welch playing “Fourth of July” drunk (I’m sorry, it was a strange and memorable night, in spite of the bottle of wine), Bob and I singing Against Me! songs while driving through the backwoods of New Mexico on my first road trip, cousin T. and in our first moshpit together (La Plebe and Jello Biafra!), etc. Lots of possibilities in a life full of the perfect moments with songs.

Music on music can work with the proper amount of overly direct, earnest This Bike is a Pipe Bomb, Defiance Ohio, or Endless Mike and the Beagle Club spirit. (These songs need to be written by a scrappy, local level folk punk/rock band is what I am saying.)

3)

Or any American drug war songs — good try, Lindy, but you just don’t scan as well as you could. I love you to death, Steve Earle, but I want more than “Copperhead Road.”

Ballad of Cory Maye, anyway? Ryan Frederick? All too many cases choose from.

2) The woeful tale of my ancestor Anders Olson who was scalped by hungry, uprising Sioux in Minnesota in 1862. Poor Anders had taken the family to hide in a fort, so the story goes, but he went back to check on the livestock and that’s when they got him. I’m feeling an “El Paso” vibe from this one, at least lyrically. Going back when you shouldn’t and all that sort of thing.

1)  But most of all, give me a moving country tale of Pastor Randy Wolford — this guy — who died from a rattlesnake bite in West Virginia last year. Wolford was a snake handler, which is strange and stupid and fascinating enough without any deaths, but the detail that just kills in this case is that Wolford’s father had already died the same way — in front of him when the boy was just 15. Could be straight, sincere country, but something a little more subversive — that would include the foolishness, and the doomed quality of it all — would be better still. I’m looking at you, Critter Fuqua, Justin Townes Earle, Cary Ann Hearst, someone get on this.

  • Gold-PanningA new tragedy on 9/11: this unspeakably horrible CBS New York piece on — dun dun dun — unregulated dinner parties. Reason jumped on this for good reason (my mom said it looked like a Reason TV parody of something). It’s a staggeringly pathetic imitation of something I think is supposed to be called journalism.
  • Seriously, just look at it. But at least feast your eyes on the fact that ever single commenter things that these “reporters” are morons.
  • Volokh Conspiracy post on tacky 9/11 memorializing (with muffins) notes such things might be well-meaning and “[t]hat is why we send thank you notes even for ugly wedding gifts.”
  • My most recent VICE piece was about — among other things, since there is always an exciting bullet point list! — the EPA sending armed teams to test the water on Alaskan mining claims
  • I threw together a little review of Jesse Walker’s new United States of Paranoia for The Libertarian Standard
  • I’ve started compiling a Youtube list of videos in which I am somewhere (if not technically seen). So far it’s mostly just Old Crow Medicine Show and La Plebe. I don’t think I will add weird protests or Sarah Palin at CPAC 2012, because who would want to look back fondly on those?
  • I’m still obsessing over the Cold War, particularly movies about nuclear war. I plan to do a post on that sometime soon. In the meantime I was interested to read this short blog post on Soviet movies about nukes and about the conflict with America. It sounds like there just aren’t that many, and they’re not usually the On the Beach kind of grimness. If anyone has any recommendations for nuclear war movies, send ’em my way, please. Same with novels.
  • It’s not just the Bloomberg piece my brother tears apart below, there has been a plague of complete nonsense pieces on libertarians lately. These include AlterNet on the corporate astroturf (is that still a thing?) nature of this philosophy (the 19th century — not a thing! Nor are this country’s founding documents! Weeeee!) and Salon on “11 question to see if libertarians are hypocrites.” (The latter managed to notice that there are degrees of libertarian and no, it’s not just a word for Ayn Rand lover all the time, but it’s still awful.)
  • Horrible things with the word “libertarian” in the title also includes this Cato Unbound piece headlined “The Libertarian Case for National Military Service”, The author gives it his all, and this is a debate format, but it’s still nauseating as a concept. Not to mention, I don’t think the author is a libertarian. Not that supporting the draft isn’t antithetical to libertarianism (though it is), but I actually don’t think the author is a libertarian. I mean, he’s French.
  • Noah Rothman at Mediaite trashes John Stewart and Stephen Colbert for having stopped trying. He notes that Colbert did a staggeringly disingenuous piece about the  right-wing outrage over the Obama puts feet on desk “controversy” (yeah, I missed that), including a short Red Eye clip that suggests Greg Gutfeld and Andy Levy’s horror over the photo was genuine instead of snarky. Lame, lame, Colbert.
  • Antiwar.com: The X-Files as a purely pre-911 phenomenon.
  • (Right now I’m trying to watch what Jesse Walker and io9 commenters and other credible people say is the best X-Files episode ever, Josie Chung’s From Outer Space. I keep rewinding — as we used to call it — and missing stuff. I’ve seen it, but it’s been a while.)
  • Finally!(?) the final word on what killed old Alexander Supertramp (Christopher McCandless).
  • I will forever defend McCandless, Holden Caulfield, and moshpits, even if they are all varying degrees of stupid. It’s the principle of the thing, people.
  • Actually, I think I like marriage better now, Buzzfeed.
  • Awesome.
  • Interesting — especially since they killed of the transgender teen on Degrassi, those bastards.

And finally, let’s have at today’s video:

Let me pass on this ear-worm to y’all for a spell.

Acoustic Music Works in Pittsburgh, PAWhen I was younger I read Dave Barry’s weekly Miami Herald column every week. I remember it resting somewhere in the entertainment section — I think the Sunday section? Maybe Saturday? I don’t know, but I read first, and then comics and the stupid advice columns, then the front page, then the back page of the paper. (Never Sports or Business.)

Regardless of where and when it was, somewhere in those pages of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review for many years was Barry’s humor column. In it, for 600-odd words, he waxed poetic on the words “booger” or “weasel” and mused about the horrors of toilet snakes, exploding pop tarts, and other things completely up the ally of anyone either 11 or with a particular ease of access to the 11-ness in their souls.

And at some point, once my second generation libertarian brain-washing kicked in and I became one as well (that’s the short version. There were lots of conservative Christian fellow-homeschoolers, then a lot of liberal college professors who helped in the “oh God, not them!” way, as well as a score of different pundits, authors, and thinkers who pointed me in the right direction). And at some point I realized, holy shit, this Barry guy was a libertarian, too! Besides my dad, John Stossel, and my friend Bob who voted for John Kerry the God damned traitor (Bob, not Kerry) in 2004 anyway, who the hell was a libertarian anywhere?

Later still — either online, or more likely in Reason magazine’s compilation Choice — I found the 1994 interview Barry did with Reason. And it was, and remains, fucking amazing.

Within it, Barry talks about minor, but infuriating government money-sucks like the strategic helium reserve. He again mentions the IRS. He describes his generation being “the problem”, thanks to Medicare and Social Security. He has a delightful comment on the absurdity of so-called job creators, and the press who dutifully record that exactly 47 million jobs were created in December. Barry says, “Of all the wonderful things government says, that’s always been just about my favorite. As opposed to if you get to keep the money. Because what you’ll do is go out and bury it in your yard, anything to prevent that money from creating jobs.” And by saying that he — a humorist — demonstrated a better understanding of economics than half the “economists” alive and making money from their dismal grasp of the dismal science.

Most daring and subversive when combined with that economic good sense, he says this:

After a while, the way this country deals with drugs is just not funny. What a waste of everyone’ s time and effort. What a waste of a lot of people’s lives. The way we deal with drugs and sex. I saw one of these real-life cop drama shows, and they mounted a camera in this undercover agent’s pick-up truck, right under the gear shift, and they sent him out to pick up prostitutes.

So the whole show consisted of this guy, who’s quite a good actor, driving to this one street, and young prostitutes come up to him and solicit him. He says OK. They get in. They’re trying real hard to be nice. He’s going to pay $23, that’s all he’s got and they said that’s OK. Meanwhile, behind him the other cops, these fat men with walkie-talkies, are laughing and chuckling because here they are about to enforce the law and protect society. They take her to some street and then of course they come up and arrest her. This poor woman–I don’t know whether she’s feeding her drug habit or feeding her kids or whatever. And the cops are so proud of themselves, these big strapping guys.

It just made me sick to see this. To treat these people who are trying to make a living, one way or another, this way, and to be proud of it. It’s on television and we’re all supposed to watch this and feel good about it. It’s just disgusting.

 

The anti-drug war stuff is a libertarian favorite for good reason. But the prostitution part is what gets me me here. Barry watched this show — COPS, or whatever — and he didn’t root for the the “good guy.” He didn’t cheer them on as they tackled some poor, shirtless buffoon or invited the audience to gawk at some pathetic, screaming loony. He didn’t laugh and cringe at some dumb crackwhore, the way most people would in private and in media. Barry’s sympathies were in the right place, and so was his condemnation.

The woman was trying to make money — maybe not in a good way, maybe not for good reasons, we don’t know. And we don’t need to know. We just need to know the real question: Why the hell is someone getting paid to hurt this woman? To jail her and definitely to shame her? Why are the people paid for by tax dollars, imbued with the use of legal, lethal force, and given great respect in society spending that time and respect and money on fucking over this woman who is trying to make a little money and nothing else?

And that humanity brings us to the other Dave Barry secret of humanity. We see that Barry knows freedom. He knows the stupidity and waste of government bureaucracy. He even knows the cruelty of which police officers are capable. But with his essay on crazy Elvis fans, Barry also demonstrates that even without the “coercion or not” question, he is smart enough to rise above the obvious knocking down of people who seem to be “asking for it” when they dare to not confirm to cool. Like Jon Ronson with his sympathetic, but not endorsing wild ride through the world of weirdos, Them: Adventures with Extremists, Barry didn’t want to sit back and crack wise and broad about the crazy Elvis fans. He doesn’t want to shoot polyester-clad fish swimming in a lard barrel. Those fish never hurt anyone.

So he wrote “Hearts that are True.” (To be found in Dave Barry is Not Making This Up).

The way he tells it in the italics before the essay, he really was all set to write some obvious jokes about fat Southern housewives who can’t untwist their Granny panties over Elvis long enough to realize he’s dead and buried. (And before that he was bloated, drug-addled, and seeping talent from every sequined pore.) But Barry looked closer and he saw the people who cared so much that it hurt, about this dead musician. Intrigued and puzzled, he set out to find the why.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTRzrdkvCr4

And — spoiler alert — he doesn’t really discover anything, except maybe a little reminder that there are a lot of good Elvis tunes. But God is it a killer journey — to Graceland, and to Elvis’s boyhood home, and to lots of friendly, kind folks, to find that unanswer. Barry is subtle and sad and sweet in his writing and it’s just the loveliest thing, this essay. I’ve read it three or four times, but I try to save it up so it doesn’t lose its punch.

That’s what it is. It’s like a really great song you can’t waste. And you can’t say that about a whole lot of simple, on the page writing, especially not the personal-essay-ish stuff.*

Barry is a humorist. I will always fancy his investigations into UFOs and lawnmower races. Hell, his description of Florida could be why I have never been there or wanted to go. But the Barry of “Hearts That are True” is one I want to spend a little more time with, one I wish we had a few more essays by. I’m envious of that piece. If I had made it, I could be satisfied for at least a little while as a writer.

Do you see what I mean? Why I tie that Reason interview — especially the excerpt above — together with the crazy Elvis fans essay?  Why no matter what else Barry wrote, before or since, even if it didn’t strike the same note in my guts, he will always get me on this one? That I will always feel like he understands something that most people never will?

There’s plenty of room for mocking. Even mocking of people who haven’t performed the sort of life-ruining an IRS agent or a cop has done. Mock reality show stars, or members of Nickelback and I am not necessarily going to be outraged on their behalf. It’s fun to scoff and play High Fidelity-snob or culture warrior about things you think are childish, or stupid, or lacking talent. And it’s easy. It’s so fucking easy.

Yet Barry, the humorist who knows economics better than economists, didn’t take the asked-for punch line. He looked at sad, moaning, obsessive people in the South and said hey, why the hell do they care so much about sad, dead Elvis?

And the end result breaks my damn heart every time.

Dave Barry knows how we should treat each other. He knows whose backs we should have: the drug users, the hookers, and the guys crankily doing their taxes each April — and the people who just fell in love with a Tennessean and never would let death get in the way of a relationship like that.

And, since he’s not soft or meek, Barry also knows who deserve to be ashamed: the politicians, the taxman, and the police with nothing better to do.

Can’t they just listen to a fucking Elvis song or something?

 

 

 *(Mike Riggs’ Awl essay about suicide is up there, the bastard.)

When we think about anti-government songs, naturally the mind wanders to the punk and folk genres. And usually these songs are terrible. Three to four chords, awkwardly forced lyrics, musicianship that would make Simple Plan blush. Fortunately, there exists songs that not only rock, but also have a good ol’ fashioned anti-government message. Because these songs feature actual rock and roll played by actual musicians, hippies, indie kids, and punks should use caution when listening.

7. The Trees – Rush

PEART-INENT LYRICS: So the maples formed a union/And demanded equal rights/The oaks are just too greedy/We will make them give us light/Now there’s no more oak oppression/For they passed a noble law/And the trees are all kept equal/By hatchet, axe, and saw.

This prog-rock classic by Rush from their 1978 album Hemispheres is a searing attack on unions and forced equality. The use of oaks and maples makes the lyrics a little too cute, but the message is loud and clear.

6. Won’t Get Fooled Again – The Who

KEY PHRASE: There’s nothing in the streets, looks any different to me/And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye/And the parting on the left is now parting on the right/And the beards have all grown longer overnight.

Won’t Get Fooled Again isn’t exactly a libertarian screed– Pete Townshend probably shares more in common with socialists than libertarians– but the lyrics definitely harken a world in which both the left and right fight for their own good and the people get the shaft. Every third party candidate should adopt this song as their own.

5. Bulls on Parade – Rage Against the Machine

KEY RAGING: Line up to the mind cemetery now/What we don’t know keeps the contracts alive an movin/’They don’t gotta burn the books they just remove ’em/While arms warehouses fill as quick as the cells

One of the hardest rocking songs ever written, and a dynamite screed against government. Rage Against the Machine may be awful, horrible left-wing nutjobs, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t common ground with libertarians. They hate the government, we hate the government. They hate the military industrial complex, we hate the military industrial complex. They hate capitalism, we hate… [END OF SIMILARITIES].

4. Symphony of Destruction – Megadeth

LORD ACTON-APPROVED LYRICS: You take a mortal man/And put him in control/Watch him become a god/Watch peoples heads a’roll

Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine may be insane, and he may not be a lyrical genius (see above,) but he can shred a mean guitar and he hates the government. The song itself rails against the corruptive power of power. Lord Acton would be proud.

3. Taxman – Beatles

THESE LYRICS APPROVED BY GROVER NORQUIST: If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street/If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat/If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat/If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet

Not the subtlest lyrics ever written. But damn are they accurate.

2. Electric Eye – Judas Priest

NSA NON-APPROVED LYRICS: Up here in space/I’m looking down on you./My lasers trace/Everything you do./You think you’ve private lives/Think nothing of the kind./There is no true escape/I’m watching all the time./I’m made of metal/My circuits gleam./I am perpetual/I keep the country clean.

If there was ever a song to describe the past few months, this would be it. Priest may have written the song in 1982 as an homage to George Orwell’s 1984, but it holds even more meaning in today’s ever-expanding surveillance state. It’s easy to imagine the analysts at the NSA cranking this over their loudspeakers as they record your personal conversations. “Electric Eye” was so prescient it was even noticed by Stephen Kinsella at Lew Rockwell.com.

1. Cult of Personality – Living Colour

BLINDLY FOLLOW THESE LYRICS: I sell the things you need to be/I’m the smiling face on your TV/I’m the cult of personality/I exploit you, still you love me/I tell you one and one makes three/I’m the cult of personality/Like Joseph Stalin and Gandhi/I’m the cult of personality

According to Wikipedia, “Cult of personality” refers to “an idealized, heroic, and, at times god-like public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise.” If there was ever a song to describe the past 5 years… “Cult of Personality” isn’t just one of the best songs ever written, it’s also informative and educational! Living Colour name drops Stalin, Kennedy, Gandhi, and Mussolini, and includes a snippet of FDR reciting his famous “nothing to fear but fear itself” speech. A killer riff, history, one of the great guitar solos of all time, a thoughtful examination of the dangers of hero worship and a complicit media; this song has it all.