Goodbye Deirdre O'Donoghue. Thank you for playing Ministry of Fools on your
show, SNAP, just as we were getting ready to drive the moving van across
America from Sunset and Wilton to East 19th Street. It was May, 1989. Robert
was seeing Fred, Terri and I off with a spliff and some coffee. The van was
filled with Lorie's lovey-lounge furnishings and we were set to move her back
to New York and go play at a Rainforest benefit. We were listening to our
favorite radio program on KCRW, SNAP. When we heard the opening of our song,
"Something To Look Forward To," we were very excited, even convinced it
was a cosmic send-off for our journey as a band.
(From L.A. we drove to Joshua Tree, then to the Navajo Monument, to Monument
Valley and the Arches, to the sunrise chants echoing from Blue Bell Knoll,
through the Dinosaur Park and harsh-lit refineries of fossils. From my
lakeside birthplace, La Porte, which I called the Indian Door, thru which I
entered this life, to the cornfields and over the slow-moving holiday traffic
bridge into New York City, with Tibetan throats singing our way to the
Guardian Angels of the Lower East Side.)
Something to look forward to. When we returned from New York, you played us
some more. We sang on your show, did back-ups for Mark Thompdson. You called
us one of your favorite unsigned bands and record companies started calling.
We had a few meetings. We played a depressing thing called a showcase. Robert
left the band and Fred and I almost signed with an independent out in
Burbank. We made our last Ministry of Fools recording, George Harrisons'
"Isn't It A Pity."
Next time I saw you, some years later, I was working promotion for an
environmentally-friendly products show at the L.A. Convention Center. George
Harrisons' sister Louise was doing some environmental work, going to
Beatlefests and Eco-Expos like ours and speaking on behalf of ecology. You
were doing Breakfast with the Beatle on Sunday mornings. I had a miniature
version of Beatlemania-style fun getting Louise to your radio station and
past security and on the air with only minutes to spare on your show. You
asked Lousie if it was true that she had brought the Beatles their first rock
and roll records from America. You knew everything there was to know about
them. Then you played "Mother Natures Son" and "Across the Universe" -
'nothin's gonna change my world' - for the earth. I told you and Louise that
I would get you copies of Ministry of Fools' version of'Isn't It A Pity.'
I hope that on this past Sunday morning, you had Breakfast in Heaven -
Imagine there is one - with John or maybe Julia Lennon baking the bread,
Linda McCartney sharing some healthy vegetarian dish. Maybe Mo Starkey, Brian
Epstein, Stu Sutcliff and Mal Evans were there, as well. Breakfast with The
Beatles departed, Deirdre, gathered in your honor.
THE PATRON SAINT OF JOSHUA TREE
In Manhattan, friends gather on a rooftop to project 18 foot images of a cowboy angel on the wall of the apartment building next door. In Colorado, as the state burns its way into summer, a small group assembles to remember his sparkling hazel eyes and his tender voice. The earthlings?, dedicates its minimalist techno version of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ to its audience in Berne, Switzerland, its’ first without its’ cowboy, to the long, lean Texan who co-founded the experimental rock band. And in Joshua Tree, at his home and studio, Rancho de la Luna, a procession begins. A stone Buddha, a plaster Jesus from Mexico, wind chimes, a pair of empty boots, a small red velvet covered box containing his remains. White sage and Nag Champa incense fill the air as the crowd walks slowly from the gates of the Rancho to a Chinaberry Tree, a shady spot near a slowly filling redwood tub. A giant palm tree, a longtime beneficiary of the leaky hot tub, provides a little shade for the grieving crowd.
Fred Drake has called this crowd together for his memorial service. Some are old time friends and others have not known him for long. Either way, the loss is felt deeply. Everyone present is aware that they are saying goodbye to a generous, talented and valiant friend. Some wonder if they are witnesses to the birth of a legend.
As his ambient music rises and falls, intertwined with the sweet smoke drifting in the evening air, it fills the spaces between the tears and words, the memories and the interrupted promise. If music opens the gates to
heaven, then Fred’s place is already guaranteed.
In the recording the earthlings? made of ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ the monotone of Fred’s voice, singing Chuck Berry’s tale of the young rock and roller with a dream, over a guitar-less backing, reminds you that the dream is being played out with samplers and boom-boxes instead of guitars these days. It sounds like somebody who has settled uncomfortably in the not too distant future, recalling a more innocent time, when rock and roll and Fred Drake were very,very young.
Fred Drake was born in Taft, California - near Bakersfield - on January 28, 1958. Taft is an oil town and Fred’s father is a chemical engineer. Bakersfield is also known as the Nashville of the West. Perhaps Fred first
heard the cowboy singers as a small child. If so, then his attending the American High School in London in the mid seventies was likely where he was first introduced to the music of Bowie, Eno and Peter Gabriel, all of whom would influence his course, then the course of all popular music.
Fred studied music at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, Texas. But his favorite subject was the music of the Beatles. He dreamed of making records like ‘I Am the Walrus,’ richly textured tapestries of layered sounds and surreal imagery, sung and played with real emotion but always conscious of the tongue -in-cheek.
I first met Fred when he was fresh faced and brand new to Hollywood in the early 1980s’, his drum kit in the back of his pick-up. A woman named Terry sat behind the desk at S.I.R., where my band Telekin was in Rehearsal Room D auditioning drummers, advertised in Music Connection magazine. Fred walked in and asked Terry if she knew of any bands looking for a drummer.
When Terry sent Fred into Room D, we assumed he was the next scheduled appointment. We had instantly fallen for Fred and his perfect Ringo drumming. It was not an easy gig to pull off since we were an electronic band, which used a metronome-perfect rhythm machine and we expected our drummer to be able to match it exactly! A silly requirement but it was the ‘80s. The double assault of Reagan’s election and John Lennon’s assasination led perfectly into an era of detached, icy sounds.
Still, we were singing peace and love like The Beatles and Fred liked what he heard. Only later, when the next drummer arrived to try out, did we realize that a cosmic accident had sent us the wrong person, but that he was
magically so right. He and his lover, Tico, were immediately a part of the Telekin family, which really felt like one.
Fred played with Telekin for a couple of years and then left to play with Castle Bravo, a band led by Roger Morris from the Psychedelic Furs. We continued to support each others bands, doing shows together at places like the Lhasa Club, which combined performance art, avant-garde film and experimental music, including the new breed of techno bands wearing their hair shaved on one side and strategically dipped down the forehead.
Around this time, Fred started working at Dominion Sound for Dean Chamberlain, formerly of the Motels. Dominion was a rehearsal space and recording studio where people like Perry Farrell and Fishbone were trying
things out. Even Iggy Pop rehearsed for a series of Whiskey A Go-Go shows there.
One time when Dean was leaving for a vacation he told Fred to record all he wanted. Fred taught himself to record by staying up all night there, experimenting until he got the sounds he was searching for, or until whatever sound happened accidentally caught his ear.
The late night setting was perfect for a drummer who really needed to play guitar, and for someone who had a frightening new situation compelling him to sing. Fred was among the first people to be tested for HIV, when the only place you could go for a test was the Long Beach Naval Hospital. He was living with my sister,
Debra, when he had a hunch that something was wrong. It was 1984 and testing positive was a death
Over the next few years, people were falling around him after using the only drug available, AZT. Fred refused the treatment and continued searching for experimental trials. Meanwhile, Fred’s music continued to take a shape of its own. In all night sessions, Fred recorded dozens of songs, some of which would eventually make it to his first album, released as The Shy Party, Cowbells for Cowboys.
One afternoon while visiting Fred, I showed him and his new room-mate Robert Allan, a poem I’d written called ‘Zero Tolerance’ about the Bush (I) Drug War. Fred contributed a great hook for the turnaround, "You still don't get it, and if you don't get it, they've already got you." Soon, it was a rousing psychedelic protest song with each of us writing verses. We went into the studio and the three of us could feel the magic through the haze of incense and other smoke. We sang ‘Smoke Pot, Smoke Pot, Everybody Smoke Pot!” just like the Beatles may or may not have at the end of “I Am the Walrus.” We even added trumpets and violins at the end in homage to Jimi Hendrix.
After recording two or three songs, we decided to give ourselves a name. We felt so lucky to be up all night doing little Beatle inspired psychedelic pop recordings, we often joked that we were getting away with something foolish.
We decided to call ourselves Ministry of Fools in honor of the jesters who expose the Emperor. Each of us was in another band so this was to be a side project, until we all fell in love with it and it became first priority for
Robert played our tape for a couple of friends and they asked if they could manage us. When we all met for the first time with Neurotic Management, we met Debbie and her cousin, Terry. Later, we figured out that seven years earlier, Terry had been the woman at the desk at S.I.R. who sent Fred in to audition for Telekin!
We stayed together long enough to play in L.A. and New York, record an album, ‘Color While You Dream,’ sing on the radio at KCRW , take meetings with record executives, play disappointing and demeaning showcases.
Once, when we were doing one of those showcases, we decided to tell all our friends to bring cans or bags of pet food for an organization called PAWS (Pets Are Wonderful Support). An angel named Nadia had set up PAWS to care for the animals of people with HIV/AIDS. Fred really loved his black cat, Sunbear, who had come from ‘Cathie’s kitty birthing closet,’ he would say.
We invited all the guitar players we knew to join us at the end of our final song. There were about twenty acoustics strumming that C to F progression. We didn’t get signed but we did have the lobby at Club Lingerie filled with dog and cat food!
Our best gigs though were : A friends wedding which was held in a grand old Hollywood ballroom, with our illicit smoke drifting out over the wedding party as the red velvet curtain opened on us playing ‘Hurdy Gurdy Man’; At the base of a sacred mountain in Arizona, singing for the Native American spirits whose presence was so obvious under the right circumstances; Playing in the living room of a Wiccan jeweler named Amy in New York while she held the phone receiver up for Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz; Same trip, playing for our friend Yelena’s second and third grade art class in Spanish Harlem (we had driven to New York City, from Hollywood, with a Rider van decked out with our friend Lorie's leopard skin love lounge furnishings and Cathie's vegetarian cooking, through Joshua Tree, Navajo Monument, the Arches, then sailing across mid-America, and over the George Washington Bridge, where we blasted the throat singing Tibetan Monks to announce our arrival!); Singing ‘Revolution’ outside the Chinese Consulate after Tianamen Square; Stealing the Wake of Abbie Hoffman during a technical breakdown in the official ceremony.
When Yippie founder and anti war activist Abbie Hoffman died, it seemed appropriate to us to pay homage to this Holy Fool, who had once attempted to levitate the Pentagon to allow all of the third world countries to escape from beneathe it and had protested the profit-makers of the Vietnam War by dumping hundreds of dollar bills from the gallery into the New York Stock Exchange, causing a great commotion. (The NYSE gallery is now fenced in as a result.)
We were told that the planners of his memorial were only inviting guests to appear who had actually known Abbie, but to bring our guitars and maybe there was a chance we could do some of our anti-war songs. The little left wing church in L.A. was packed so they had set up some speakers outside for the overflow. When the PA went out during Jackson Browne, we entertained the crowd outside. The name of the event was ‘Steal This Wake’ after Abbie’s ‘Steal This Book.’ Ministry of Fools successfully stole Abbie Hoffmans’ wake in true jester spirit.
Fred got on a study being conducted by Dr. Jonas Salk, who was applying the logic of his polio research to HIV. With Act-Up, Fred protested for and won additional beds for the growing number of AIDS patients at County-USC Medical Center. We played AIDS benefits at Club Fuck. Fred met with then L.A. mayoral
candidate/businessman Richard Riordan and Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services representing people with AIDS. Later, Fred volunteered for the first human trials of protease inhibitors, which have been the best HIV treatments available, unfortunately, up to this point.
In late ‘92, I was without a home and Fred turned the living room of his 1920’s Hollywood art deco apartment into a room for me. The following spring we were visiting Joshua Tree, as Fred did any chance he could get away, in his ‘62 Ford Falcon, when we saw a for rent sign. Following the road, Fred first laid eyes on what was to become his Rancho de la Luna. Smokey, the wonderful owner of the place in Hollywood had passed away over the weekend after telling Fred, “I’ll see you in the desert on Monday.”
Smokey had given Fred permission to move and Fred repaid him by shoveling every last grain of dirt over Smokey’s resting place, while an exasperated funeral director and a couple of respectful Latino grave diggers stood by watching, before recording a heart-breaking version of “Blue Moon” in Smokey’s honor and moving to Joshua Tree.
I worried when Fred moved to the desert. I thought he might be too isolated and get lonely. There were no services for people with HIV at the time and there was only one place selling cappuccinos. There were no stop lights between the apartment in Hollywood and the National Monument and it wasn't yet designated a National Park. Before long, Fred was known to many as the Mayor of Joshua Tree. Everyone stopped at the Rancho to see Fred before going on in to the Park. Many times, visitors never made it to the Park at all.
There was no need to look any furthur than the Rancho for that desert vibe that us city dwellers need to recharge our batteries.
One morning, Fred said he wanted to get a big stone Buddha statue for the cactus garden. Minutes later, the desert landlord, Gene, showed up with the exact statue and had placed it in the spot where Fred had ‘seen’ it. “I got something for you from the swap-meet,” Gene said. “If you don’t like where I put it, I can move it.” We laughed when we saw the fat, compassionate one sitting in the cactus, blissfully unaware of the temperature. The magic that Fred had always seen in the desert was opening its doors to him.
Inside, Fred envisioned the studio. “The board goes over here and the piano goes in there.” At that moment there was no studio in sight, but it wasn’t two months before British musician Hugh Harris, recently off the road with Sinead O’Connor, moved his studio in and the magic started getting put on tape
Fred would always say at the end of a night of recording, “We started out with blank tape and now we’ve got a song.” Fred would mix all night while his collaborators would fall asleep, one by one. In the morning, Fred would have a beautiful mix for us to listen to over a cup of coffee and sunrise. I never knew where he got all that energy. I was supposedly the healthy one, but I’ve never seen anyone with his strength. Now I realize it was his sheer will to stay alive - and to live fully - that kept him going so strong for so long.
After Hugh went home to England, Daniel Lanois spent time with Fred at the Rancho. Lanois, who had produced great albums by Dylan, Peter Gabriel and U2, had also, more importantly to Fred, done a series of ambient music recordings with Brian Eno. Fred told Lanois that he used to always drive into the Monument, hide a boombox playing the Eno/Lanois ambient stuff somewhere in the rocks and set it at a low volume, always with incense and sage burning.
Lanois caught the appropriateness of Fred’s way of listening, and after they did some recording, Lanois rode his Harley out into the desert, armed with his boom-box and some Nag Champa, to try it out.
Late one night, Fred got a call from someone named Victoria who wanted to come over right away and record a song for someone named Pappy’s memorial the next day. Pappy was the co-owner of Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace and Victoria Williams went to Fred to record the song, “Gone Long Gone,” for him. Later, Fred found Victoria and her husband Mark Olsen their house inthe desert and Fred recorded a duet of Victoria singing with Vic Chesnutt for her Sweet Relief musicians charity organization.
I was working a day job in L.A. while recording some new songs on the weekends at Fred’s when he double booked me with our friend, Adriene, who had lived in Smokey’s building. She was working on a CD-Rom version of the book,“Mauve Desert,” with Spanish translations to be read by a performance artist named Elia Arce. I had met Elia once before at the Rancho, as I was leaving for the city, but this time, the desert magic caught me, sitting in Freds redwood tub, listening to Elia’s voice speaking Spanish, through a tinny little Drive-In Movie speaker which Fred had rigged for listening to sessions outdoors.
Fred, who would stay single himself through all that he went through, gently pointed out Elia to me. “She’s pretty sexy,” he said, as if I hadn’t noticed.
He loved matching people up, romantically or otherwise. He was always talking about his many friends to his many friends, who he entertained with long, brilliantly witty stories of his daily life. He could hold court, standing in his kitchen with a coffee cup in one hand and cigarette in the other, the telephone held in place under his chin. He could make you feel like you were the most important person in the room, even when
From his friend Karen, Fred was gifted an Arabian Stallion named Kashmir, who became his soul-mate and best friend. Kashmir appeared on the covers of many of the records recorded at the Rancho and even had a song, “Kashmir’s Corn,” written for him by Victoria for her “Musings of a Creekdipper,” recorded at the Rancho. Fred’s greatest joy, other than talking about his nieces, was a sunrise ride after making music all night.
When Dean decided to close Dominion, a friend of Fred’s from Hollywood, guitarist David Catching, brought the gear Fred had learned to record with out to the Rancho. Dave had played in great L.A. bands Tex and the Horseheads and the Ringling Sisters and Fred had recorded them. Dave brought Pete Stahl, from Wool, and the three of them started doing an odd and wonderful assortment of electronica, heavy rock, punk, experimental and extraterrestrial music under the name, earthlings?
Dave also brought people like Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age), who recorded his Desert Sessions albums there, with players including Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters). Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees) made his first solo album at the Rancho and Keith Morris (Circle Jerks) brought his Midget Handjob to record.
Dave sent out hours of cassettes - demos are supposed to be just a few songs! -to some record companies and the earthlings? were signed to artist Frank Kozik’s boutique label, Man’s Ruin for the U.S. and German experimental Crippled Dick Hot Wax for Europe. They made two albums and toured Europe before Fred left the band for health reasons. But he loved being an earthling? He loved to play with sound and this was a playground filled with Theremins, Moog synthesizers, metal detectors and feedback on a lap steel guitar.
In Europe, Fred discovered that his Rancho’s Joshua Tree desert sound had taken on a mystique internationally. Wherever Fred had touched a recording, it bore a definite mark. When Tony Mason, who studied under Fred as a recording engineer, and I were recording as Dig Your Own Cactus, we always made sure that a mix had Fred’s approval - or better still, his hand in it - before we considered it finished.
Fred contributed music to experimental theatre pieces for Elia Arce, to films by John Pirozzi and Zan Cassavettes, as well as to Nancy Sowinski's surrealistic jellyfish films.
Meanwhile, Fred continued working on the album he ‘moved to the desert to make.’ It was released on September 11th as Fred was about to go into the hospital for surgery made necessary by lung cancer. His second solo album “Twice Shy’ was described by Fred as a ride through the desert, bareback.
For anyone who hears it, it’s a stunningly beautiful work. Fred combines his love of simple cowboy melodies and acoustic guitar with the layers of texture he first heard in ‘I Am the Walrus.’ The bittersweetness of Freds voice, think Nick Drake or Chet Baker, is so tender, his Brian Wilson harmonies so soothing, his sense of longing so deep, the music on this cd will provide nourishment for the soul long after Fred has lost interest in earthly matters. The beauty Fred experienced in his sunrise bareback rides on Kashmir is felt by the listener to this collection of songs.
Fred, while undergoing radiation treatment, still took the time to attend the sweat lodge he loved, ride Kashmir, think about his future projects and attempt to quit smoking. A week to the day before he died, a friend who had a doctors appointment near one of Freds in Palm Springs asked if we could pick him up and give him a ride back up to Joshua Tree. Freds appointment got cancelled but he didn't want to tell the friend. He wanted to go down to Palm Springs as if he had had the appointment . The three of us went out for lunch at a deli where Fred would have his last full meal. I tell this story, not for that friend to feel bad that Fred made the trip when he didn't have to, but to illustrate the kind of friend Fred was, and how much love Fred had for his friends
Our friend Don said that Fred is the Patron Saint of Joshua Tree. My friend, the Mayor, would have liked a conversation I had with one of the young guys at Sam's Market the other day. He said he was so sorry to hear about Fred.
"He was my best friend," he told me.
In the last few weeks of his life, I was helping Fred compile his master
tapes onto discs for future releases. I kept discovering gems and playing them for Fred. “That’s not finished,” he’d say occasionally. “Fred, this is perfect,” I’d offer back and sometimes he would let me include an
‘unfinished’ track. Some of those are the most beautiful of all. I listen to his footsteps going to the piano, and then some little masterpiece emerges.
One full cd is the best of Freds ambient music, and it’s gorgeous. Not what they call new age music, this is a living, breathing person who made this music. Freds ambient music opens the gates of heaven. I’ve seen it happen.
Fred Drake left the earth as he lived upon it, with sweetness and strength, love, dignity and purpose. “My work is just beginning,” he said to the girl who had come to clean his house that afternoon, the last day of spring. He sat up like a cowboy and rested in his beloved friend Chrissie’s arms, as his best friend, another Fred, held him.
The following Sunday, Fred called the crowd together at the Rancho, to listen to his music, to tell his stories, to begin the procession, my partner Elia, who Fred had pointed out to me some years ago (thank you, Fred), leading the way, along with his parents and his sister. A Pirozzi video was playing, "God is Good," sung by Victoria and Vic Chesnutt in the Rancho, where Fred is seen ascending from a campfire in the Monument, up past the rocks, and becoming a shooting star. The full moon rose over the place we used to call the Monument as Kashmir rode off, wearing wings.
On that day, and at no time since, could I imagine life without Fred. After 18 years with a virus that took so many of his loved ones long ago, I always thought Fred would outlive us all - just keep bouncing back. Anything seemed possible with Fred. Now, I have to hope that anything is still possible.
Now we have Fred’s music, and with any luck, the Rancho will continue, as he wished. Fred will be with me every time I see a shooting star, or a brilliant sunset, or sunrise, or full moon, or the Milky Way. Every time I drive up through the Morongo Pass or hear the Beatles or the Monks or Monty Python. When I see my
loved ones and when I ever get to Berne or drive past that Spanish-style art deco building in Hollywood or play my guitar.
911 emergency for the urgently american
"Moses' anger waxed hot... And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strewed it in the water."
“Life is short, art is long, timing is exact, experience treacherous, judgment difficult.”
"Conscious faith is freedom. Emotional faith is slavery. Mechanical faith is foolishness."
In May, 2001, the world's two tallest statues of Buddha, dating from four to five hundred a.d., were finally and utterly blown to bits by dynamite. These two peaceful stone giants, placed beside each other along the silk route through Afghanistan, were ordered destroyed by the Taliban government, despite pleas from the UN, art museums and historians. Aside from their history of providing comfort to those traveling from the Far East to the west and their immense size and beauty, they were significant because they represented an era in Afghanistan when Buddhism flourished, a time when the popular image of Buddha that we know today was first depicted in art.
Contrary to the opinion of the vast majority of Islamic scholars, the Taliban decided that the statues were anti-Islam, not because they were Buddhas, but because any depiction of a human is forbidden.
"Fundamentalism of that kind is the enemy of any real thought."
One night at the Beatnik Cafe, shortly after the 2000 election, singer/songwriter Peter Case said that a George W. Bush White House would be "good for folk music." I think he meant that having a conservative Republican administration would create the type of dissent that fueled the folk revival of the 1960's. And it may have, were it not for September 11th.
That night I went to the Beatnik. People of all ages were standing in a circle of prayer for the victims, for their families, for our country and for the people who would be made to pay for the terrible acts. When the crowd thinned out, I did the only thing I could do. I started to play songs that addressed the anger, the fear and the sadness that I was feeling. I thought of the old Bee Gees song, "1941 New York Mining Disaster," with the chorus, "Have you seen my wife, Mister Jones? Do you know what it's like on the outside?"
A few days after the tragedy, Clear Channel - owner of 1500 radio stations across the U.S. - released a list of songs unfit for its playlist. The list included some obvious, yet harmless, ones. Suddenly Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" and the Surfari's "Wipe Out" found unwanted relevance. These songs and others were jointly elevated in status, along with choices which have provided comfort in times when far less comfort was required. What more soothing sound could there have been that week than Art Garfunkel's voice soaring, carrying its listeners, high above the "Troubled Waters" we, as a people, had found ourselves in? What harm may have come from driving along in the car, singing along to the words you'd sung a hundred times before, "Come on People, now. Smile on your brother. Everybody get together, try to love one another, right now"? And, what if the Beatle who was gunned down in that city of World Trade, gently dared us to "Imagine there's no countries...Nothing to kill or die for. No religion...All the people living life in peace"?
And what if one of Clear Channels programmers had played "Highway to Hell" or "The End of the World As We Know It"? Didn't it feel like we were on that highway and wasn't it the end of the world we had known?
"This is a political record because there seems no other response to the place we're at now. But I'm not trying to get myself deported or something. In a big way this is the most pro-American record I've ever made. I feel URGENTLY American."
- Steve Earle
Folk musician Steve Earle has found himself defending a song, "John Walker's Blues, " before his album is even released. It seems a DJ in Nashville has decided it's un-American to write a first-person narrative from the point of view of the so-called American Taliban. They say it glorifies Walker. The same thinking could apply to "Folsom Prison Blues," where Johnny Cash's 'character' kills a man just to watch him die, or to "Stagger Lee," in which the hero kills a man in a gunfight over possession of a Stetson hat. American folk and country music is full of outlaws. Steve Earle's song - which is beautifully written from the vantage point of a scared twenty year old - asks us to look at the causes of Walker's treason. Some people don't want questions like that to be raised.
"In heart I am an American artist and I have no guilt." Patti Smith
Patti Smith performed a benefit for Free Speech radio last fall at a mid-town Manhattan church. The city outside was still being reminded, by the scent in every evening windshift, of the smoldering debris at its base. Hope for finding survivors had officially been given up. Patti read her poem, "Notes to the Future," before going out into the burnt Autumn night. "Be the person you were on September 10th," she had said. What concerned you then still needs your attention, whether it’s human rights, the environment, globalization, democracy, free speech...
I walked with a couple of friends to Ground Zero. At three in the morning, there were only a few people there to quietly pay their respects, to take in the sight of - and attempt to make real - the terrible destruction. I remembered being there at the World Trade Center, tripping, looking straight up one of the towers into infinite space. I remembered another visit with a few friends, taking photos of each other from the perspective of the ground. The courtyard between the towers was filled with busy people on their cell phones. It had seemed surreal at the time. Now, the donated movie lights, like rays from heaven, fixed on the cloud of dust and smoke rising from the tangle of steel, revealing a nightmare that rendered us speechless. The gentle compassion in the eyes of the all-night NYPD officers assigned to the barricades seemed to indicate a spiritual awakening had occurred that September morning. White dust covered everything except, it seemed, the hundreds of tiny shrines placed around the perimeter. There were candles, prayers, pleas and notes from children to their parents. Everywhere you looked were pictures of missing loved ones. It was a great makeshift gallery of expression by people who may not realize that their spontaneous creations had captured history.
Bill Maher knew that ABC was looking for a reason to cancel his show. He had become increasingly outspoken about the legitimacy of the Bush election and presidency when a small of group of highly trained men pulled off the worst attack ever on mainland America.
Referring to the U.S. politicians and generals who authorize long distance attacks, and not U.S. servicemen themselves, Maher said on the Sept.17 episode of "Politically Incorrect," "We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away. That's cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building, say what you want about it, it's not cowardly." He didn't agree with the terrorists. He was simply questioning the President calling the terrorists 'cowards.' Bill Maher's unscripted talk-show, rare in televison, unapologetically exercised its first amendment guarantee of free speech and was, therefore, urgently American. It was cancelled two weeks after Maher's remarks.
73 year old avant-garde German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen upset some people with his music long before making the remark which won him a dubious footnote in the history of September 11.
"What has happened is - now you all have to turn your brains around - the greatest work of art there has ever been. That minds could achieve something in one act, which we in music cannot even dream of, that people rehearse like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically for one concert, and then die. This is the greatest possible work of art in the entire cosmos. Imagine what happened there. There are people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5000 people are chased into the Afterlife, in one moment. This I could not do. Compared to this, we are nothing as composers... Some artists also try to cross the boundaries of what could ever be possible or imagined, to wake us up, to open another world for us."
By the word "great," I have to believe he meant, "huge." For a conceptual thinker, who uses the sound of four live helicopters in one of his pieces, he must have felt diminished by the sheer magnitude of the terrorist production. "This I could not do." He later clarified that he meant Satan uses "great intelligence to destroy creation." Still, his words were fuel for the funeral pyre of art and artists who were "burnt in the fire, and ground to powder."
Art which doesn't destroy anything but does seek to cross boundaries, to open another world, has long been under the attack of fundamentalists in this country. While still New York's and not "America's Mayor," Rudy Giuliani objected, as a Catholic, to a painting, Chris Ofili's, "the Holy Virgin", in the Brooklyn Museum and cut off funding until a court order reversed his decision. The paintings' offense was the artists' use of cow dung, an African symbol of fertility. Well meaning as Giuliani may have been, when politicians make religion-based decisions about art, it's a dangerous situation. Just think of the Buddhas in Afghanistan.
When the loss of life, and the disruption of a way of life, is as tremendous as it was on September 11, people will react in all different ways. Artists don't all have the uniform responsibility to see, feel and reflect world events, but some do. What all artists have is an inner responsibility to follow his or her own muse and express it accordingly. One artist that I know, in an effort at calm and continuity, went out and bought a car that day. This would have pleased the President, who was encouraging Americans to "buy, buy, buy," were it not a decidedly-neutral Swedish-built car.
Alot of art, and the potential for new art, was lost that day. The lobbies and offices were filled with treasures, from Louise Nevelson's presciently named assemblage, "Sky Cathedral," to rare JFK archives. The devastation to the downtown area of Manhattan hit many artists personally and deeply. Nationally, arts funding has been cut drastically under the new administration and the usual private donors are tapped out from 9/11 and a sinking economy. There's a chill in the air for dissenting opinion. Attorney General John Ashcroft has labeled critics of the administration as traitors. At his Justice Department, the Spirit of Justice statue has been covered, after Ashcroft objected to its exposed breast hovering over him, offering the Mother's Milk of Justice, at his daily press briefings. (Nonetheless, Ashcroft strictly enforces music appreciation. His staff is required, against its will, to join him each morning in singing his patriotic composition, "When the Eagle Soars.") Secret military tribunals are set up. Citizens are being detained without access to lawyers. The administration is defying even its own party members in its plans to wage war on Saddam Hussein. The ancient land of Rumi's "strange journeys to the ocean of meanings" is about to join the home of Gurdjieff's Sufi Mystics on the administrations' bomb 'em back to the Stone-Age campaign. At a time when history is being decided in undisclosed locations, we the people of the United States need to demand to hear the voices of artists.We need to be able to see pictures that disturb us as well as those that uplift us. We need to hear songs that bond us, that give us strength and that raise questions.
For all of us, 9/11 was the ultimate hellish Reality TV, and for the families and friends who lost loved ones, the pain is still too real for any remote viewer to comprehend. We all need to heal. We need to heal the divides between us. We need to keep our eyes, ears open, hearts and minds open. We need to encourage creative expression, not 'destroy creation.' We need to look at the causes and effects of our actions as a people. We can't afford to react in a way which continues the spiral of destruction. We need to listen to - not cast out - the voices of the urgently American. This is a great time for folk music.
Leaving New York last fall, the plane took me over the East River and past Ground Zero. looking out, I couldn't help wondering if the plane would stay on course. I thought about where I was born, in America, growing up with dreams and daydreams that have guided my life. American dreams. I got out a pen and a notebook and wrote a song. If the plane were to divert from its path, or if it straightens up and flies right home to California, I thought, this is what I can do.