Archive for November, 2011
One of the great, but somewhat forgotten bands in the history of American pop music was Tommy James and the Shondells. Chances are, if you’ve spent more than an hour of your life with the radio on, you’ve heard one of their hits. They were responsible for chart topping classics that ran the gamut from the #1 hit and rock anthem “Crimson and Clover” to the sundrenched, psychedelic classic “Crystal Blue Persuasion”. They had hits like “Mony, Mony” and “I Think We’re Alone Now” which were made into even bigger in the 1980s by Billy Idol and Tiffany respectively. They were responsible for writing the theme song to the television show “Bonanza” and created the entire soundtrack to the Wes Craven’s horror standard “Last House on The Left”. Yet, miraculously, few people know the mind-blowing story of their bizarre careers.
Tommy James (born Thomas Gregory Jackson) came into the world on April 29th, 1927 in Kalamazoo, Michigan. From an early age, Tommy, as his friends called him, overcame great adversity. Tommy was born with several additional limbs, including an arm that jutted out of his back and two additional legs that sprouted from slightly below his right knee. James lived in this awkward and uncomfortable state until he had the additional limbs removed at age 16. By that time, James had become somewhat of a music prodigy. Before the removal of his extra arm, 8-year-old Tommy wowed the elementary school talent show crowd with his ability to play all of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on guitar while doing a full handstand.
Music was Tommy’s first passion, but it was his skills as a twirler and football player were legendary in the state of Michigan by the time he began considering college. Tommy was a dual threat quarterback who was known for his majestic playmaking ability, as well as the fact that he is the only football player in modern memory to also do the halftime shows for his school. After passing for 427 yards and 8 touchdowns in the first half of a game against rival Warren G. Harding High School, James came out and did a flaming baton routine that is still talked about locals today. Tommy was offered football scholarships to Ohio State, Michigan, UCLA and Notre Dame, but decided to dedicate himself to music fulltime when he turned 18.
Tommy played with several bands but quickly became frustrated with the music industry. On his 26th birthday, Tommy made a decision that would forever change the course of world history. After reading a newspaper article the corrupt dictatorship of Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista, Tommy decided that the cause of freedom was more important then his music career. He packed up his backpack and got on a boat for Cuba that very day. While he was there he quickly became close friends with several revolutionaries, including future leader Fidel Castro. Tommy spent the next ten years working with Castro and an Argentinian doctor by the name of Ernesto “Che” Guevara to overthrow the dictatorship and to bring economic equality to the Cuban people.
Tommy became disillusioned with the Castro regime in the early 1960s and eventually had a falling out with Fidel over Cuba’s alignment with the Soviet Union. He was expelled from Cuba and told he would be executed if he ever attempted to return. Tommy decided he needed to find himself spiritually and moved to Tibet. After spending a year of his life herding yak, he met a group of four American expatriate musicians who lived in the mountain village of Shondelli. While sitting at the foot of Mount Everest and discussing the path to enlightenment, these five men together wrote the song “Hanky Panky”. Knowing it would certainly become a hit, they returned to America with stars in their eyes. Sure enough, Tommy James and the Shondells scored a number one single with the song in 1966.
From 1966 to 1970, the band produced a string of Top 40 hits and became a regular on such shows as American Bandstand. One morning in 1971, Tommy woke up and decided that the craziness and excesses of the music industry were too much for him. He left the scene and opened an exotic pet store in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The Shondells, left leaderless by Tommy’s disappearance, knew they needed to take action in order to stay famous. Using a strand of Tommy James’ hair, the band, who had each received PhD degrees in Biology from Harvard University, attempted to clone him. At first, the clone of Tommy James performed well. However, before a concert in Cleveland, Ohio in 1973 the clone went berserk and consumed four Girl Scouts who attempted to sell him cookies backstage. The clone was destroyed and the Shondells were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole until 1998.
After receiving several letters from the Shondells, James, racked with guilt, closed up his pet store and broke the band out of Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas with support from 3 members of the Oakland Branch of The Symbionese Liberation Army (who were later known for kidnapping heiress Patty Hearst). The band hid in the mountains of Colorado for 15 years only occasionally returning to cities to sign copies of their Greatest Hits album. Eventually, the band surrendered to Federal Authorities in 1987. However, lady luck smiled upon the band when outgoing President Ronald Reagan pardoned them in 1989 because he errantly believed they had helped smuggle guns and money to the Contras in Nicaragua.
The band relocated to Seattle and began playing slowed down, “grungy” (as they called it) versions of their earlier songs. A song they had created in honor of their good friend actor Martin Sheen called “Smells Like Sheen’s Spirit” was borrowed by a young musician named Kurt Cobain for his band Nirvana. Nirvana changed a few words around and the rest was history. James, who had accidently signed away the rights to the song during a late night card game with Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, never got over his rage about losing the song. Weeks before Cobain’s death, James threatened to “feed Cobain to a pride of lions at The Olympia Zoo”. However, James was never considered seriously as a suspect in the death of Cobain.
After the Seattle years, the band went on to various projects, occasionally reforming for short tours. However, they never recaptured the hit making ability that they flashed so prominently in the late 1960s. Sure, some bands have been able to write catchier pop songs. A few bands have even been able to capture the exciting, frenzied energy they were able to create on stage. However, as far as I know, there are no bands that have lived as surreal and extraordinary lives as Tommy James and The Shondells.
The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be: Reflections on The Significance of Teaching and Learning History
I believe strongly that one of the most significant things that can be gained through the study of history is a more profound understanding of the experiences of another human being. We can never completely understand what a person has felt or known, but it is possible to see a vague reflection of their condition. The full scope of human understanding is probably far beyond what a single person can ever completely grasp, but in the search for the meaning of individual moments in time, it is possible to see deeper into what it means to be that particular human in that particular moment. That understanding can grant us the grace that comes with feeling a genuine connection to those who we may not physically ever meet. This connection allows us to know more of what it means to be human. For me, this is the most important reason to teach and learn history.
Often, the study of history is presented as a magical panacea for all that ails the human race. I don’t believe history can “fix” anything. The most well-worn and wildly inaccurate cliché about history is that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Students are often programed like robots to repeat that as a way of explaining why it is worth spending hour upon hour of their time on earth pondering the actions of William the Conqueror or Marie Antoinette. Granted, explaining the deeper meaning of history is a labyrinthine task, but simply leaving students with the veiled threat about how not paying attention to a lesson may leave them to the brink of extinction is hardly an effective means of fostering a long-term commitment to learning. Nobody knows what patterns will unfold as time passes. Studying what has happened is not a recipe for understanding what will happen.
One of the few recognizable truths that the subject seems to offer is that it is impossible for history to ever repeat itself. Sets of circumstances are always unique. Sure, there are similarities between the French and Russian Revolutions, but to argue that history was merely re-running an episode of “The Revolution Hour Hosted by Vladimir Lenin” is a grotesque oversimplification. My experience has been that historical themes that “repeat” themselves only look that way if one is paying little attention to the actual circumstances of the event. There are nearly infinite numbers of minor unrecorded actions and forgotten decisions that made the event what it was. We know so little and presume so much.
By understanding the past, we gain little insight into our future. Even if I magically found a way to absorb every moment of the past, I strongly doubt that I could even know what the weather was going to be like a week from Sunday. The future is created by the sum total of the actions of human beings in each particular moment. I have not been given the machinery to synthesize a trillionth of the events of a given millisecond. If they all count for varying degrees of something, then how on earth could I possibly expect to understand the moment I’m in, let alone the ones that will come next?
The problem with a historical outlook that is built on gaining future “results” is that it obscures a much more powerful purpose for historical study, which is to genuinely understand something that goes beyond ones own wishes, desires and beliefs. Historians often try to bend events into coherent themes in the hopes of explaining large blocks of time. This form of historical shorthand is necessary on many levels, but when it comes to supersede the experiences and events that have taken place, then it becomes a major barrier to the path of empathy that true engagement with the subject can create.
If the goal of learning history is trying to predict the outcomes of a series of events, then it is certainly not an effective tool. However, history may well be one of the greatest engines ever created to teach empathy and compassion. The problem with teaching students to believe that history follows certain patterns is it robs them of the understanding of what a remarkable role uncertainty plays in history. Students often ask why a certain historical actor was so dumb as not to see how obvious their fate was to anyone who paid attention. After all, we know how all the stories end. The problem is, historical actors do not know how their lives will end up. They are making decisions in the moment without the benefit of hindsight. No historical pattern can guarantee a person’s well-being. They were fishing around in the dark just like we are. They didn’t know how they would die, they didn’t know what their actions would mean and they certainly didn’t have the benefit being able to walk away from their stories when events became too challenging. We don’t either. This basic human truth should be the bedrock of any exploration of history.
To attempt to fully comprehend meaning of even one moment of a human life is an awe-inspiring goal. Even with the comparatively small amount of information we have about the lives of our fellow travelers, when we can see a flicker of their humanity we have granted ourselves the wonderful kinship that comes with knowing that we are not making our journey alone. Humans can survive perfectly well without studying history. The past, however, can teach us so much more than simply how to survive. It offers us an amazing window of insight into the miraculous complexities of what it means to be alive. This understanding is history’s truest gift to us. This is why it is worthwhile to learn about the past.
Posted by Keith Spillett in Articles I Probably Shouldn't Have Bothered Writing on November 10, 2011
Every once and a while the free market really gets it right. Dippin’ Dots, the mothball shaped ice cream that took America by storm back in the 1990s, has finally, mercifully filed for bankruptcy. The fact that 2,000 of these stands exist today is a shaming blight upon the wooly, pock marked face of consumer capitalism. I am not much of a dancer, but I need to admit that I actually leaped out of my seat and did a fair Michael Flatley impression when I heard that this frozen pox was nearing eradication.
Anyone who has had the misfortune of having been around me when walking by a Dippin’ Dots stand has been subjected to a mile-a-minute tirade about how “the rat poison of the future should be grinded into the dust of the past” (as I told my wife on our second date). I actually got in a shouting match with a Dippin’ Dots franchise owner in Poughkeepsie, New York that ended with me nearly getting maced by a mall cop.
What bares further investigation is surely not the uselessness of the product, for who among us can actually defend such swill, but my disposition on the matter. With famine, war, pestilence and torture all more obvious candidates for my vitriol, what really rankles me is the existence of these pellets of shame.
To be fair, I can’t even be certain I’ve ever eaten the things. They actually might be quite good. There is just something about them that makes my internal organs weep. I feel insulted by their very existence.
I’m certainly not harboring some deep dissatisfaction with the concept of frozen desserts. I could ingest nothing but ice cream, Italian ices and Sno Cones from now until when my first social security check comes in and be perfectly content. It’s not like I had to be hospitalized with an ice cream headache for three weeks or got hit by a Good Humor van when I was 11 and have some odd physical aversion to this sort of thing. I practically sweat gelato.
After almost four decades of being offered a shameful array of stuff that I could not find a use for in a million lifetimes, I think this may be the Dot that broke the camels back. How many Sham-Wows, how many Pillow Pets, how many steel-belted, titanium, rust-proofed, icy cold scams can a man endure before he reached the point of feeling genuine, hot-blooded scorn? Every time one of these asinine businesses get started in the name of The American Dream, a little part of me dies.
If the little Chamber of Commerce member in your mind has started to spew rhetorical vomit about how having 67 thousand different brands of oatmeal is good for the economy and, thus, America, tell him that while this stuff may be good if your goal is to create a society who’s members all have amassed personal debt in excess of the Gross National Product of Peru it might not be the best use of their time and collective brain power.
I’m a communist, you say. Fine! At least Lenin never had to sit through toothpaste commercials. If what passes for communism in America is being ill-disposed to living in a 24 hour a day flea market that has been approved by 9 out of 10 dentists, then sign me up.
Truthfully, my real anger is at the feeling of having to participate in the market at nearly all moments. Sure, I could go sit up on a mountaintop and breathe fresh air all day, but most people’s lives put them face-to-face with The Never Ending Hustle. In The Great Gatsby, the billboard of Dr. TJ Eckleburg was a façade that hid a part of the soulless, desolate valley of ashes. The billboards of today merely serve the purpose of hiding more billboards.
I can’t get five steps away from my door without some hackneyed inducement to participate in the ever-glorious marketplace of individual freedom. Sometimes they are gentle, sometimes they are rough, sometimes they play on my nerves, sometimes they tug on my heartstrings, but the pull is interminable.
Sure, I don’t have to buy whatever this or that company is selling, but I do have to make an effort to tune it out. Constantly. And while that effort is minimal, the collective weight of it has worn me down. After all, you can be crushed under the weight of a hundred tons of feathers just as you can be crushed under a hundred tons of lead.
At some point along the line, a very real feeling of insurmountable weariness has crept into my mind. Like when you are trying to fall asleep and different vague, unconnected noises continue to awaken you right when you have become completely calm. Eventually, you can be annoyed into the belief that peace and calm are impossible.
I blame you Dippin’ Dots, because getting my arms around a problem this big and pervasive doesn’t seem feasible. I’ve forgotten how to take to the streets and I don’t know the mailing address of my duly elected state representative. I only know the language of futility and those types of words don’t move mountains. I might not be able stop the endless flow of sugar-coated avarice that flows unabated though our collective veins but I sure know how to smile when the axe of the free market lands squarely on the neck of a hated foe.
Thanks to good old-fashioned American knowhow and the virtues of commerce, I can be assured that five even uglier heads will sprout up where there once was only one. That problem, however, is for another day. Tonight when I lay my head down on a pillow, I can rest easy knowing that at least one stupid idea is being vanquished from our world. Sometimes, that’s enough.
This is the sixth in a series of articles analyzing the lyrics from the 1993 Carcass album “Heartwork”.
This Mortal Coil
Tearing down the walls
Breaching frontiers, unlocking the gates
To a new world disorder
A fresh balance of terror, the equilibrium of hate/
All flesh entwined, in the equality of pain
Archaic nescience unleashed
Entrenched, a bitter legacy
Tempered in mental scars
All flesh entwined in mortal equality
Tangled mortal coil
Twisted and warped
Tangled mortal coil
“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western World is imploding. During the mechanical ages, we extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system in a global embrace….Any extension, whether of skin, hand or foot, affects the whole psychic and social complex.”
If we are not here in the traditional sense, then where are we? If our world has transformed from one of fragmented nations to a global village, what does that mean for us, the humans that inhabit such a world? Today’s human is locked into a nearly constant struggle for identity, attempting to at once be an individualized autonomous self and an interconnected part of an ever-shrinking world. We are engaged in a process of knocking down many of the walls that for generations have kept us separate. In this moment of great potential, one is left to wonder whether we will seize the opportunity for global embrace or build a new set of seemingly insurmountable walls. This question is the echo of our footstep as we wander headlong into the new frontier.
If the self is no longer locked in its corporeal shell and has, indeed, reached through the boundaries of the body and into the never-ending stratosphere, what does that really mean for us? After all, I look at myself in the mirror and am still contained in a structure remarkably similar to that once inhabited by my ancestors. Yet, my mind and spirit reach out beyond the fleshy walls of the Self and live an all-at-once, timeless existence in the technological superstructure that is fast becoming our world. Or, more precisely, what does it mean that these ideas are flowing out of my mind, through, my fingers, through the ethers, into your brain almost simultaneously and yet I’ve barely moved? It is not as simple as thinking things have changed from one form to another. Rather, it is significant to understand that we are both individualized fragmented bodies and the all of the universe. We are currently living in an age where we are consistently faced with being two things that seemingly cannot inhabit the same space. How can a thing be finite and infinite at the same time? More importantly for our purposes, how does a being reconcile the contradictions and stresses that arise from living in multiple realities in the same moment?
There is no easy answer for this. The lyrics to this song are a reflection of the pain one might believe itself to feel when coming to terms with a question of this size and scope. The quest for identity under such bizarre conditions could well lead someone to a feeling of being enraged and overwhelmed. It’s not hard to imagine the “archaic nescience unleashed” to be the hand of the Self reaching back through time clutching at any answer that spares us the uncertainty of not being able to fully comprehend the world. The coil on which Shakespeare so eloquently described us as living upon does not, upon first glance, seem built for multi-dimensional travel. The connection of seven billion spines seems to be an inexplicable tangle from which we can never escape, but is it?
Maybe trying to find an answer is the larger problem we face. If we believe in the need for a solution, we must also believe in the existence of the problem. Maybe all there is to do is to call the thing what it is. The world offers us an impossible contradiction. Even in the confusion created by this idea, we are still given the power to say, “Yes, both are true in this moment.” Is it impossible? Yes. But so too are the bizarre terms of our existence. There is no rational context under which we can properly understand what it means to be alive. In stopping the search and accepting an answer that defies all we think we know, we might well be able to begin understanding a question whose vastness reaches beyond eternity and whose minuteness is less than the size of one atom of our physical body.
Globalization, on some level, is a metaphorical magnification of the quest for spiritual identity faced by all humans. It is the human condition writ large in a way that can be directly observed by anyone willing to ponder the meaning of the Self. It broadcasts the eloquence of our contradiction in a way that is both tangible and boundless. While our immediate reaction to the question may be fear, it also offers a sublime opportunity for self-awareness. This form of awareness may feel like a curse at times, but it is a gift of the highest order. It is nothing less than a window into the deepest recesses of our communal soul.
What does the world matter if I can’t even control this one thing? Here I am standing in front of my car. It’s a beautiful Sunday morning. Birds are chirping, a light breeze is softly cascading colored leaves everywhere I look….all is calm. Except me. The world takes no note of the maelstrom of tension swirling ravenously through my gut. It simply is. I, however, am not. Not in this moment.
Here I am on a Sunday morning with all the love and light a person can want around them. My two beautiful children are smiling and playing, my wife is looking on brimming with joy, and then there’s me. The Angel of Death photo shopped into a Norman Rockwell painting. Pacing like a wild animal, cursing under my breath, spewing lava, fist fighting the air. And why do I sacrifice my sanity on the altar of rage on this lovely day? Am I reacting to some dreadful piece of life shattering news? Is this childish paroxysm my way of protesting some grave, callous injustice the world has decided to pay towards a friend or loved one? Of course not. I have decided to transform into a human blowtorch because I have lost my keys.
Me: Where are they? Where are they! Where are they????? WHERE are they?
Shannon: Where did you have them last?
Me: If I knew that, I’d know where they are.
Shannon: (calmly responding with compassion and understanding to my state of determined stupidity) Well, have you checked you pants from yesterday?
Me: Yes. And the dresser. And the coffee table. And inside my pants from two days ago. And in the closet! And on the book shelf!!! And in the oven!!!! And in my shoes!!!!! And in an elephant’s pajamas!!!!!!!! And on the moon!!!! And in the entire state of Wyoming!!!!!
Shannon: (channeling a level of patience that would have made Job look neurotic) Keith, breathe. It’s not a big deal. We always find them.
Me: But why do I have to lose them! It’s ridiculous! I must spend half of my life losing my keys!!!! I don’t even need to go anywhere! I just have to get inside the car!!!! My work is in there. I need to get to my work so I can finish my work so I don’t have to worry about my work! That way I can stay calm!!!!!! Don’t you see!?!!?!
Shannon: It’s fine. We’ll get in there today. Don’t worry about it.
Me: You don’t understand! If I don’t finish my work, I’ll fall behind. If I fall behind, I won’t be able to get the things I need done for next week done! Then, I’ll fall further behind. It’ll create a nearly endless chain of events that cannot be stopped. Like a runaway train!!!! Eventually, I will collapse under the weight of all these things that I haven’t done! I’ll lose my ability to function. I’ll start walking around parking lots at 2 o’clock in the morning humming the theme from Bonanza. I’ll lose the ability to enjoy meals!!! I’ll become one of those George Romero looking zombie like creatures that only shaves one half of his face and quotes Finnegan’s Wake all the time!!! I won’t be able to hold down a steady job!!! I’ll be an outcast! A social parasite! (In a tone of self-mockery) “Hey look, there’s Keith Spillett. Nice fellow, then one day he couldn’t get into his car. Now he’s a penniless loser who spends most of his time collecting rocks that are shaped like former Presidents. Too bad, huh!”
Shannon: Whoa. Slow down. It doesn’t mean all that honey. We’ll get in your car.
Me: Sure it does! If I cannot complete a simple task like finding my keys, what does that say about me as a person? What sort of idiot can’t even find a set of keys! I can’t even….Maybe I should smash the window? Like in one of those movies. I’ll wrap a towel around my hand. That’s it!
Shannon: That’s really not a good idea. Just breathe for a minute.
Me: I don’t want to breathe! Not without my keys! I am sick of not being able to control things! I hate the feeling of constant confusion, constant disorganization, and constant waiting for something else to go missing! ARGGGGGGGH!!!!
Shannon: Well, have you tried the door?
Me: Tried the door! Tried the door? You mean just tried to open it! I have locked my door every time I have left my car since I was 15 years old. The chances of the car door being open are somewhere in the order of 12 billion to 1. I’d be better off taking all of our savings and betting it on the Cubs to win the World Series next year! Or buying a Dippin’ Dots franchise! Or buying Greek government bonds! There is not even an infinitesimal chance in the universe that the door is unlocked. SEE!!(I quickly snatch at the door handle. The car door opens with as much sarcasm as an inanimate object is capable of)
Shannon: (smiling without a trace of “I told you so” on her face) Well…good.
Me: Yeah. (relief floods my body) Yeah. Okay. Yeah.
Shannon: See, it’s never as bad as you think.
Me: You’re right. You’re totally right. Thank you so much for your patience. (I stop and hug Shannon filled with gratefulness) Now, have you seen my wallet?