Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Alex Chilton Is Dead

When I was in college, one of the more prevalent songs on the radio was "Alex Chilton" by The Replacements. It was the first time I ever heard the name and I had no idea who Alex Chilton was. Later I learned that Alex was the lead singer of an incredibly influential band, Big Star, in the 1970's that influenced a lot of the power pop bands of the 80's like The Replacements, REM and The Posies. Big Star was the type of band that didn't have any big hits but gained critical appeal and had some very dedicated fans. I have listened to Big Star a number of times and I can't say that I find the appeal. Chilton was scheduled to play today in a reunion concert at this year's South By Southwest Festival in Austin. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack three days ago in a New Orleans hospital.

Today I learned that Alex was also the lead singer of The Box Tops and at age sixteen sang the 1967 number one hit "The Letter." You might also know it by the awesome cover that Joe Cocker did of it in 1970.

Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane,
Ain't got time to take a fast train.
Lonely days are gone, I'm a-goin' home,
'Cause my baby just a-wrote me a letter.

Ya, that song. This is an awesome song and it doesn't sound like a sixteen year old kid singing it. The Box Tops (named The Devilles before Alex joined the band), a Memphis band, apparently heard about his popular vocal performance at a high school talent show and asked him to join the band. They had three top 40 hits, but "The Letter" is the most famous.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Lunatic Fringe and Al Smith

The lunatic fringe seems to have taken over American politics. The Tea Baggers protest comparing the US president to mass murderers like Hitler and Stalin because he wants to spend healthcare to those who need it. We have other nuts saying that he is a Muslim or a terroist or even a foreigner. Now that the healthcare bill has passed, we have Democratic Senators and Reps (aka people dedicating their lives to service to this country) getting death threats because they voted for the bill. This is crazy stuff but it is no different than any other era in US history. In the 1990's we had the militia movement, in the 1890's we had people who feared that the free masons were taking over and we have had over 100 years of irrational anti-Catholism in American politics. I have often heard about how many Americans feared John F. Kennedy because of his Catholism, but I had never heard of Alfred E. Smith until today. I grew up Catholic so much of this is foreign to me. I have been a confessed atheist for almost three decades now. I don't fear Catholism anymore than any other religion. I fear them all equally.

Al Smith was the first Catholic in the US to ever run for President for a major party. He was the 42nd Governor of New York and he lost his presidential bid to Herbert Hoover in 1928. He only took Massachusetts and Rhode Island mostly due to their highly Catholic population. He lost miserably but you could say that he paved the way for Kennedy. The term "tunnel to Rome" came out of the Smith election. This was a hyperbolic term that was spread by his opponent making people fear that he would take advice and/or commands from the Pope because he was Catholic. But others took it literally believing that he wanted to build a tunnel under the White House leading to Rome. This sounds ridiculous today but no more than Obama being compared to Hitler because of his taking the lead on healthcare.

Considering how bad a president Hoover was, one has to wonder how different the 1930's would have been if Smith had been elected. The little amount of reading I have done today says that his election helped for the base of FDR's support and the beginning of the New Deal. After losing the election Smith went into the private sector and was one of the people behind getting the Empire State Building built in Manhattan.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The US Census

Like a lot of people I was a little annoyed a couple of weeks ago when I received a letter from the US Census Bureau just to inform me that a week later, I'd be receiving the actually census. Swearing ensued ... "don't we have a fucking debt?" Blah, blah. I went off and so did much of my friends. But according to Gary Locke, the current Secretary of Commerce, that letter saves the US government a lot of money. Apparently, that letter improves the amount of census returns we get. If a household doesn't return the census, the US government will send someone to the house which is a lot more expensive than a letter.

Most of the questions on the current census form were written by James Madison, our fourth president, while he was a member of George Washington's administration. Two questions from the original form were removed: Are you the head of household? How many slaves do you own? Very little has been added. When were we finished filling out of our form, we were surprised that it was so short. Most of the changes added to the form have been added for clarity.

The data collected from the census is not only to determine the districting and proportioning for the House of Representatives but also for local and state governments as well.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hypochondria and Creativity

I have a friend that has hypochondria, at least, I think he does. I have known him since I was a child and he seems to have a new malady every time I talk to him. Since he is still alive and appears quite healthy, the thought that he is a hypochondriac has occurred to me. He is also one of the most successful people I know from my old neighborhood ... he's no genius, probably above average intellectually and is very driven. I have never heard of a link between hypochondria and creativity before, until today, but it does makes a lot of sense.

I heard Brian Dillon talk on a podcast today about his new book The Hypochondriacs: Nine Tormented Souls. In this book he discusses nine reasonably famous people who were considered hypochondriacs. Among them are Charlotte Bronte, Charles Darwin, Florence Nightingale, Glenn Gould, Marcel Proust, Andy Warhol and three people I never heard of Alice James, James Boswell and Daniel Paul Schreber. I haven't read the book, but in the conversation the most interesting person he discussed was Charles Darwin.

Apparently, Darwin was sickly even as a boy. It is hard to say how much of this was real illness and what wasn't. The captain of the HMS Beagle, (Robert FitzRoy) almost didn't allow him on the voyage to the Galapagos Islands due to his poor constitution. History would be quite different if he hadn't. While on the journey, Darwin only worked two hours a day and spent the rest of the day nursing his woes. He complained about pain in his hands, was obsessed with his nose and had stomach problems. Throughout Darwin's personal diary he keeps track of his flatulence and kept a privy in his study. I will have a completely different picture in my mind now when I see a Darwin fish on people's bumpers.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Text Books

Text books are fertile battlegrounds for the culture wars. Some might even suggest that they are America's culture wars' birthplace. How a science text presents Darwin ... how a history text refers to each of the opposing sides in the American Civil War ... or what context literature is discussed .... are all important issues when choosing a text book for a child's education. The most famous of these battles is probably the violence that occurred in Kanawha County, West Virginia in the early 70's. Kanawha was a very isolated community that was importing much of their teachers from other places in the country and the world. The choices of text books caused a huge chasm between the teachers/administrators and the parents and it got very much out of control.

California and Texas are the only two states that buy text books in a block as a state. Much of the country buys their books by county, supervisory union or even city or town. Because Texas and California buy in such bulk, they can dictate much in regards to content. Talk about culture wars, the difference between these two states, in regards to culture, is wide. With California's budget in turmoil, the Texas State Board of Education has an even bigger influence on this market now. Not that they are actively manipulating the decision making. But if a text book publisher has a choice between appeasing a huge customer and not ... changing a word or a chapter here and there may not be out of the question. This is just something to think about when junior takes his/her textbook home from school.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Roger Ebert

Like many people my age, I was first exposed to film criticism by the show Sneak Previews which started broadcasting on PBS in 1975. Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewed films while sitting in a movie theater giving them thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Since then, thumbs up or down have become a cliche. This show and their later show, At the Movies, have had many incarnations and many imitations since. I probably owe these two guys great thanks in saving me from movies like Tron and introducing me to great American cinema. If not for them, I may not have seen Apocalypse Now as a kid in the theaters when it first came out.

For those who think people who are critics do so because they cannot create their respective art themselves might find this interesting. Ebert actually has some screen writing credits under his belt. The most notable is the screenplay to the Russ Meyer cult film, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which some might say is not quite so notable.

You may have noticed that you haven't seen Ebert on television lately. He has not passed away but he did have a bout of thyroid cancer. He has had part of his jaw removed and he can no longer talk, eat or drink. He still writes reviews.