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Reflections

Lately I’ve written a lot about politics and economics, and I have to remind myself that no matter how important the issues may seem, and how emotional the debates become, politics and economics simply provide the context within which we live our lives and make our choices.   If we take it too seriously, we risk losing ourselves.     It reminds me of the old Billy Joel song, “Angry Young Man” from Turnstiles, one of my favorite Joel albums:

“I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness & righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too, I had my pointless point of view,
Life went on no matter who was wrong or right

And there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.”

I see political activists on the left or right, socialist or libertarian, centrist or extreme, and realize that while they convince themselves that they are seeking truth and justice, many are deluded – trying to find from an external cause what they lack within.   Those with whom they disagree are disparaged – fascist, communist, religious extremist… reminding me of another song, this one by Rush and lyricist Neil Peart — “You bet your life” off the Roll the Bones album.

The song conjures up a vision of a young man in the world, surveying all the different beliefs and lifestyles.     The chorus/refrain is a collage of different ways you can bet your life:

“anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist
hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist
rational romantic mystic cynical idealist
minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist

Armchair rocket scientist graffiti existentialist
Deconstruction primitive performance photo-realist
Be-bop or a one-drop or a hip-hop lite-pop-metalist
Gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist

The odds get even – you name the game
The odds get even – the stakes are the same: you bet your life.”

You bet your life.   In each person’s life the true reality is not the power games in Washington (or even Madison), nor is it the ideological struggle between various philosophies.  It’s not about unions or corporations, or about taxes and regulation.   It’s not even about religion.    Reality is about friends, family, and daily choices we make about what to do in complex situations where people’s emotions and perhaps life direction is on the line.

It’s a coward’s way out to hide behind an ideology or a political cause.   It’s a way of avoiding life, of losing oneself so deep in an abstract reality that one doesn’t recognize the pitfalls of “consciousness and righteous rage.”   Life does go on no matter who is wrong or right.

The political and cultural backdrop may change, but each person is confronted daily with the need to make choices on what to do in diverse situations — to help a friend or not, to cheat on a spouse, to lie to a stranger, to steal or even kill.   Yes, the backdrop will change, but to go back to Neil Peart and Rush, you have to stick it out (from the Counterparts LP):

Each time we bathe our reactions
In artificial light
Each time we alter the focus
To make the wrong move seem right

When caught up in a cause, a belief or a sense of “righteous rage” as Joel put it, it’s easy to make the wrong move seem right.   It may be dramatic like the Hutus feeling they had to eliminate their Tutsi rivals, or it may be trivial, like pulling out an opponents’ election signs from front yards — either way, it’s easy to rationalize doing something wrong.  Whenever one is driven by ideology to justify doing things that would otherwise be wrong, that person has lost perspective.

The older I get the more I sense that reality unfolds as it must.   The political and economic turmoil that surround us reflects humanity’s inner state — and is a mere stage for the unfolding of dramas about ethical and moral choice which each of us undertakes.   To focus on the political quest and lose sight of one’s personal connections, friendships and moral choice can lead to a kind of psychological pathology.   It’s why so many political leaders turn out to have personal failings — Senator Craig seeking gay sex in airports though he was a social conservative, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s liaisons with women, or the moral scandals of religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker.   Whenever one gets more caught up in the abstract cause or game than focused on the moral implications of each individual choice, one risks losing sight of what is right.

Greenpeace attacks whaling ships, “Anonymous” hacks corporate and governmental websites, PETA throws red paint on fur, Timothy McVeigh bombs a Federal Building because America’s government is ‘too oppressive’: any time one uses ideology to rationalize actions that otherwise would be wrong, that’s a sign of moral nihilism: anything for the cause.

When I was 11 years old I bought a 45 RPM with Les Crane  reading The Desiderata, written by Max Ehrman back in 1927 – when the world was about to face unpleasant times.  It’s wisdom still comes through:

Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.

As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

(The Desiderata, by Max Ehrman, 1927)

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Stalinist Styx?

John Panozzo, James Young, Tommy Shaw, Chuck Panozzo, & Dennis DeYoung

I’ve been in the process of taking my over 200 vinyl LPs and putting them onto CDs.   Admittedly both forms of music storage are obsolete, but at least I have access to the music on CDs.   I’ve been really enjoying the early Styx albums: Styx I, Styx II, The Serpent is Rising, Miracles (a re-release of Man of Miracles, with the track “Unfinished Song”) and Equinox.    They generated surprisingly good, early 70s American progressive rock, standing out from the start with tremendous vocal harmonies and solid musicianship.

I decided to go to the Styx website.   Now, I’m not one to take sides when a band splits.   They have their reasons.   I really like the album Cyclorama, which came out after Dennis De Young left the band.   Tommy Shaw is probably the best pure songwriter on the band, though De Young had more vision and better lyrics.   I am perfectly content accepting a new Styx line up.    At least, I was until I visited their website.

In telling the history of the band, Dennis De Young’s name is completely absent.  They do not mention the LP Kilroy Was Here, or their 1990s albums Edge of the Century and Brave New World.   In a way reminiscent of how the Communist party in Stalinist Russia would remove people from photos and rewrite history to “erase” a figure who had fallen from grace, they simply wipe De Young out of their history.

To be sure, they mention some songs.   They note that Lady was their break out hit, but even in describing their successful years they downplay anything related to De Young, casting the history of the band as something less than it was.   That causes me to lose respect for the band in its current incarnation.  Are they so sensitive and defensive that they can’t even admit their past was shaped in large part by a singer/songwriter they had parted paths with?   Without De Young, Styx probably would have a history that would read like the history of Head East!

De Young’s songs include Lady, Come Sail Away, Mr. Roboto, Babe, The Best of Times and Show Me the Way, among others.  These were the hits that propelled the band into mega-super stardom with four straight triple platinum LPs and sold out arenas.   These hits are the reason a band using the name Styx can still draw crowds.

To be sure, Dennis De Young could not have done it without Styx.   The band’s sensibilities were a force that helped guide his songwriting — his solo work is good, but having to satisfy the band brought out the best of him.    Moreover, it was a group effort, even early on.

The band formed on the Chicago south side back in 1961 when De Young joined Chuck and John Panozzo (they were about 14 at the time) named Tradewinds.    Later John Curulewski and James Young joined, both excellent singers whose voices combined with De Young’s to create the strong three part harmonies that defined the band from the start.  By the time they signed with Wooden Nickel records (a subsidiary of RCA) they had become Styx, cultivating a working class progressive rock sound that permeates their career.   When “Lady” hit the charts big time, their identity crystallized.   The song was from the album Styx II, but didn’t hit until after the release of the fourth album, Man of Miracles.   With a hit and knowing they had a chance to reach the next level, the band left RCA to join A&M (resulting in law suits) and releasing the album Equinox.    “Suite Madame Blue” emerged from that effort as a bi-centennial reflection on the US that hinted at De Young’s power in writing  seductive songs with social commentary.  The song was a huge hit in Canada, but in the US Equinox was a commercial disappointment.   With only one true hit and increased pressures, Curulewski left the band just as they were about to go on tour.

This created a crisis for a group so close but yet so far from hitting it big.  Curulewski was integral to the harmonies and had been the most progressive influence.   The band did a quick search and found the missing link to big time success — a southern rocker named Tommy Shaw.   Tommy was attractive to girls (the band had lacked that), had an excellent voice (he would actually improve the harmonies) and was a superb songwriter.  His guitar work was above Curulewski’s, but the next album Crystal Ball still failed to attract a larger fan base.

The break out album was The Grand Illusion, with the hit Come Sail Away hitting number 3 on the charts.   From then on the band filled stadiums and released three more triple platinum records, Pieces of Eight, Cornerstone, and Paradise Theater.   Derided by the critics as being too mainstream and pop oriented, Styx nonetheless spoke to a generation of fans who didn’t want the cutting edge “strange” stuff that critics admire, preferring instead a combination of power and grace, accessible melodies with strong lyrics.

De Young’s lyrics showed him to be a cynical critic of the emerging consumer society in Grand Illusion and Pieces of Eight and his the powerful commentary about America in decline in the concept album Paradise Theater is as relevant now as it was in 1980.     James Young could concentrate his writing on contributing one solid rocker per album (highlights are Miss America and Half Penny Two Penny) and Shaw’s introspective and well crafted songs created a perfect chemistry.

Alas, that tore the band apart.   The breaking point was De Young’s insistence on visionary concept albums like the theatrical Kilroy was Here.    De Young’s vision for Kilroy may have been an over-reach, though he deserves respect for pushing the edges at the start of the MTV era.   Mixing music and drama was at the core of Styx’s success.    It seems that Shaw and Young resented the fact that their artistic drives were being muffled in order to give De Young’s vision life.   That lead them to resent the power ballads that meant they could live lavish life styles.   De Young probably did not fully understand how much his success came from the dynamics of the band.   In 1984 they parted ways.

Styx came back for Edge of the Century  in 1990, but without Shaw.   Shaw, Young and De Young were back in the 1999 album Brave New World, but they did not collaborate in a manner that created success in the past.   In different studios they patched together music that sounded more like their solo efforts than Styx.   John Panozzo died of alcoholism in 1996, while Chuck became sick with AIDS, coming out as gay in 2001.   The new Styx still has Young and Shaw as its core.   Others, notably Glen Burtnik, have come and gone in the interim.

All this is well and good.   If they’d stayed together they could not have continued their triple platinum success.  Their sound defined an era, but eras shift.    They’d have had a few more chart toppers, but time would have claimed its prize in any event.   While I enjoy and recommend Cyclorama, the only studio album without De Young, it didn’t seem like a real Styx album with him absent (though Shaw has become a better and more compelling song writer over the years).

What I don’t get is the effort to deny obvious reality and write a history of the band on their website that ignores a founding member who has been part of all but one of 14 studio albums and who penned the hits that gave them lives as successful rock stars.   They don’t have to like him.   They can resent him, be angry with him, and consider him a jerk.   But to simply wipe him from their history reeks of a weird Stalin-like attempt to re-write the past.   They can’t of course — for a generation De Young is the voice of Styx, a web site can’t change that.

Which is a shame.  I want to be a fan of both Dennis De Young in his solo career and the current Shaw-Young based Styx incarnation.  Shaw is a great song writer, Young brings intelligence and power.   But the website leaves a bitter taste; if Styx comes to Maine I probably won’t trek down to see them.

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Those Were the Days

Today I finally got around to cataloging my 234 LPs, purchased between 1969 and 1986.   My first purchase as a nine year old was Touching Me, Touching You, a Neil Diamond record.   Earlier that year my first 45 had been “Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension.

It was fun going through my old collection, which smelled old (I’ll have to Febreeze and clean them at some point), but still reminded me of the world of LPs I grew up with.   Back when I was 9 the price was about $2.99, though sale albums could be as low as 50 cents.  I didn’t buy many until I was older.   I’ve got a hard rock album called Bloodrock II by a band named Bloodrock from Texas.  I remember buying that LP at the Western Mall in Sioux Falls while my mom got her hair done.   I’d heard the song “DOA” and I still remember her grimace when I showed her the LP.

Going to record stores was fun.  I was the first in Sioux Falls to own “Foreigner Four” (got to the store at opening, just as the owner was opening new boxes of records), and the record store was a hub of activity.   When you’d get a new LP the assessment was holistic.  You didn’t just like particular songs.   Today with Ipods and electronic play sets musical taste is song-driven.   Even CDs increasingly are collections of songs that rarely hang together.

I’m not just talking about concept albums (though my list shows I appreciated those).   Rather, you’d listen to what songs were on side one, and which ones were on side two.   The first and last songs of each side had to have a particular character, and I’d listen to see how the songs meshed musically (even if not thematically).    If the album was new, it was also fun to try to figure out which songs would be released as singles.

On Billboard you could follow the album and pop charts easily, and in those days it was more simple.   Now with the fragmentation brought by electronic media there are a plethora of charts and gendres, even though albums do still get rated.   I still remember Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon in the top 200 LPs for years.  (I taped a friend’s LP, which is the only reason why I don’t have that one — I have many more on cassettes!)

Playing the LP was a ritual.   I’d make sure the cartridge was weighted properly, the stylus clean, and then use Discwasher to clean off the LP.   This was important because a heavy stylus (needle) like cheap stereos had would fuse any dirt on the needle or in the grooves of the album to the album, adding more crackles and hisses.   And while some profess a nostalgia for these record album background sounds, in the day those were things to fight against as hard as possible.   I also have some “original master” or “half master” LPs.   They cost about $20 (when normal LP’s were about $9) and were the ultimate in quality.   Of course, their imperfections are numerous compared to a CD (at least after the first play), but I’d put on the headphones and really lose myself to the music on those albums.

By the time I was 16 and buying more LPs the price had risen — $6.99, then $7.99.   I’d often get multiple albums from particular artists – Elton John, Billy Joel, Alan Parsons Project, REO, Rush, Styx, Supertramp and Al Stewart are examples.  Otherwise a few things strike me about my collection.  First, I don’t think any are by black artists (even though my first 45 RPM was by the Fifth Dimension, and “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations and “War” by Edwin Starr were also early 45 buys).   Out of 234, that appears a glaring omission, perhaps worthy of charges of racism.   However, I think it’s more my taste in music.  I liked the so called ‘art rock’ that involved British groups like Supertramp and Alan Parsons Project.  I also was a fun of Midwestern heartland rockers like Styx, REO and their Canadian counterparts Rush and Triumph.   These bands were white, hated by critics, and the staple of what I grew up on musically.   In any event, the collection is what it is.

Second, I really enjoy the cover art.  CDs have it too, but there’s something about the size of a long play album that allowed for beautiful, interesting and compelling cover art.    I also was surprised by how many of the LPs I remembered purchasing and where.  I could picture the original record section of Lewis Drugs in Sioux Falls (on Minnesota Avenue and 37th, near the door closest to the bowling alley).  It was across from my barber shop, just down from Sunshine grocery.  I can picture myself walking the mile and a half there and spending a good 40 minutes browsing the albums (or earlier, the 45’s).

Then there was the store on Minnesota avenue in front of K-Mart (considered a druggy hangout), Musicland in the mall, and Woolworth’s downtown (I recall buying Cat Steven’s Teaser and the Firecat there).   My dream was to have a large stereo system, rows of record, perhaps even a strereo room.  The idea that collections of music that would put my LPs to shame can now be carried on a small device with any song called up at any time would have been unfathomable.

I do plan to make CDs, perhaps a few copies, of each of my albums over time.  No hurry — I have to connect the turntable to the computer, though I now do have my Discwisher system ready.   I already made CDs of most of my 45s.  If you’re interested, click the page link above “My LPs” and you’ll find a list arranged alphabetically by artist (usually ‘the’ is omitted, but I kept in for The Smiths and The Who.)     In 1986 I switched completely to CDs and my album purchasing ceased; none of these albums were purchased after 1986.   One of my favorites is Joe South’s Greatest Hits (I became a Joe South fan), given to me by my mom because she didn’t like his version of a song (I forget which song, but she preferred a Glen Campbell cover).

Looking at the cover art, the popular LPs and the ones totally forgotten in the music world (Dakota or Glass Moon) I feel like I’ve got a little piece of history, a music collection of a South Dakotan rock fan who appreciated good song writers and lyricists (Bob Seger, Billy Joel, etc.)   Don’t get me wrong — I love I Pods and CDs, and would not want to go back to the days of having to store large LPs to clean, turn over and avoid scratches.   But I like my collection.   Maybe tonight I have time to copy one…hmmm, maybe Captain Fantastic by Elton John…or maybe The Partridge Family Album…

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Laughing Into 2011?

“For tonight is New Year’s Eve
Uncork your spirits and welcome it in
Who knows what it’s got up its sleeve
Can’t wait for it all to begin
Stand by the girl with the purple balloon
The look in her eyes just lights up the room
In the corner of her smile
She’ll be seeing you soon
Under a mistletoe moon…”
Al Stewart, from “Laughing into 1939”

This morning I was up at 6:15 to get on the step machine and do my almost daily morning workout.  I hooked up the I-pod to the headphones and…nothing.  I must have left it on, the battery was drained.  Irritated (but already exercising) I had to grab a CD and put it in my disc player instead.  I looked at the stack of CDs, not in their cases, used in recent weeks as background music to my work out, and choose Al Stewart’s Life Between the Wars.

Al Stewart is one of my favorite song writers.   Though best known for his hits “Time Passages” and “Year of the Cat,” he’s got a passion for history and his songs explore personalities and events throughout time — from Helen of Troy to Josephine Baker and even Warren G. Harding.  Given that I find interwar Europe a fascinating bit of history, it’s no surprise this is one of my favorite CDs.   How many artists out there put out a CD that mentions Dorothy Parker, Hedy Lamarr, Hoagy Carmichael, Beiderbecke, Charles Lindbergh, Calvin Coolidge, Lawrence of Arabia, Woodrow Wilson, David Lloyd George, Georges Clemenceau, Paul Gervaise, Zelda Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, Coco Chanel, Wallis Simpson, Stalin, Kamenez, Zinoviev, and Bukharin.  He has a song about Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, and the CD captures images between the war from the Versailles negotiations to the Spanish civil war, as well as culture (literature, art, film) and everyday life.

So, I settled in to my workout, enjoying the music and songs, amazed that themes that seem so “intellectual” actually can make melodic, enjoyable tunes, I got caught up in the music until near the end of the work out when “Laughing into 1939” came on.   It’s the last song on the CD with lyrics (the disc ends with an instrumental ‘The Black Danube,’) ending the era between the wars on New Years Eve, 1938.

The music is haunting and melancholy, even though the song is about celebration and parties.  The mental image I get is of large parties in Paris, Berlin and London, with people laughing and enjoying themselves, oblivious to the horror that will be unleashed in the year whose start they are celebrating.   The juxtaposition between the dark music and lyrics depicting celebration has always made that a powerful piece for me.  There has always been something tragic about the interwar period, an era so full of life and experimentation, yet doomed to end in destruction and holocaust.

Today the song was even more powerful, especially as the line quoted above, “tonight is New Years eve…” played.  Tonight is New Years eve!    We’re entering a new year with hopes, expectations, and perhaps even some resolutions.  Like the Europeans in 1939, we’re hoping the economy improves and life gets a bit more normal.   Few people from Berlin to London wanted war in 1939, and the hope was that the Great War of 1914-18 had convinced leader and citizen alike of the folly of armed conflict in Europe.

It hadn’t.   An Austrian born corporal in the German army, temporarily blinded by a British gas attack, went into a rage as he heard of the German surrender.  He vowed to go into politics and redo the war, this time not making the mistakes that doomed Germany in 1914.  He did the Blitzkrieg into France right this time, and then would turn on Russia, following closely the Ludendorf plan of WWI to gain Lebensraum for Germany.   But on December 31, 1938 there was still hope that Adolf Hitler was like a Bismarck, simply wanting equality for Germany on the European stage, undoing the injustices done to Germany by the post-war Treaty of Versailles.   So most people believed there was cause for hope and celebration, as Europe went ‘laughing into 1939.’

No one expects all out war in 2011.   But there are dangers.   The Mideast peace remains precarious and incomplete.  Dangers from Iran, North Korea and of course terrorist groups like al qaeda linger.  Terrorism is probably the most dangerous uncertainty.   We know they are willing to sacrifice anything to try to damage the West, but we don’t know if and when they’ll be able to strike again.   The world can change in a minute.

One can imagine other nightmares.   What would happen if the dollar’s value collapsed, or if unrest in the Mideast caused a massive spike in oil prices?   Will 2011 be a calm year of recovery and continued efforts to solve global problems, or will the uncertainties and imbalances in world affairs lead this to be remembered in a light akin to 1939 — a year when the old order shattered?

I wasn’t planning to blog about this today; I was thinking of something a bit lighter, either a mocking of Tucker Carlson’s call to execute Michael Vick, or perhaps a reflection on the first decade of the new century, which ended a year ago.  But thanks to my last minute choice of background music this morning, images of life between the wars put me in a different mood.   One song, “When Lindy Comes to Town,” captures the belief that the world “had grown no bigger than a pocket handkerchief.

Everyday is better than the day before it
If I see a rain cloud I will just ignore it
Everybody says it will get much better yet
It’s 1927 and my whole life lies ahead!

Listening to that I thought of the bubble economies and optimism we had until recently.  The era between the wars was vibrant, yet doomed.  Is that our fate as well?

I will be laughing into 2011, fully expecting this year to be one of progress.   We’re planning another travel course to Italy, maybe getting geothermal energy for the house, and dealing with the constant job of raising children.   But there is a whiff of discontentment and anxiety in the air.  Was it just coincidence that my I-pod battery was dead and I grabbed this CD on New Years eve?  Is it a warning?   Will the dangers and dilemmas of recent years come to a head in 2011, and put us on a dark path, at least for awhile?   Probably not, but…

“Out onto the balcony
Come the King and the Queen
And the crowd go wild
He’s a little bit nervous
But that’s just fine
And they’re laughing, laughing into 1939…”

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Workin’ It

Today E.J. Dionne reflected on the fears of America’s decline.  A sense of decline due to foreign fiascoes and an economic crisis was one reason why Obama was elected; his inability to convince people he’s changing course is one reason he’s having problems now.   Dionne lists this as both a threat to and an opportunity for Obama’s Presidency; there is still time to convince people he’s got a way to respond.

Anyone reading my blog for while will know American decline has been a frequent topic.    On May 28, 2008, less than three weeks into keeping this blog and almost four months before the economic crisis hit, I wrote a post titled  America in Decline. I listed nine reasons for believing we are in decline, number one being massive debt and number two the likelihood of future oil crises.   However, all nine of those reasons remain valid today, and more starkly obvious due to the financial collapse of ’08 and subsequent recession (or depression).

Many dismiss talk of decline, noting that people were talking that way back in the early 80s when the last great recession hit.  The narrative is that Ronald Reagan came, injected optimism and a sense of purpose back to the public, and through tax cuts and deregulation guided us out of the malaise and into “morning in America.”   The hope is that Obama can do the same, and rather than “decline” we’re just going through the business cycle.

The problem with that hope is that the declinists were right in the 70s and early 80s, and in the 30 years since then we’ve been doing all we could to avoid having to deal with the need for structural changes.   As Don Henley eloquently put it in 2000, “we’re working it.”   Here’s a couple bits from those lyrics:

Welcome, welcome to the U.S.A.
We’re partying fools in the autumn of our heyday
And though we’re running out of everything
We can’t afford to quit
Before this binge is over
We’ve got to squeeze off one more hit
We’re workin’ it, Workin’ it

Soon you will be dancing face-to-face
With the limits of ambition and the scars of the marketplace
Welcome to the land of flame and fizz
Where you will learn that packaging is all that heaven is

We got the short-term gain, the long-term mess
We got the suffocating, quarterly consciousness
Yes man, run like a thief

For thirty years, addicted to cheap credit, we were “workin it,” getting a bit more consumption and “something for nothing” under our belts before things went south.   The Reagan Administration brought an illusion of economic rebound by starting the debt binge.   And both parties went along for the ride, it was easy.

But what does decline mean?   In terms of the domestic economy, it means losing our industrial base, having the inadequacies of our banking and financial sector laid bare, and a recession that continues the decline of the middle class as the gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans grows as large as ever.   Internationally it is a relative loss of power as the unipolar world of the 90s gives way to a multipolar world.   The bad news is that we’re no longer the clear top dog, and other states won’t give us the deference we used to expect.  The good news is that no one else has clear dominance; be it China, India, Brazil or the EU, every other “pole” has serious problems limiting its stretch.

The late A.F.K. Organski, a political scientist, but forth power transition theory which posits that periods when one power declines and others rise (in relative terms) are the most unstable and prone to crisis.   The country losing power is tempted to act more aggressively to hold on to its position, while those rising will act more confidently, and be willing to challenge the former dominant power.   This was connected to cyclical theories of war and crisis, loosely positing 60 – 80 years of hegemony by a dominant power, followed by 20 years or so of crisis.   It has been 65 years since 1945, which is a pretty good run for US dominance.   And given the economic gap between the US and USSR, even the Cold War was defined by the US as a dominant power structuring the world economy.

The temptation to be aggressive and assert power remains evident.   Pundits have been calling for a harder line in Iran or North Korea, even as the cost of the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan grow.  The US has been involved in almost continual armed conflicts since the end of the Cold War.   Neo-conservatives have argued that the US isn’t declining, but doesn’t have the will to use the power it possesses.

Yet, the folly of trying to remake the Mideast shows that it’s not just a relative decline in economic power hurting the US, but a decline in importance of traditional military power.   Terrorism, cyberwarfare, and insurgencies are the stuff of future military conflict — and economic relations have eclipsed military ones in terms of defining power.  Germany and Japan don’t want large militaries because it will gain them nothing.  Traditional militaries are not yet obsolete, but far less important than they used to be.   Abusing them like the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan only demonstrates America’s new weakness, and extracts very high costs in both price and prestige.   At a time when the economy is faltering badly, this accelerates American decline.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but we have to stop “workin’ it.”  We have to stop trying to keep the party going, turning away from the fact we’ve created a mess and its not going to be easy to fix.    I think we need to cut our loses in our foreign wars, and recognize that countries like South Korea, Japan and even NATO reallly don’t need us that much.  The world is changing, and we have to see reality clearly, and recognize that just as our capabilities have changed, so must our commitments.

I’ll let Don Henley end it, with some lyrics from “The Genie,” the from the album Inside Job which also has “Workin’ it.”:

And the past comes back to smack you around
For all the things you thought you got for free
For the arrogance to think that you could somehow
Defy the laws of gravity
These are lessons in humility
Penitence for past offenses
Consequences, consequences

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Child of Vision

“You tried to be a hero, commit the perfect crime
but the dollar got you dancing and you’re running out of time.
You’re messin’ up the water, You’re rolling in the wine
You’re poisoning your body, You’re poisoning your mind
You gave me coca-cola, You said it tasted good
You watch the television, It tells you that you should.

How can you live in this way?  You must have something to say.
There must be more to this life.  It’s time we did something right.
Child of Vision, won’t you listen?
Find yourself a new ambition.”

(From “Child of Vision,” Supertramp LP “Breakfast in America”)

I’m in the process of reading All the Devil Are Here by McLean and Nocera, giving a detailed story of the financial crisis 30 years in the making.   They don’t cover all our problems, obviously — the housing bubble and mortgage backed securities fiasco was only part of the debt driven hyper-consumption societal imbalance we experienced, or perhaps are still experiencing.   But it details the unholy link between big money and big government, and how neither political party can blame the other for situations they each championed.

I also watched the documentary Food, Inc. last night.  It didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know, but it clarified the way in which big agri-business is creating an inhumane food chain that mass produces unhealthy and potentially unsafe food, while generating huge profits.   The farmers who produce the food are not the romantic farmers of my great grandparent’s years, but workers treated more like fast food or even sweat shop employees than individuals of value.    Companies like Monsanto and ADM achieved their dominance the same way Goldman Sachs and Fannie Mae did – government connections and the brute power of massive financial resources.   If you can lobby Congress, sue critics, and buy off competitors, you can control the market.   Their power is near dictatorial, yet they claim it’s just success in a free market.

And, of course, in both cases ideological capitalists, blind to the poisonous power of such mega-conglomerates, defend business and call any effort to regulate and break up such massive empires “socialist.”   Many on the right have been fooled by ideological bait and switch — it’s either big government or big business, if you don’t like socialism then champion those businesses that claim free market principles.   In reality the two are lock step together, and it’s big money that calls the shots.   If government weakens, big money strengthens.   We’re in a country where large corporations shape our life style through advertising, lobbying, governmental influence, and power over the market place.   From the WTO to the Chamber of Commerce, big money cynically claims free market principles while doing everything they can to use their power to stack the deck in their favor.   Fooled by the “fair and balanced you decide” dualist mentality of US pundits (it’s either business or government, you gotta choose one!), Americans harmed by this abuse of power laud and defend these companies.   Neither party stands up to them.

I was doing my morning step machine work out, listening to Supertramp, and had these issues in mind as I pondered the final song of on the Breakfast in America LP, penned by Roger Hodgson.   America is a child of vision.  The founders had in mind a democratic country, “conceived in liberty and dedicated the proposition that all men are created equal.”  Respecting each others inalienable rights, we were to build a new society, a “shining city on a hill” where the benefits of  liberty would call others to join us.

We were still shaped by the European biases that would lead to the slaughter of native tribes.   We had to work to overcome the inequalities suffered by blacks, who were slaves for nearly 80 years after the country was founded, and women, who couldn’t vote for the first 130 years.  Yet even as the past is full of  moral failure, the vision is pure.   As Anne Marie Slaughter put it in her book The Idea that is America, the values of liberty, equality, justice, tolerance, humility, democracy and faith have guided the building of the US.   America is an aspiration more than a place.   We’ve worked hard to try to get closer to those ideals and we have a long way to go, but the only failure would be to lose sight of that vision.

Yet perhaps we are.   Perhaps we’ve met one challenge that is hard to overcome, and which can lead us to stray from our values: prosperity.   Prosperity seems to be a good thing, every politician wants to promise it, and right now the public is demanding that politicians “fix” the economy so we can go back to the hyper-consumption of a few years ago.  Yet we are “poisoning our body” with mass produced and engineered food, which has led to an obesity epidemic and unbelievable growth of diabetes cases.  We’re “poisoning our mind” as advertisers and propagandists manipulate through emotion, leading to a belief that consumption creates meaning, and success in life is based on what we own.   Political pundits manipulate emotion to create a left vs. right jihadist mentality, in which the real issues and problems take a backseat to the desire to see one “team” beat the other.

By “rolling in the wine,” we become blind to the damage being done.  We’re high on consumption, and become addicted to “something for nothing,” available through cheap credit and get rich quick schemes like stock bubbles and flipping real estate.   Meanwhile we are poisoning our water, and our planet, setting up environmental disasters for the future.  But of course the same big money that shoots down critics of agri-business or financial institutions obfuscates on the environment, accuses scientists of being too “political” and manages to manipulate the debate and use ideology to prevent action from being taken.   Profit today, who cares about tomorrow?   We consume because advertisers tell us that we should, consumption has become the measure of who we are, our identity.

But the dollar got you dancing, and you’re running out of time…

The current recession is real and deep.  There are threats to our environment, and as noted yesterday, the days of cheap oil may be nearing an end.   As a society we’re becoming unhealthy, eating poorly, and driving up medical costs.  Psychologically the consumerist mentality eats away at our sense of well being and contentment; it induces stress, anxiety and depression.   We are running out of time.

How can you live in this way?  You must have something to say.
There must be more to this life.  It’s time we did something right.
Child of Vision, won’t you listen?
Find yourself a new ambition.

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Obama should learn from Lady Gaga

Today my first year seminar on “The Future of America” was set to discuss the values of equality and justice, the next chapters in the book The Idea that is America by Anne Marie Slaughter.   As I was about to start class, students chimed in saying we should watch a Lady Gaga video.   Thinking it was an effort to simply inject pop culture into the class, I resisted, until they made clear: a) it addressed the topic; and b) it was a speech delivered Monday in Portland, Maine.   I hooked up a student’s computer to the projector and we watched this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoqOvFJ5-0c

Wow.   I found the speech moving and powerful, alongside the great speeches of the civil rights and women’s suffrage movement.   Not only is “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” discriminatory, but it’s clearly completely contrary to the values of this country.   Lady Gaga is among the likes of Susan B. Anthony and many others who spoke out in a movement to help the US get closer to our founding values.

The Senate, however, did not heed Lady Gaga’s admonition.  The effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” failed.  More importantly, though, is the absence of the Obama administration from this fight.

President Obama should be leading the fight to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.”  He should be talking about American values and noting that homophobia is not an excuse for discrimination.   At this point in our cultural development, there is no excuse for lingering bigotry against gays.    Instead, the White House, as seems so often the case, shies away from political controversy and tries to play it safe, issuing proclamations of disappointment that it lost a fight it never even really joined.

President Obama, you’re in a position few people get a chance to enjoy.  You can push for your ideals and control the “bully pulpit” for at least the next two years.   Don’t play it safe.  Learn from Lady Gaga, put principle ahead of pragmatism.  Yeah, the polls say the GOP is on the upswing — that’s unavoidable with an economy doing poorly.  Don’t let that cause you to shy way from controversy.  Do the right thing.

So for now, I’m disappointed with the President, but very impressed with Lady Gaga — and my students for demanding I play that video in class!

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Learning About Patsy Cline

One of our decadent pleasures we allow ourselves is to spend a lot of money on a babysitter three or four times a year and drive down to the Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick to see a  musical.   I’ve blogged about a show before, when I saw a superb performance of Les Miserables about two years ago.

Today as we were heading down we were contemplating not buying the whole season package next year.  It’s expensive — the babysitter costs as much as the tickets, and it takes away weekend days (though we could change to an evening show).   Because of our tickets we also had to miss a recital a friend was performing today, something we regretted.   On the plus side, we treat ourselves to great Indian cuisine when we go (though our favorite restaurant was closed today), but do we need to go to every show?   Today’s show, Always Patsy Cline was a case in point.   I had no idea for sure who Patsy Cline was.  I thought she was some kind of country singer from the past, but this is one show we’d have chosen to skip if we didn’t have season tickets.   Today turned out to be an argument in favor of getting season tickets.

Patsy Cline was indeed a country music star in the late fifties and early sixties, though that was an era when the line between rock n’ roll and country was not so clear cut.   Her songs (which, of course, filled the musical) were country, but not twany or silly.  In fact, they were excellent, I loved the music.   I learned that Patsy Cline died at the age  of 30, at the peak of her career (for many she was as big as Elvis) in a plane wreck in 1963.   I also learned a bit about our culture and the music of that era.

To be sure, this wasn’t a powerful or emotional musical.   Often  I have tears in my eyes, or am very moved by the message and emotion of a show.  This time I wasn’t — only the lullaby song (with Patsy missing her baby while on the road) got close to evoking a tear.  Still, it was a very meaningful show.

There were only two actors — Jenny Lee Stern played Patsy.  Not knowing Cline’s music, I had no basis to judge her portrayal of the past star.  But the Sunday Matinee brings out a lot of elderly patrons (I think the average age in the theater was about 65), and I heard murmurs that “she is very good” or “she’s really hitting the mark.”   Stern is far more petite than the real Cline, but has a powerful voice and made me a fan.   The other was Charis Leos, a Maine State Music Theater regular who played Louise Seger, a friend of Patsy’s.  Charis is a regular at MSMT, and always gives a popular, humorous performance.    She had fun with the role and injected the necessary comedy to make the musical memorable.

Apparently Louise Seger met Patsy in Houston at a concert, and they became friends.  The musical looks at Patsy through the lens of this friendship, a kind of “average fan” getting to know a singer who is a real human despite the fame.   Patsy comes off as a lovable, generous, and down to earth star, who is taken aback by the ride she’s on, enjoying it but also overwhelmed by all that is happening.   From internet research I know that she had a tremendous stage and media presence, using radio and TV effectively to create a positive image.   Jenny Lee Stern portrayed that aspect of her career very well; it really worked.

The show not only got me curious about Patsy Cline, but also about that era in US cultural history.  Rock music was just emerging as a force of its own, spawned by country with an infusion of jazz and an emphasis on rhythm.    The Beatles would later push rock in a different direction; in Patsy Cline’s time the line between country and rock/pop was thin.   Pop was still more folk like Frank Sanatra and Andy Williams, rock was closer to country.  Patsy, like her contemporary Elvis Presley, moved that line closer.  One has to wonder what would have happened had she lived.

The musical gave some insight on what life was like in that era, a kind of magical time in US cultural history, as modern materialist consumer society was just being born.  The depression and WWII were recent history, but wealth and prosperity were growing, people were yearning to own homes and acquire part of the “American dream.”   People still saved, credit cards were not yet in use, and the Cold War was in force.   The car was starting to dominate US culture, but fears of oil shortages, deep oil well spills and global climate change were still decades away.   Most oil came from the US, not the Mideast.

And, as is often the case, I returned from the show and started looking up information on line — was Louise Seger a real person (yes she was), getting more information on Patsy Cline, watching some Youtube videos, and thinking about how, had she lived, she’d now be nearing eighty years old.    Instead, she died in her prime, forever young.   When I think about cases like that I realize that we make life too difficult when we worry, stress out over small things, judge others, or expect the world to be a certain way.   You live, and you never know when it will end.   The key is to live fully, and at least in music and image, Patsy Cline did so.

I also feel enriched that I learned about a country music icon who until yesterday was just a name I vaguely recognized as having something to do with music.   It may not have had the powerful message of Les Miserables, but it was fun and I learned something.    Enjoyment and education — that’s what life is all about, after all!

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American Idol

Last year my wife watched the American Idol show every week, ending up angry that the one she wanted to win, named Adam, lost to someone she thought inferior, named Kris.  At the time, a friend of hers bought 14 tickets to the American Idol concert in Portland Maine.   My wife bought two for the September 12th concert.

I said she should bring a friend and I could watch the kids so we didn’t have to spend money on a babysitter.  But ultimately she wanted me to go (reminding me of how I dragged her to see the Canadian band Rush in Quebec back in 2002), so I went to a concert where I recognized only a few songs, didn’t know anything about the performers, and stood on the floor surrounded by screaming fans, disproportionately females under 18.   Now, from this description you might think I didn’t like the experience, but that would be a wrong guess.  While the music and performances were often bland and boring, I found it an interesting piece of American culture.

First, I thought I got permanent ear drum damage from two girls behind us who screamed louder than I thought possible every time Adam’s picture was on the screen.  It was the first time I’d been to a large concert where there was not even the smallest wiff of pot in the air.  Not being a pot smoker, concerts are usually my only opportunity to try to achieve a second hand smoke high.   No, here it was Aquafresh mineral water and soda.   Yet the fans were interesting.  Mostly female, but a wide variety of ages.  From the women aged 50 something who were standing and dancing the whole show, to the older woman behind us who held up a sign, “Adam – A Shame U R Not My Son,” to the parents there with younger children, it was diverse.

Some older couples were there — fans of the show no doubt, who wanted to see the talent live — and the crowd was extremely active and energetic.   It was all as poppish as the show — choreographed, clean, and commercial.

To the show itself.  Contestants 6 through 10 were not very good.  Each sang a couple songs, and none of them really showed the strength of voice or stage presence to even hope to manage keeping the interest of an audience for a full concert.   They’d no doubt do good performing live music at a local bar, but even with massive production help they were utterly forgettable.

Contestant 5, whose name was Matt, was one of the two I could imagine being a solo success.  He had a personality that connected to the audiences, was funny, and seemed versatile enough that I could imagine him doing a concert and keeping the people interested.  The only other one I could see that from was the one I would have made the winner if it were up to me (based only on Saturday night’s show): Allison, who was number 4.   She had fun out there, with a personality that mixed the band Heart (she did do Barracuda) with Janis Joplin.  Her voice was unique, but very strong, with an impressive range.

I was surprised at how boring number 3, Danny, was.  (My wife teased me for talking about them only by numbers after the show — but I had forgotten the names).   I guess he had a compelling story in that his wife had just died a month before the contest.  I’d have stuck him down around number 8.    Like number 6 (Anoop?), Danny was boring, but with a decent and pleasant voice.

The first two were interesting.   Neither struck me as obviously better than the other (and I saw both as weaker than 4 and 5 — Allison and Matt), but they had absolutely different styles.   Number 2, Adam, had a Freddie Mercury – David Bowie thing going, which was intriguing and clearly very popular.  He went for an androgynous look  and the closest hints to suggestive gestures that this youth oriented concert provided.   He was charismatic, but didn’t show the real personality that Allison and Matt had.  I think he’d be very good in a band, perhaps a lead singer in a band that had the style he displayed.   Kris, the winner, was of the wholesome boy band look.   Attractive, youthful, charming, and a solid singer, he made up for a lack of pizazz by playing various instruments and having fun on stage.   Again, his personality lacked some depth, he’d be better as part of something bigger.

We snuck out as the concert was ending, a rousing rendition by the entire “cast” of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”   Most of the others ducking out a bit early appeared to be parents with children — willing to go to the show, but unwilling to wait the long period of time the building would take to clear out, or the traffic jams that would ensue.  We had a drive of over an hour and a half ahead, we bugged out early.   (To be sure, Natasha had us leave the Rush concert in 2002 a bit early too).

In all, an interesting evening.  Perhaps I’d have gotten into it more if I had watched the show, but it seemed very shallow and contrived, clearly more marketing than music.   Yet the people there had fun.   Whole families could share this night of rock music without drugs or alcohol (save a couple people I saw who had snuck something in to spike up their Pepsi).   Who am I to dismiss this as “shallow” when clearly it’s a fun night.   And as I celebrate my Vikings winning their opening against Cleveland, with Brett Favre successful and Adrian Peterson gaining 180 yards, can I really call someone else’s entertainment shallow and contrived?

I realize this blog entry is bland, with nothing profound or interesting standing out.   American Idol is clearly no Father Roy Bourgeois! But bland seems appropriate, since that is exactly what I thought about the concert.

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Pop Culture Icons

On Thursday both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died.   Each were major figures in the pop culture scene, though Jackson clearly played a more profound role.   The reaction of the public to Jackson’s death was reminsicient of when another major pop icon, Elvis Presley.   Like Jackson, Presley had not handled the fame and wealth well, delved into drugs and general weirdness.  Presley didn’t fall as far from grace as Jackson did, but in each case we’re left with a sour taste in our mouths.   These greats who did so much to shape a generation of music could not shoulder the pressure of fame.

But first, the one being forgotten in much of the coverage: Farrah Fawcett.   She came to prominence in 1976 with both the TV show “Charlie’s Angels” and a poster that came in Life magazine that is still the best selling pin-up in history.   She became synonomous with glamor and sex appeal for the late seventies, a beautiful smile, slender, with long curly blonde hair.   Later she starred in a movie based on a true story, The Burning Bed about spousal abuse.  Finally, after years of refusing to be photographed or act in the nude, she appeared in Playboy when she was near 50, still in demand.   She married the “$6 million man” Lee Majors, though they were together only six years (known during that time as Farrah Fawcett Majors), and for the last 27 years was in a relationship with actor Ryan O’Neill.

I was 16 when Charlie’s Angels started, and I actively disliked Farrah Fawcett.  I did not consider her attractive.  Kate Jackson was my favorite “Angel,” and I found myself disliking the way in which Fawcett became the symbol of beauty in the late seventies (rivaled by Bo Derek when the movie “10” came out in 1979).   Yet for a few years, she was the one.   This was the era when cable was relatively new, and had not yet spawned MTV, CNN, or massive television offerings.   You had ABC, CBS and NBC, and this was ABC’s big hit.  So nearly everyone watched it at least sometimes, and the show became a very integral part of the pop culture life of late seventies America.

At the same time, Michael Jackson had already been on the scene for years.   When I was nine years old I started buying 45s and listening to music.   That was the same year 11 year old Michael Jackson started recording with the already touring family quintet, the Jackson 5.  His style, voice, dance and ability to connect with the audience soon made him the star, as their first singles, “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “I’ll Be There” were major hits.  Despite more hits like “Ben” (about a rat), the Jackson 5 never regained that level of success.  Renamed “the Jacksons” they continued without much fanfare.

Then Jackson emerged with the right stuff at the right time.   After writing a grammy winning song for the film “ET,” he put together his second solo album, Thriller just as MTV was taking off.  MTV had started in 1980, and had become a pop culture phenomenon as music started to appear in video as well as audio form.   This quickly became a new art form, as bands and directors tried to figure out the best way to wed sound and image.  It spawned quick new stars — David Lee Roth’s humor, Steve Perry’s beautiful hair, and Madonna’s sassy rebellion.

Of all of them, only Madonna rivals Jackson in early influence.  Jackson’s thriller became an event.  MTV hyped it, more money and time was spent constructing the sets, choreographing the dances, and fine tuning the production.  Jackson’s dance skills had set him apart when he was a boy, he now was taking dance in new directions, and merging the fading disco genre with a new sophisticated eighties style.  Yet music was still pop, there was still only minimal fragmentation into multiple genres and types (pop, country, easy listening, and R&B/Soul).   Record albums still ruled (though CDs were now available), and it took a lot of money to produce and market an album.   Jackson was still in an era where if something hit big, it had universal rather than niche success.   If he had been born five years later or earlier, he would not have been able to hit the pop culture scene with this kind of impact.

For the rest of the eighties Jackson (along with Madonna and Prince) were the unrivaled pop trend setters.   There were other big acts, but Jackson was the undisputed King of Pop, a role rivaling the Beatles in the 60s and Elvis in the 50s.  Seven hits from Thriller made Billboard’s Hot 100, and success continued.  Though by the 90s as music fragmented, eighties pop faded, and Jackson seemed to engage in ever more bizarre behavior, the child star became a caricature.  Still admired and loved by millions, but for a variety of reasons, seen by others as strange and even perverted.

Those of us who do not dwell on Jackson’s scandals and remember his contribution to pop aren’t really remembering Jackson the man, just as Elvis fans aren’t thinking of a pill popping banana peanut butter fatty when they mourn the (alleged) death of Elvis.   It is less  the person than the moment when each were in the right place at the right time.  Elvis, the Beatles and Jackson would all have been non-descript acts if they had come a bit later or sooner; they came right when the pop world was ready for something new.   There are many talented and even brilliant artists, but success requires more than that — it requires timing and opportunity.

We remember the early eighties, the reaction to Thriller, and the take off of MTV.  We recall an earlier time when MTV was the music scene, and pop dominated.  This was before grunge, before fragmentation, before downloads and MP3.  You still took the album art seriously and debated the song order on the album (and what was on side 1 vs side 2).  It was a different world, and Jackson epitomized an era within it.

Farrah Fawcett’s standard of beauty in the late seventies, and Jackson’s standard of pop music and MTV style in the early eighties, helped define an era.  Those of us who were young during that era cannot help but feel some sense of loss when these aging icons pass away.

Alas, like Elvis, Jackson couldn’t process what his cultural status meant for his personal life.   It was worse for Jackson; he had never had a normal life, he had always been a star, always in a kind of fantasy life.  As such, he drifted further from reality.   He seemed to lose himself in all of that, honored as an artist, pitied and even reviled as a person.   Yet I refuse to judge him; the challenge of early wealth and fame is perhaps a greater personal burden than the challenge of poverty and prejudice.  He never had to develop personal traits of honor and courage, his “advantages” left him ill prepared for life.

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