Sunday, August 30, 2015

Laird Baldwin, RIP

I got a phone call from Layo Baldwin on Friday night. I hadn't heard from Laird in a good while. Last I'd heard he and Layo had decided to move down to near Charlotte. He was going to wait for a liver transplant. Things had gotten worse, and it was time to deal with it. He'd had liver issues since he and I had renewed our long-term friendship back around 2000 or so. He was living in Florida then, but planning a move to Wytheville, VA. He'd taken up or been polishing banjo-playing, and one perk of Wytheville was, the joint was plumb full of banjos. I can't remember exactly how we re-connected, perhaps he wrote the Early Blurs website. At the time I was working on a CD with Libby, and also on a solo CD, all songs, no fiddling. A couple of years into our conversation he wrote this view of the solo disc and posted it on Amazon, where I was hawking the thing for a while:

BILL HICKS: THE PERFECT GIG (Admit One Records 1001, released April 2002)

"Kick Me, I'm a Tree!" 

That's what Marshall Hay, the guy that brought Jack Kerouac to Chapel Hill, N.C. back in '66, said  one night on his way back to his dorm after a few beers at "Harry's Bar and Grill". How did he meet  Kerouac? Marshall was hitch hiking. Kerouac was, well, on the road.  They met, paths converged. Marshall told Kerouac about the literary scene at Chapel Hill - how his fans would lay their drugs, booze and bodies at his feet, and the self-ravaged poet could not resist the flattery. So Jack Kerouac passed through a few of our lives shortly before he left the earth. 

Live in a bar/coffee house in Chapel Hill, about 35 years later, Bill Hicks recalls and invokes this visit in "Wet July" (track 6), in the same way that he ruminates over less significant events - some real, some  not - all authentic, in which (if you are good at reading between the lines) you can find little pearls of wisdom. Usually unspoken. Kind of like meditating on that old Zen Koan: "What is the sound of a solid iron flute, played upside down?" Answer: "Beanpaste that smells like beanpaste is no good."

This collection of songs (perhaps poems set to music is more correct) is not a pretty, slick piece of  Nashville packaging. It is neither for the faint of heart, nor the weak of will. You have to work hard  to pry out those oysters. But each is guaranteed to have a pearl. Not that I've been clever enough to  find them all... The upside to this is that you can listen to the songs over and over and over, as you slip into the warm nocturnal Southern breeze blowing through the Spanish Moss of Bill's brain. Or let your feet  play in the sandy beaches at Okrakoke, where Bill and his musician-wife Libby spend a lot of time  these days. Bill holds steadfastly to many of the ideals we all held so true back when I knew him at Chapel Hill in the sixties, the essence of which, I believe, can be summarized thusly: the journey is what It is all about. The question is the answer. And there are moments of vision in the most unexpected situations, (like "The SOB in the Carvel Truck" that passes him on the right and makes him swerve  into the twilight zone) that reveal a glimpse of the truth and beauty of our ephemeral lives, which is always right there under our noses, just out of reach, or maybe not.

There are a few tunes that are just pure fun like "Uncle Charlie's Revenge" and "Play 'Rocky Top'"  and others, that you just have to listen to again and again before they make much sense. His "dissertation on bars" ends with "Last Call", which, in my humble opinion, buggers all description. Here is the third verse, without the snakelike guitar accompaniment:

"So anyhow one night a drifter came in 
And swayed down the aisle in his long cowboy coat, 
His spurs making tiny Oooommmm-ish like notes, 
And the moon making sparkles on his buckles and irons, 
And he sat down beside me and ordered a brew. 
"How far is this engine takin' this rig?" 
I asked him--a kind of a "howdy" I guess-- 
And he looked at me gently, like Clint Eastwood would, 
And drew his revolver, gave the chambers a whack 
And said with a smile, 'It's a circular track.'"

Though Bill is one of my favorite old time fiddlers, no, my favorite (but don't tell that to whomever I'm playing [banjo] with these days), he plays strictly guitar on this album. His rhythm guitar work is quite amazing. Not only does he find the soul of each poem/song, he can cook that stuff up like gumbo. I had to email him to ask him if it was only one guitar. It is. As you approach this album keep in mind, this guy is a philosopher, a poet, and an artist. This is the  real Bill Hicks. He has dared to bare his soul. And, I think, it is his honesty and integrity that does  not want to make it too easy for the listener.
 "Comparisons are odious", as a quote, is attributed in Bartlett's to Sir John Fortescue, who  apparently said it first, back in the 15th century. The important thing is not who said it first, but what  it means. In Bill's case it means it would be odious to compare his song/poems to anyone else's  writing, Kerouac notwithstanding, because of the unique quality of his art. 
[June 10, 2002, Reviewer: Laird Baldwin from New River Valley, Virginia]

I've never received a more wonderful review. A couple of years ago I contacted Laird in the hopes that he might help me produce a second CD--I've written a lot of songs since that first one, and I had home-recorded tracks of more than enough. I think I just burned out his ears though, and maybe that's one of the many ways times change. The project stalled, is still stalled. One o'these days maybe...

Through the years Laird and I talked a lot about music and politics. We pretty much agreed on everything, except the idea of voting for Nader in 2000 out of disgust with the other choices. I've talked about that here before. So anyways, it crossed my mind a few times that I should write Laird, see how the medical front was going, and that thought was sort of cancelled by the other one: he'll let me know, don't bother him right now.

So Layo called. Laird had died of heart failure last fall, waiting for that transplant. She apologized for not letting me know, but she'd been too devastated to try to find my address. I told her several times that mattered not at all, and I think that took ok. I'll miss his opinions on Trump, and on Hillary for that matter. These are very weird times in our politics, but then Laird rode the weird politics rails all his adult life.

We met in '65 or so, at UNC. He was the younger brother of a friend of mine, Stu Baldwin. He didn't like UNC much, though he was plenty smart. I remember the last time I saw him, back then. We'd walked down some tracks in Carrboro and found ourselves in a strange kind of clay-walled canyon, which is no doubt gone now given how Carrboro has been developed to the hilt in the subsequent 50 years. Laird was pondering his future. He wanted to drop out. He didn't want to end up in Vietnam. (I'd held on to my student deferment so tight the eagle was grinning, and ended up keeping it till I got a miraculously high draft number, making Vietnam a moot issue for me short of the black-pajama-ed hoards showing up east of the Appalachians.)

Laird opted for the Coast Guard. But then he'd raised his hand when some non-com asked for anyone interested in the field of medic. Laird's idea was, being a medic would be helping people. They shipped him straight to Lejeune and trained him with the leatherneck boys, bayonetting straw dummies, ready to take every hill in sight. He was going to Vietnam anyway. So Laird got on a bus and went to Canada. A lot of people who didn't want to go to Vietnam were doing that, but since he was in the military, it was a much more serious decision (see. e.g., Dick Cheney and his deferments). Laird ended up almost stateless, a man without a country. He got to Europe, where at some point he met Layo. And then Jimmy Carter finally ended this particular Vietnam chapter by pardoning the men who had done what Laird did, and Laird got to come home, with his wife.

All this happened since I'd seen him. So we talked back and forth on email, and met at a couple of fiddler's conventions back when he had a band, and he set up a nice gig for Libby and I in Wytheville, and he and Layo came down here to the cabin once to visit, where I made them my spectacular black bean chili rellenos.

Laird and I shared that other memory too. The time Jack Kerouac came to Chapel Hill. That was a neat thing. He was my corroboration. It really happened, that afternoon in the old Tempo Room, a basement bar full of writers and educated drunks. Later on it turned into some kind of dress shop, and Tom Banks had died of something or other. Laird and I retold the amazing story to each other, Marshall Hay hitching back to Chapel Hill, Kerouac picking him up! It was a different time, particularly if you ignored the sit-ins, as Kerouac did.

Layo is living for the present with their son, Arlo. She is thinking of moving back to Germany. It's strange and sad for her, to be in Wytheville, Va. I have no doubt of that.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

All You Need Is A Scapegoat

The Supreme Court noted in its majority opinion that the importance of birthright citizenship was indicated by the fact that it was codified as an amendment, rather than as a regular law.

"The same congress, shortly afterwards, evidently thinking it unwise, and perhaps unsafe, to leave so important a declaration of rights to depend upon an ordinary act of legislation, which might be repealed by any subsequent congress, framed the fourteenth amendment of the constitution," the justices wrote.

[Walter]Dellinger warned that people who want to get rid of birthright citizenship should think more carefully about the implications.

"Today, it serves a very important function, that no one can go back to previous generations and find out that your claim to be a citizen is faulty because your grandparent or great-grandparents was not lawfully in the country," he said. "That's the critical importance of wiping the slate clean."

"If it weren't for birthright citizenship, people could go back and say, 'We found out your great-grandparent arrived at Ellis Island under a different name, and therefore none of her descendants are citizens either,'" Dellinger added. "Birthright citizenship eliminates all of those questions."


Mr. Trump has climbed on the racist train. Most of the Republican party is already on board, not to mention the people like Ann Coulter who have made a career of bashing "others." It's a powerful incantation in the hands of a capable authoritarian, as we can easily see from our past and the pasts of other countries. Mr. Bush already said that the Constitution is just a piece of paper. The arguments about whether Mr. Trump should at least be aware of what it says are belied by what Bush and others have already done. Just hire a lawyer. Or perhaps in Trump's case, hire a new special police force charged with the round up. Who's going to stop that?


Update. Yesterday a couple of Red Sox "fans" left the game and the proceeded to urinate on and beat up a Latino homeless man who was sleeping on the street. Arrested, they quoted Mr. Trump. When you start talking about "rounding up" people, you are opening the door to this.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Hillsborough Shakes It Off

We had a gig this past Thursday over in Durham. Nice to step back into that world, however briefly. My hands are still sort of achey from playing. That's a new thing, this summer, and exasperating. The Blue Note Grill moved over to Washington Street, just across from the old Durham Bulls park. They have a blues festival there at the park now, every September I think it is. The Blue Note features mostly blues performers, so maybe the park drew them from off 15-501 Bidness, where they'd sat on a cliff overlooking the ruins of a huge mall that was torn down about 20 years back. I noticed driving down 15-501 to the gig that Uzzle Cadillac Olds was gone too, just the remains of a block foundation and some concrete parking with weeds growing up in the cracks. I spent a week in that place one time, tearing out a piece of block wall by hand, with hammer and sledge. They wanted a door, but they didn't want any dust from sawing out the block with a diamond blade. There were new cars on one side of the wall. It was just before Christmas. Mr. Uzzle himself was up in some office a couple of stories above where I was pounding, and he kept calling down to the show-room to quit the banging. I eventually just left for a few days, leaving the plastic and the partial hole, till he realized he'd do better shutting up and letting me get the job done.

When I got to the new Blue Note there was the current Indy Week newspaper there. It's printed in Durham. It's cover story was this:

The cover headline said, in big big type over the photo of the yahoos with the flags:


I'd think that edition will be hard to find in Durham. On the stands I mean. A lot of those covers will probably get framed, or tacked up on fridge doors. There's hardly anybody that deserves a poke in the eye more than a self-righteous jerk who's willing to wear a Confederate flag shirt that says "I'm offended that you're offended." I was pleased to read that far fewer flag supporters arrived than were allegedly expected. I'd think the news reporter was probably being naive to take the asserted expectation seriously, but then we do have a state with a government that seems pretty much to agree with these sad, confused citizens. Over in Raleigh they're trying to take any alterations in the statuary of a given town out of the hands of the town governance. So much for freeeee-dom, and no surprise there either. Two of the most conservative towns in NC, Morehead City and Wilmington, have now passed resolutions against off-shore drilling. The NC Legislature has taken such matters out of the hands of localities. They get their ideas from ALEC conventions (the leaders are just back from the latest one, in San Diego). ALEC gets its funding from the Koch Bros.

But even if I got a chuckle out of the Indy headline, I felt like it really wasn't the best tack. You Lost plays into the whole framework of the Right. Fox, Limbaugh, all the rest of the apparatus which toils 24-7 to convince everyone that nothing is objective and neutral, that it's all a propaganda battle right down to the bottom, they'll be happy to join with the Indy in a battle of "You Lost," "No, You Lost..." That's how they managed to convince enough voters to elect Ronald Reagan. "Look," they said, "the news people are all Democrats, of course they don't think Reagan is a good idea." So Durham's little weekly paper of mostly liberal opinion can give the finger to the rubes with the flags, but in Raleigh the supporters of those rubes can make sure the Durham City Council can't cart some old Confederate memorial statue off to a warehouse, where it belongs.

I wish the Indy had written an article which showed, decisively, that of course the Confederacy was fighting to the death to preserve the institution of slavery in the South. That's the historical truth. It cannot be denied, except in the trivial sense that of course humans can manage to deny anything because that's an act, denial, and we're free and exceptional here in the US of A. This kind of denial is what the racist apologists who formed the "Sons of Confederate Veterans" organization up in Danville, VA., aim at supporting. They came up with a great slogan too: "Heritage, not Hate." They will argue this slogan with you at the drop of a hat. (Oops, I typed "hate" first.) I got into an argument with one of these Sons last week. I wrote his website challenging his argument that it was haters who'd taken the Confederate flags(s) and misused them in the past century to support hate. "My ancestors fought for the Confederacy," he said to me in an email, and they, like most of the Confederate soldiers, didn't even own slaves. The Civil War (he wanted to call it some other name, another symptom of obfuscation-at-work), was about States Rights. Aside from the rank absurdity of thinking that the war that still holds the record for American casualties occurred in service of an abstract constitutional principle, I allowed him to distract me from the obvious: how many of those non-slaving-holding yeoman soldiers had any notion of the high-flown principle of states rights, or chose to die on that petard?

It's an absurd historical revision, but it's been sold by better men than the Sons of Confederate Veterans for close to as long as the Tilden/Hayes deal of 1876. The guy who argued with me even cited Gone With the Wind. Vivian Leigh, Butterfly McQueen, now those ladies could sell you a Stutz Bearcat:

As a matter of psychology, it's certainly understandable that southerners don't want to admit that our part of the country fought a gawdawful war which ended by blighting the South for probably close to a century afterwards, all for the odious cause of enslaving our fellow men. That's our ancestors. That's Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, J.E.B. Stewart and the rest of the dashing cast of millions. All of that bravery and heroism, Pickett's whole division walking up the hill at Gettysburg into certain death and worse, all for enslaving people for their entire lives, all for making people just like us live lives of soul-killing degradation. The guy said, really! that the relationship between Miss Sarlett and her slave-servant (was it Hattie?) proved that there was more to slavery than what the abolitionists said. Well, Butterfly McQueen got a good check, and I'd bet she told her real friends that Viv Leigh could now and then be a crazy bitch.

I don't doubt the honor and courage of the Southern soldiers, or most of them. It is true that if you deserted you could be shot. The beloved Stonewall had a couple of men shot according to the author of "I Rode with Stonewall," an account of the time. Some of the most remarkable images of that romantic, heroic war concern the immediate aftermaths of the battles, when hundreds of men from both sides cried and screamed all night long in the murky no-man's lands between the lines, slowly bleeding to death, gut-shot, limbs smashed or gone. Edward Porter Alexander, in Fighting for the Confederacy, talks of marvelous moments of battle that would thrill any kid thinking of the soldiering adventure. A cannon-ball passed under his horse at Fredericksburg, then removing the leg of a Confederate soldier who was guarding some captured Union troops. The soldier was able to use his rifle as a crutch, at least for a while. He also talks of riding through the carnage after Pickett's Charge and finding a soldier still alive and leaning against a fence. The soldier wanted help. He couldn't say anything because his lower jaw was entirely missing, but could plead to Alexander with his eyes. There was nothing Alexander could do.

They were all brave. They were all fighting to preserve slavery, because that's why there was a Confederate States of America, and they were in the Confederate States of America's Army. If the Confederate States of America had won, slavery would have been preserved. This is the undeniable truth of history. You can of course deny it, just as you can say "I'm offended that you're offended." But when George Wallace took up the banner of the Confederate flag, he wasn't misappropriating the cause, he was historically on the money and asserting yet again the doctrine of white supremacy.

That's what these Flag marchers are doing still, asserting the doctrine of white supremacy which the flag asserted under arms in 1861-65. To have slavery you must have a doctrine of white supremacy. Even some of the slave owners found that doctrine so patently a lie that they suffered the internal turmoil of lying to themselves. Thomas Jefferson stopped believing in white supremacy, but he couldn't stop being a slave owner. This is how you deny the truth of something. You eat your own liver.

I'd rather the Indy had spent the space showing how all the revisionist romance of the South, all the "heritage, not hate" claptrap, evaporates under the light of day. It wasn't that the Armies of the Confederacy lost. It was that they were wrong. I wish I'd thought to point to another sort of courage, quite available to my ancestors, to all the ancestors of the south. They could have said, "I won't fight for slavery." And in fact, some did. Now that was brave, indeed.


There is much in this article concerning North Carolina and it's bevy of Confederate Monuments, now legally protected from Raleigh's far right wing Legislature with a brand new law which removes the power of local governance from anything to do with Confederate statuary. Among other things, the article notes that most of these monuments were erected in the 1890s and later--at a time when segregation and white supremacy had returned to the South. In this regard the statuary is much like the recently removed Confederate flag in South Carolina, which was raised in 1960 as a retort to school desegregation and the civil rights movement. There is always an unfortunate telescoping effect with history. If you were born in 1975, the difference between 1865 and 1895 is hardly apparent. This is what the never-tiring racist groups, such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, trade on. But the article offers an antidote: Dr. Tyson's "Blood Done Signed My Name." He knows the facts. He's an historian:

Take the Confederate monument on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill, better known as “Silent Sam.” The speaker at its dedication in 1913, industrialist Julian S. Carr, bragged that he had “horse-whipped a negro wench until her skirts hung in shreds, because … she had publicly insulted … a Southern lady.” Carr’s speech heralded the “Anglo-Saxon race in the South” reunited with white supremacy as the glue.

Read more here:

I went to UNC. "Silent Sam" was just a place to sit on a dark night and drink a beer. There were sophmoric stories about what it would mean if he fired his musket. Something about virginity or the lack thereof. It's probably hard for old alums like myself to think that old "Silent Sam" really stands for something horrible, or that it should be removed and probably melted down. And Mr. Carr, I think, has a building named after him.