Sunday, January 30, 2005

Hooray for the Elections Bush Didn't Want

Approve not of him who commends all you say.--Poor Richard

Swopa:
As media coverage of today's elections in Iraq swims in phrases like "major test of President Bush's goal of promoting democracy," and as the Orwell Bush administration does everything it can to claim credit for their occurrence, it seems like a good moment to take a look back at how they really came about -- through a process in which Dubya and his crew were dragged against their will, kicking and screaming, every step of the way.

June 2003: The original U.S. plan following the invasion was to ensure that we got the Iraq we wanted, and so elections would be held only after a new national constitution had been written by a handpicked, exile-led group. Indeed, our colonial provisional administration was so afraid of the people's will that we cancelled ad-hoc local elections all across Iraq in June of 2003. (Subsequent protests in Najaf, the home city of the Shiite religious establishment led by Grand Ayatollah Sistani, included banners that read, "Canceled elections are evidence of bad intentions.")

Perhaps not coincidentally, within days Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued a fatwa calling for national elections as the only acceptable way to choose the assembly that would draft a constitution, specifically rejecting the U.S. plans to appoint a committee.

Fall 2003: As richly documented in this space, the American administration tried in vain to ignore or sidestep Sistani's decree for several months, until it became clear that the Iraqi would-be puppets on the so-called Governing Council were refusing to go along with the scam.

The U.S. solution, of course, was to come up with a new scam -- a complicated series of steps with "caucuses" (indirect elections, with participants vetted by the Americans) to choose an interim governmen that would be given nominal sovereignty, with Iraqis not allowed to vote directly for their own leaders until the end of 2005. Sistani's response was to say, in essence, "What part of 'elections' don't you understand?", demanding full national elections by June 2004.

January 2004: As the Bushites continued to dither and balk (including quashing a census plan that would have enabled faster elections), Sistani was forced to organize massive demonstrations in Basra and Baghdad (shown in the picture above) to make his growing impatience clear.

Seeing hundreds of thousands of Shiites in the streets of Baghdad, the denizens of Dubyaville promptly crapped their pants. Although still whining about infeasibility of elections, Bush and his appointed colonial ruler Jerry Bremer invited the UN to design a new transition, just as Sistani had demanded.

February-May 2004: The Bushites then did their best work behind the scenes, pressuring Kofi Annan to yield to an election date after the U.S. voting in November, pushing through a "transitional administrative law" intended to influence the eventual constitution, and promoting Iyad Allawi as temp prime minister over the UN's choice, Hussein Shahristani (an adviser to Sistani).


Nevertheless, Sistani came away with the bulk of the winnings -- not just direct elections for a government that would write the constitution, occurring at least a year earlier than the Americans originally envisioned, but UN involvement to at least partially minimize the threat of fraud by the interim regime. For good measure, he successfully lobbied the UN to ignore the transitional law written by the Americans, giving his allies the option to declare it a dead letter if they wish.

Pleased with his handiwork, Sistani issued a new fatwa, declaring voting in today's election to be a religious duty for his millions of Shiite followers. Not only that, he orchestrated the creation of a Shiite slate, and his picture has been the primary image on the campaign literature plastered nationwide by his network of loyalists. This unprecedented political involvement has been the driving factor behind the large Shiite turnout reported today.

So, whatever his ultimate intentions for Iraq are, you can thank Grand Ayatollah Sistani for these elections -- his determination made them happen, and his fervent endorsement of voting gave them whatever level of success they achieve. George Bush? He's claiming credit on the surface, but away from the cameras he's grimacing and scheming to keep Sistani from forcing any more unwanted democracy down his throat.

Swopa


Saturday, January 29, 2005

Power Line and TCF Bank: The Sinclair Broadcasting of the Savings and Loan Industry?

Pride and Gout are seldom cur'd throughout.--Poor Richard

TCF Bank has recently announced advertising boycotts of the Star-Tribune and City Pages because of negative publicity regarding the Republican activist blogging of its employee, Scott Johnson, founding partner of the militant, law-suit happy Republican blog, Power Line, and City Pages coverage of TCF Bank's exclusively Republican political contributions. With these actions, TCF Bank has effectively announced to the world that they not only intend to explicitly and self-consciously promote and support right-wing Republican causes, but they will also use their corporate assets to defend them from any and all criticism through their advertising practices. It is becoming increasingly clear with each passing day that the right-wing side of our current "information restoration" is in large part simply one more platform for corporate lawyers like Scott Johnson, and corporate patrons, like TCF Bank and its president, Bill Cooper (former chair of the Minnesota Republican Party), to pose as the voice of "the people" while advancing a corporate Republican agenda.

(In the case of the Star-Tribune, it could be argued that Cooper was responding to Nick Coleman's suggested boycott. Given Power Line's founding goal of delegitimizing Democratic political views and any paper that occasionally voices them, the Star-Tribune's lack of sympathy is hardly surprising. The boycott of City Pages, however, puts in writing that TCF's official corporate position is promotion of the Republican Party, and defense of the activist Republican agenda of its highest profile employee.)

Tired of reading confused right-wing propaganda on the blogosphere? Pulling your money out of TCF is a simple way to make a statement about Republican political activism that says at least they won't be promoting their cause with your money. (Besides, as a bank they suck. I pulled my money out years ago because they are a punitive, penalty-charging user-nasty, slum-lordish money-trap of a bank.)
Now if we could just get a similar degree of transparency in the Executive Branch of the federal government...


Power Line and TCF Bank: A Match Made in Republican Heaven

Mike Mosedale:
TCF...was a struggling S&L before Bill Cooper took control...Politically speaking...the company is a straight-up high roller, and an avid fellow traveler of the Republican political machine.

To begin with, there is Cooper himself, who is the former chair of the state Republican Party, former board member of the Center of the American Experiment, and founder of a group called the Conservative Council, which has made a mission of purging Republicrats--i.e., moderate Republicans--from the party. Meanwhile, over the last three election cycles, Cooper and his wife Sharon have been among the party's more generous benefactors, doling out approximately $171,000 in contributions to assorted GOP candidates and causes.

More notable, however, is the overall giving pattern at TCF. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, TCF has consistently ranked in the top 10 savings & loans nationwide in terms of overall political contributions. In 2002 and 2004, according to the Center, 100 percent of the TCF contributions went to Republicans; in 2000--an off year for company ideologues?--the figure was a mere 99 percent.

By way of comparison, the top 20 savings & loans were considerably more evenhanded in their giving patterns. In 2004, for instance, 53 percent of S&L contributions went to Republicans and 47 percent to Democrats. Among the top 10, TCF was the only organization to give exclusively to Republicans.

continued below:
TCFU

Update:

Mobjectivist on The Big Trunk doing Power Line blogging on TCF's time and TCF's inexplicable pretense that it doesn't happen (I don't care that he does it, but why deny it?):
What I Believe

The New Patriot on TCF's coming even further out of the Republican activist closet:
Don't Cross TCF

Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Speech Bush Should Have Given

Ambition often spends foolishly what Avarice had wickedly collected.
--Poor Richard


Juan Cole:

The Speech Bush Should have Given

This is the speech that I wish President Bush had given in fall, 2002, as he was trying to convince Congress to give him the authority to go to war against Iraq.


My fellow Americans:

I want us to go to war against Iraq. But I want us to have our eyes open and be completely realistic.

A war against Iraq will be expensive. It will cost you, the taxpayer, about $300 billion over five years. I know Wolfowitz is telling you Iraq's oil revenues will pay for it all, but that's ridiculous. Iraq only pumps about $10 billion a year worth of oil, and it's going to need that just to run the new government we're putting in. No, we're going to have to pay for it, ourselves. I'm going to ask you for $25 billion, then $80 billion, then another $80 billion. And so on. I'm going to be back to you for money more often than that unemployed relative that you don't like. The cost of the war is going to drive up my already massive budget deficits from about $370 billion to more like $450 billion a year. Just so you understand, I'm going to cut taxes on rich people at the same time that I fight this war. Then I'm going to borrow the money to fight it, and to pay for much of what the government does. And you and your children will be paying off that debt for decades. In the meantime, your dollar isn't going to go as far when you buy something made overseas, since running those kinds of deficits will weaken our currency. (And I've set things up so that most things you buy will be made overseas.) We'll have to keep interest rates higher than they would otherwise have been and keep the economy in the doldrums, because otherwise my war deficits would cause massive inflation.

So I'm going to put you, your children, and your grandchildren deeply in hock to fight this war. I'm going to make it so there won't be a lot of new jobs created, and I'm going to use the excuse of the Federal red ink to cut way back on government services that you depend on. For the super-rich, or as I call them, "my base," this Iraq war thing is truly inspired. We use it to put up the deficit to the point where the Democrats and the more bleeding heart Republicans in Congress can't dare create any new programs to help the middle classes. We all know that the super-rich--about 3 million people in our country of 295 million-- would have to pay for those programs, since they own 45 percent of the privately held wealth. I'm damn sure going to make sure they aren't inconvenienced that way for a good long time to come.

Then, this Iraq War that I want you to authorize as part of the War on Terror is going to be costly in American lives. By the time of my second inaugural, over 1,300 brave women and men of the US armed forces will be dead as a result of this Iraq war, and 10,371 will have been maimed and wounded, many of them for life. America's streets and homeless shelters will likely be flooded, down the line, with some of these wounded vets. They will have problems finding work, with one or two limbs gone and often significant psychological damage. They will have even more trouble keeping any jobs they find. They will be mentally traumatized the rest of their lives by the horror they are going to see, and sometimes commit, in Iraq. But, well we've got a saying in Texas. I think you've got in over in Arkansas, too. You can't make an omelette without . . . you gotta break some eggs to wrassle up some breakfast.

I know Dick Cheney and Condi Rice have gone around scaring your kids with wild talk of Iraqi nukes. I have to confess to you that my CIA director, George Tenet, tells me that the evidence for that kind of thing just doesn't exist. In fact, I have to be frank and say that the Intelligence and Research Division of the State Department doesn't think Saddam has much of anything left even from his chemical weapons program. Maybe he destroyed the stuff and doesn't want to admit it because he's afraid the Shiites and Kurds will rise up against him without it. Anyway, Iraq just doesn't pose any immediate threat to the United States and probably doesn't have anything useful left of their weapons programs of the 1980s.

There also isn't any operational link between a secular Arab nationalist like Saddam and the religious loonies of al-Qaeda. They're scared of one another and hate each other more than each hates us. In fact, I have to be perfectly honest and admit that if we overthrow Saddam's secular Arab nationalist government, Iraq's Sunni Arabs will be disillusioned and full of despair. They are likely to turn to al-Qaeda as an alternative. So, folks, what I'm about to do could deliver 5 million Iraqis into the hands of people who are insisting they join some al-Qaeda offshoot immediately. Or else.

So why do I want to go to war? Look, folks, I'm just not going to tell you. I don't have to tell you. There is little transparency about these things in the executive, because we're running a kind of rump empire out of the president's office. After 20 or 30 years it will all leak out. Until then, you'll just have to trust me.

Juan Cole-Informed Comment

House Republicans Stand Up to Reject Accountability

Let thy Discontents be Secrets.--Poor Richard

Squelching Oversight

Alberto Gonzales: Just Say No

Constant dropping wears away stones.--Poor Richard

Albert Gonzales should be on trial for war crimes, not up for comfirmation as chief law enforcement officer of the United States.


Support the Constitution: Vote Against Confirmation for Gonzales!

ACLU Report on Alberto Gonzales

Boston Tea Party Protested Undemocratic Corporate Tax Breaks

God gives everything to Industry.--Poor Richard

Is Walmart a Person?

We've Been Take Over by a Cult

What more valuable than Gold? Diamonds. Than Diamonds? Virtue.
--Poor Richard


Seymour Hersh

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Investigations into Torture and Abuse in Iraq were "Just Pretend"

Pride Dines on Vanity, sups on contempt.--Poor Richard

R. Jeffrey Smith and Josh White:

Army personnel have admitted to beating or threatening to kill Iraqi detainees and stealing money from Iraqi civilians but have not been charged with criminal conduct, according to newly released Army documents.

Army closed many abuse cases early

Sunday, January 23, 2005

WTVT FOX-13 Conspired to Broadcast Fake Business News?

Men take more pains to mask than mend.--Poor Richard

Steve Wilson:
For what is believed to be the first time ever, two television journalists have challenged the broadcast license of a station on grounds it deliberately broadcast false and distorted news reports...The challenge stems from what the reporters say was a year-long experience inside the station, where they resisted FOX managers who repeatedly ordered them to distort a series of news reports about the secret use of an artificial hormone injected in dairy cattle throughout Florida and beyond...The journalists also charge that WTVT has violated federal rules with regard to keeping on file viewer complaints and comments.

Fired reporters challenge Fox TV license

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Never Mind the Payola

When a Friend deals with a Friend, Let the bargain be clear and well penn'd, that they may continue Friends to the End.--Poor Richard

(This post responds to Jay Rosen's Bloggers are Missing in Action as Ketchum Tests the Conscience of PR at PressThink)

The Scandal of Armstrong Williams is not the money, it's that PR as Fake News is the Right-Wing’s Definition of Democracy.

Part of what we are running into in this story is that PR firms are at least as critical a filter of what passes for public discourse in the US as the news media or the blogosphere. Marketing and PR are forms of opinion and news management, of political and public engineering, varieties of sophism for the information age.

The propaganda, public relations, and marketing industries came out of one ugly and painful birthing process, in part recorded in Walter Lippmann's Public Opinion: the US government’s mobilization of journalists and early private sector marketing techniques on a mass scale for the purpose of selling World War I to the American people. The boundary between the three areas has always been more formal than real, consistently artificial and tenuous.

The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of modern cable TV news. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of modern talk radio. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of Bush administration environmental policy. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is the story of the Iraq war.

Many claims of "media bias" boil down to the charge that news agencies regularly contradict official talking points, that they effectively edit press releases: The Good News in Iraq

Cutting out the middleman--the press--is often presented by the administration as communicating "directly" to the people, but in reality it is a demand for capitulation to marketing and PR campaigns as the reality of the world we live in. Demanding that the media stop filtering the "news" is typically a demand that the media stop editing corporate or political press releases. The right wing blogosphere’s demand that the press stop "creating" news by editing and contextualizing press releases is demanding that the news stop distinguishing itself from PR. It is not only to demand tyranny of the modern day sophists of the public relations industry, but to demand that this tyranny be UNCHALLENGED.

This is the context in which the Armstrong Williams-Ketchum-Dept of Education payola scandal emerges. When the right-wing blogosphere is demanding that the news be PR and only PR, how can they complain that punditry has been reduced to PR? That’s the agenda from the start.

The problem from the right-wing point of view is the practical one that Jay points to here: The contract was presumably bound to be exposed. Where is the PR percentage in setting someone up for exposure that undermines any positive spin? Or is this something more closely approaching standard practice than we yet know?

My point is that the right-wing objection can only be one of style and practical consequences, not one of principle. The collapse of the distinction between PR and news is their objective, not their scandal. The payola angle actually distracts us from the larger picture in which organized forces are demanding that PR reign unchallenged, in politics and "news" alike.

Monday, January 17, 2005


Lou Salome, Paul Ree, and Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche in Concert!

Tell me my faults and mend your own.--Poor Richard

This last week I borrowed a friend's recording of some classical musical compositions by Friedrich Nietzsche. Those familiar with the 19th C. German philosopher will recall that he not only sacrificed his academic career for the sake of promoting the work of Richard Wagner (The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music) and then broke with him quite sharply (Twilight of the Idols), but he had immense musical aspirations of his own (to go along with his world historically grand opinion of himself more generally).

A group of musicians gathered for a project affiliated with Concordia University in Montreal to record performances of Nietzsche's musical work in 1993. The album I'm listening to is a two CD set of works for piano, piano and solo voice, and works for chorus released by productions Concordia. This same group has released a recording of the orchestral and orchestral/choral works on a separate disc.

Nietzsche's musical work was only published in 1976. This is one of the first publicly released recordings of his work. Given his stridently opinionated views concerning the music of his time, it is interesting to hear what he himself comes up with. I have to say, there is a reason this music is not more familiar. It has its virtues, but he is clearly not a major composer.

Having said that, his work is not embarassing, either. I've only listened to the disc twice, so my opinion might change, but the piano pieces tend to remind me of Schumann. They share an exploratory, essayistic quality and the lack of pretense that a composition will have an overarching, unifying motif or structure. The most striking thing about the pieces as a whole is the way they develop a mood or tonality for several minutes, make a sharp turn, and veer off into something almost completely different. It is tempting to say that he simply was not well enough-versed in the conventional methods of musical development even to reject them effectively. Still, there are moments of real beauty and interest. There are intermittent flashes of Bach and Mozart in the mix. The compositions on this set are from his youth, so it is probably not fair to be too critical.


Moments in a couple of the choral pieces evoke Rennaissance era works for vocal ensemble.

The last piece for voice sets to music a text by Lou Andreas Salome, the female intellectual who was a significant intellectual and personal influence on Nietzsche, Rilke, and Freud. Nietzsche had fantasies of her being some combination of wife and disciple. She wasn't feeling him, though the two of them had a time for a few days that culminated with a picture of her in a cart cracking an unthreateningly short whip over Nietzsche and their mutual friend, Paul Ree, who were out in front of the cart and harnessed to it.

I wouldn't say she was cracking the whip to get him to stop composing, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't so he'd quick write another one. Still, this is an interesting place to get a very earthly and distinct perspective on the phenomenon and legend that was Nietzsche.

Update:
This music improves the more you listen. Some of these other discs include later stuff I haven't heard yet.

Nietzsche recordings:
The Nietzsche Music Project
The Compositions of Friedrich Nietzsche, Productions Concordia
Friedrich Nietzsche, Vol. II- Compositions of His Mature Years (1864-82)

Lou Salome:
Lou von Salome

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Fake News Round-up, Part 1

To be proud of Virtue, is to poison yourself with the Antidote.--Poor Richard

Frank Rich:
But perhaps the most fascinating Williams TV appearance took place in December 2003, the same month that he was first contracted by the government to receive his payoffs. At a time when no one in television news could get an interview with Dick Cheney, Mr. Williams, of all "journalists," was rewarded with an extended sit-down with the vice president for the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a nationwide owner of local stations affiliated with all the major networks. In that chat, Mr. Cheney criticized the press for its coverage of Halliburton and denounced "cheap shot journalism" in which "the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene, when they obviously are not objective."

This is a scenario out of "The Manchurian Candidate." Here we find Mr. Cheney criticizing the press for a sin his own government was at that moment signing up Mr. Williams to commit. The interview is broadcast by the same company that would later order its ABC affiliates to ban Ted Koppel's "Nightline" recitation of American casualities in Iraq and then propose showing an anti-Kerry documentary, "Stolen Honor," under the rubric of "news" in prime time just before Election Day.

Frank Rich, All the President's Newsmen

Saturday, January 15, 2005

It Was Paul Bunyan Cold Out Tonight

Good Sense is a Thing all need, few have, and none think they want.
--Poor Richard


It was Paul Bunyan cold in Minneapolis yesterday and today. I have a new theory: the more noise the snow makes when it crunches underneath your boots, the colder it is. Tonight, the snow was LOUD!

Fortunately, I heard about this cold front coming in a couple of days ago and took the opportunity to shovel the snow off the driveway as it warmed up to an unseasonable 30 degrees. The snow fairly leapt off the pavement. I had to jump to get out of the way. So at least the driveway was clear by the time this Dr. Zhivago of a cold front showed up.

Unfortunately, the wife likes to see the dogs get their exercise at the dogpark, even when it is -3 (windchill, -16) degrees. While we were at the dogpark we noticed that not a single other human being in the metropolitan area had made the same decision.

At least the dogs had fun for a while. I have been in -35 degree weather five or six times, but this is the first time I've had to wipe tears from my eyes because they were beginning to freeze my eyelashes together.

My first several winters here, the locals complained that it wasn't cold enough to complain about. I think we've got that off our backs this year.

Paul Bunyan links:
The Story of Paul Bunyan
Paul Bunyan: Friend or Foe?

How Many Ways Can You Spell Ludicrous (apologies to Ludacris)?

You may give a Man an Office, but you cannot give him Discretion.--Poor Richard

The right wing megaphone spent most of Friday, January 14th trying to draw a parallel between the Dean campaign hiring two Democratic party blogger activists with no journalistic pretensions (for $12,000) who disclosed their political involvements (one of whom quit blogging) with the columnist Armstrong Williams' explicit, contracted selling of space and policy views (for $241,000) in his newspaper column and broadcast media appearances. One used my tax dollars. One didn't. Talk about projection.

Having distinguished the two acts, we can observe that Bush's bureaucrats in the Department of Education and "Zephyr Teachout" apparently do share a model of political speech as branding process. In the corporate world, the Armstrong Williams deal is an ideal to be aspired to, not an embarassment. It's called synergy:

"Why wait around for something as temperamental as audience demand or radio play when by controlling all the variables you can create the illusion of a blockbuster success before it even happens?...In less enthusiastic eras than our own, other words besides 'synergy' were commonly used to describe attempts to radically distort consumer offerings to benefit colluding owners...illegal trusts...what else is a monopoly, after all, but synergy taken to the extreme?" (Naomi Klein, No Logo, pp.149,160-161)

Why should we be the least bit surprised that the MBA president is applying astroturfed synergy to the branding of his faith-based policies? Politics has to be privatized, right? What could be the matter with that?

Note to right-wingers: If you were ever curious why the reality-based community says there is a right-wing propaganda sphere ruling the airwaves and cyberspace, look in the mirror today. Any bloggers or broadcast journalists who took this pseudo-story seriously today have elected themselves members of the right-wing fake-news media sphere effective immediately.


Right-Wing Fake News Links:
Dean Campaign Made Payments to Two Bloggers, Wall Street Journal
Rober Novak, Crossfire, January 14, 2005
Daily Kos Bought and Sold by Dean, Little Green Footballs
Hugh Hewitt, www.hughhewitt.com
Bill O'Reilly, January 14, 2005
Patrick Hynes, Howard Dean's Shrill Shill, American Spectator Online
Fox News, All Day Everyday
Rush Limbaugh, All Day Everyday

Less Fictional Right Wing Link on this story:
Instapundit

Practitioners of that dying art, Journalism, who did not run the pseudo-story based on the facts
:
Associated Press
Washington Post

Update:
By all appearances, Zephyr Teachout unaccountably imagines that a "debate" with the bloggers in question is somehow related to addressing her own bad faith: "On Dean's campaign, we paid Markos and Jerome Armstrong as consultants, largely in order to ensure that they said positive things about Dean...To be very clear, they never committed to supporting Dean for the payment--but it was very clearly, internally, our goal."

Question: How exactly does defamation contribute to a discussion of blog ethics? How would other people be in a position to take responsibility for your own, apparently failed, attempt to be unethical?

Courtesy of Atrios:
Laura Gross states definitively that neither blogger in question was paid by the Dean campaign to produce content and that the WSJ article fabricates a quote. A third WSJ journalist caught in the middle of it protested the distortion with her editor. Precious.
Laura Gross, Here's the Story

Friday, January 14, 2005


Merle Haggard

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Merle Haggard: Things Aren't Funny Anymore

Sell not virtue to purchase wealth, nor liberty to purchase power.--Poor Richard

This last month, when I wasn't obsessed with Nat King Cole or T-Bone Walker (while grading papers, naturally) I was deep into an archaeology of Merle Haggard. This involved buying his first six albums on CD in addition to the seven used LPs I already had. It was back in the mid-80s when I first developed a taste for Merle by way of his live
Rainbow Stew album (which I still rank near the top).

It had taken me a while to get into country music. I grew up in central Illinois about fifty miles south of the dialect line dividing North from South. Accent was also always a class issue as well as a regional issue around there. For a while I resisted. I think some of it has crept back in over the years. I had heard some Hank Williams in grade school that sounded cool and was a fan of the man in black (Johnny Cash) since childhood. But mid-70s country was doing almost nothing for me.

I never much cared for the syrupy pedal steel (and strings) they splashed so liberally over most country releases in the early and mid-70s. I was almost put off country permanently by Donna Fargo's The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA, closely followed by Glenn Campbell's Rhinestone Cowboy (I was astonished to later discover that the latter was originally a charming satire in the mind of its author, David Allen Coe.)

I suppose Bob Dylan and the Eagles helped break down my resistance to a degree. I also had a cousin who was deep into the Grateful Dead, The New Riders of the Purple Sage, and Pure Prairie League, but they didn't really take.

In college I did the requisite time with Gram Parsons and the Burrito Brothers. I had always loved The Band. I developed a soft spot for Bob Wills, Hank, Hank, Jr., Emmy Lou Harris, Joe Ely, and Carlene Carter. It was about that time that I ran across Merle Haggard again.

It was at first a little difficult to figure what to do with Merle. I was just old enough to remember Okie from Muskogee as a hard-right anthem that went along with the "Archie Bunker for President" pennants that festooned the local Penny's store in 1972. At first I just settled for the obvious fact that, regardless of his politics, Merle can sing his ass off. And his voice just kept getting better as he got older.

Recently I bought video of a sixties music show hosted by Tommy Smothers, Music Scene, because it had some footage of Sly and the Family Stone. And right there in the middle of the show was Merle Haggard singing Okie with a shit-eating grin on his face. What a jerk.

I saw a cable TV retrospective on his career last year where they asked him about that song, especially since it had become so widely known in the meantime how much he liked the cocaine and the weed. Besides, he was hanging out with a quasi-hippie rebel like Willie Nelson. They asked, "Do you still agree with the sentiments in that song? What were you thinking when you wrote that?" He said something like, "I had rocks for brains when I wrote that song. I didn't know anything yet." So I guess I don't have to hold a grudge against the present day Merle, just the 60s version.

Long before Willie and Waylon started their "outlaws" posture, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard had already covered it. Except they both really served hard time. The difference between the two was that Cash still seemed to revel in something of an outlaw image. Merle kissed the ass of authority to make up for lost time. His image was the former outlaw, not the outlaw per se. So I always identified more with Cash. But like I said, when I started listening, I realized Merle can sing his ass off.

On his early tunes, they have him singing in a key that is too high and doesn't really show off what he can do. It's only into his second or third album where they finally have him doing arrangements that show off the resonance in his voice in a lower register which also sets up the baritone yodel thing he does. That's when he starts to develop the classic Merle Haggard sound.

Merle sings a lot of working class songs: Workin' Man Blues, for example. All the prison songs have an element of poverty related to the personal self-consciousness and insecurity in them: Branded Man, Lonesome Fugitive, Mama Tried, Sing Me Back Home.

I've always been partial to the tunes with a melancholy sense of humor: It's Not Love, But It's Not Bad, Things Aren't Funny Anymore.

It's All in the Movies is a very original and hauntingly beautiful melody. Where did that come from?

In the 70s Hag produced even more unqualified classics: I Think I'll Just Sit Here and Drink, I'm Always On a Mountain When I Fall, Misery and Gin. This last one is probably the Haggard tune that I find most captivating, though he didn't write it. I think his voice probably peaked in the 70s and 80s.

Misery and Gin:
Here I am again mixing Misery and Gin
Sitting with all my friends and talking to myself
It might look like I'm havin' a good time
But any fool can tell
This honky tonk heaven really makes you feel like hell.

The sentiment seems to have changed by the time he records Bar Room Buddies for a Clint Eastwood movie. By that time, it's the male companionship that matters. The woman thing can work itself out.

But beyond the lyrics, the beauty of Misery and Gin is the sound of Merle Haggard's voice. The soaring baritone in the first line of the chorus, the break in the voice on "fool" and "tell", the quasi-yodel on "feel" and the break in the voice on "hell." It sounds so heartfelt, so immediate, so real, so painful.

When Cheryl Burns went to see Merle in 2002, he said, "'I think we should give John Ashcroft a big hand...(pause)...right in the mouth!' Went on to say, 'the way things are going I'll probably be thrown in jail tomorrow for saying that, so I hope ya'll will bail me out.'"

At the concert attended by Andrew Cockburn, he said,"'Friends and conservatives," and then made a joke about George Bush's colonoscopy and the search for Osama bin laden. 'He's up there somewhere.'"

I think I'll let Merle have the last word:
Alex Halberstadt in Salon.com quotes him to the following effect, "Look at the past 25 years we went downhill, and if people don't realize it, they don't have their fucking eyes on...In 1960, when I came out of prison as an ex-convict, I had more freedom under parolee supervision than there's available to an average citizen in America right now...God almighty, what have we done to each other?"

Merle Haggard links:
Alex Halberstadt, Merle Haggard
Power Line, Merle Haggard in Profile
CounterPunch, Merle Haggard and the Politics of Salmon
Jesse Walker

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Bush was AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard

Being ignorant is not so much a Shame, as being unwilling to learn.--Poor Richard

CBS's incompetence doesn't change the facts we know.

If you disagree, tell it to the Pentagon documents that say so.

Bush was AWOL

Is Al Qaeda a Phantom Menace?

"Love your Enemies, for they tell you your Faults."--Poor Richard

Robert Scheer:
Is it conceivable that Al Qaeda, as defined by President Bush as the center of a vast and well-organized international terrorist conspiracy, does not exist?

To even raise the question amid all the officially inspired hysteria is heretical, especially in the context of the U.S. media's supine acceptance of administration claims relating to national security. Yet a brilliant new BBC film produced by one of Britain's leading documentary filmmakers systematically challenges this and many other accepted articles of faith in the so-called war on terror.

The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, a three-hour historical film by Adam Curtis recently aired by the British Broadcasting Corp., argues coherently that much of what we have been told about the threat of international terrorism "is a fantasy that has been exaggerated and distorted by politicians."...

Terrorism is deeply threatening, but it appears to be a much more fragmented and complex pheonomenon than the octopus-network image of Al Qaeda, with Bin Laden as its head would suggest.

Scheer, Is Al Qaeda Just a Bush Boogeyman?


Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Reporting on the Classification State

If you do what you should not, you must hear what you would not.--Poor Richard

One of the critical problems the Bush/TexANG story symptomizes is the new classification state. When government records are doctored or hidden decades past the end of a political career, how can we even pretend to have advice and consent of the governed? Advice and consent over the character of candidates we'll find out about in thirty years? Over policy we'll finally hear about in thirty years?

That's one of the reasons the Vietnam debate WAS actually politically relevant in a way. Now that four decades have passed we actually know a lot about how much the government lied to us and what a sham the prosecution of war crimes was by the Army and Rumsfeld's Pentagon in particular. Now that forty years have passed and some documents have finally been released the public--if it really cared to--is almost in a position to have a genuinely informed debate about the profound ignorance and criminality of US policy in Vietnam.

By 2044, we might know enough details about the atrocities committed by this administratin in Iraq for the US public to pass judgment on that too.

We either need to begin to develop alternate standards of proof (which don't give the benefit of the doubt to habitual government liars), or we should just stop pretending we have a public sphere that can treat public policy as a debate rather than a product launch.

Newsroom consideration of Chomsky's discussion of bias in what passes for expert commentary (Manufacture of Consent, pp.18-26) in the mass media might be a good place to start. Can we stack the decks any higher against the people's right to know its own business?

CBS Tries to Lie with the Big Boys

A Good Example is the Best Sermon.--Poor Richard

I do not believe for a minute that the mainstream media is significantly "liberal." The media have been too easily manipulated by the Bush administration too often for that to be a serious charge for those interested in truth-claims (See Judith Miller, et. al.).

I also recognize the spotlight focused on CBS as part of a right wing strategy the media enables that throws down the memory hole equally egregious and malevolent manipulation when such failures of journalism suit Republican purposes. Atrios-What Liberal Media

But I'm angry. I was very impressed with the Marian Carr Knox interview when it was broadcast. The segment made it appear that Killian's own secretary confirmed the documents reflected his feelings at the time. The report directly challenges this:

"The Panel spoke with Knox on two occasions, and she stated that she did not have any personal knowledge about the content of any of the Killian documents, aside from the fact that she knew Lieutenant Bush had sought to transfer to Alabama so that he could run a political campaign. She informed the Panel that she answered Rather's questions on the assumption that the content was accurate. She made clear in her Panel interviews that she did not have any personal knowledge about the thrust or content of the documents."

This is one of several claims made by Mapes or her superiors that can only be described as willful misrepresentation. While it would be quite impossible for CBS to approach both the quantity and the quality of the daily mendacity characteristic of the Bush II administration (David Corn, The Lies of George Bush; Fritz, et al, All the President's Spin), with this episode CBS certainly gave the White House a run for its money on the quality side.

Monday, January 10, 2005

"Liberal" Inflation

He that would rise at court must begin by creeping.--Poor Richard

Militantly pro-life New Jersey Representative Chris Smith was purged from the House Veterans Affairs Committee recently on the grounds that he is a "liberal."

Robert Novak:
"Smith is derided by the leadership as a "liberal" who is in organized labor's pocket, but his voting record is moderately conservative. For 2003, the American Conservative Union rated him 71 percent and his liberal rating from Americans for Democratic Action was 30 percent. Beginning his 13th term in the House, Smith, 51, is a hero in the pro-life movement and a dogged inquisitor into forced abortion in China. The leadership's problem with Smith has been his insatiable desire to make life better for veterans during 24 years on the Veterans Affairs Committee."

Word to the wise Republican House member:

Disagreeing with Tom Delay means you are a "liberal."

Sincerely trying to meet the government's responsibilities to veterans means you are a "liberal."

If you vote conservative 71% of the time, you are now a "liberal." What would the inflation rate on that calculate out to?

I thought conservatism was supposed to help bring inflation under control...

Continued below:
GOP leaders display arrogance


Marie Antoinette

Feed Forward on Poor Richard's Almanac

Dear Ben,
I'm sorry I didn't get to see you a little more while you were here. I believe we could have had something beautiful.

To think they could have baked their cake in a Franklin stove!

Blog on, Ben Franklin, blog on.

Yours with fondness,
Marie Antoinette

Cons vs. Neo-cons on Iraq, Pt. 2

Think of three Things--whence you came, where you are going, and to Whom you must account
--Poor Richard

Coble Suggests Pullout in Iraq


U.S. Rep. Howard Coble, dean of the state's congressional delegation and an avowedly strong supporter of President Bush, says it's time for the United States to consider withdrawing from war-ravaged Iraq.

Coble, a Republican from Greensboro, is one of the first members of Congress--Republican or Democrat--to say publicly that the United State should consider a pullout...

Coble said he arrived at his position only after many months of searching in vain for evidence that the Bush administration had a post-invasion strategy to deal with the transition to Iraqi self-government...

But Coble voted to grant Bush the sweeping war-making powers believing that the administration had a "post-invasion strategy." Apparently, there was none, he said.

"If there was, I wish someone would tell me what it is or show it to me," he said. "I'd like to see it."..."Obviously, somebody was asleep at the planning table."...We got rid of Saddam the snake. Now it's time to let the Iraqis take care of the snake pit."

Coble suggests pullout in Iraq, News and Record

Where's The Money?



Hot Licks for Neurotic Kicks

Much virtue in Herbs, little in Men. --Poor Richard

Dan Hicks is a freaky dude. He was one of the founding members of the psychedlic scene in mid-60s San Francisco. Except Hicks was and is more of a psychedelic soloist than his more communally oriented confreres from the scene like The Grateful Dead or The Jefferson Airplane.

He always seems to be talking to the multiple voices in his head at least as much as he is talking to us in the audience or us listening to his record. He was here in town last winter and I had the same feeling sitting fifteen feet away from him in the audience.

His musical style is quite eclectic. It combines Andrews Sisters style backing vocals (that are so spaced out they occasionally anticipate the Roche Sisters) with light jazz arrangements that probably come closer to sounding like Django Reinhardt's Hot Five from the Club of Paris than anything else I can think to compare them to (the Bob Wills tunes with a rhythm guitar backbeat also come to mind). The guitar comping sounds very 20s-30s, Euro-hot, and it is usually acoustic. Sid Page saws out haunting fiddle solos, just like Stephane Grappelli played with Django. (Did you know Jackson Browne's dad played keyboards with the real Django?)

A lot of his early photo-shoots seem to suggest he had major identification with the singing cowboys (Did you know Fats Domino's Blueberry Hill was originally written for Gene Autry?) Is that where the yodel comes from? But Dan is such a space cowbay, you can't call it camp. It seems a little too close to the surreality he probably lives everyday for that.

Dan is a funny guy, even if he rarely laughs at his own deadpan jokes:
Bad Grammar:
It's bad grammar baby, when you say I ain't been lovin' you good.

The backing vocals are typically written as obsessively looping voices. In perhaps his best song, I Scare Myself, they incessantly repeat over gypsy Flamenco guitar changes:

It's me I'm scared of,
It's me I'm scared of,
It's me I'm scared of

Runnin' runnin' runnin' runnin'
Runnin' runnin' runnin' runnin'

It's a haunting ode to obsessive hyper-self-conscious.


Where The Grateful Dead followed Rilke and Schelling down the path toward a loss of self in the group, Dan Hicks was singing about a neurosis that has a damn firm grip on the freaked out person in question, but it sometimes might let go for a few seconds if you get the 30s jazz groove or your dress-up costume role just right. It doesn't hurt if you throw in a pun while you're at it.

Sometimes there is a moral to the story:
Canned Music promotes live music over the zombified reprocessing of recorded music, but also warns you about the potential downside--if you dance too close to the bandstand, the drummer might go home with your girl.

Slow Movin' lays down a groove with a gypsy feel comparable to I Scare Myself, but the lyrics pull it into the reassuring and comforting stasis of walking down the sidewalk on a sunny California day to nowhere in particular.

When I feel a little too weird for this world, I listen to Mr. Hicks and his Hot Licks and he puts my mind at ease.

There is much virtue in Dan.


Let's Democratize the Economy and Overturn Hierarchy

Vice knows she's ugly, so puts on her Mask --Poor Richard

Doug Henwood:
And while this book has been rather unfriendly to New Economy dogma, it's still worth examining its utopian bits. Arising in the midst of what looked like a period of unrestrained capitalist triumphalism, New Economy discourse expressed hopes for something rather different from our predominant economic reality. In a time of massive wealth polarization, it talked about the dream of democratization of ownership. In a time of mass overwork, it dreamt of meaningful, enjoyable work, self-management, and flattened hierarchies. In what seemed like a profoundly conservative time, it appropriated language of the revolution (the image of Lenin was even used to advertise a cable-TV company). Amidst a vast speedup of the social factory's assembly line, it evoked fantasies of abundance. And amidst aggressive attempts to privatize information, tighten up intellectual property restrictions, and put a meter on almost everything but the air, it stoked hopes for global linkages. "Information wants to be free," the saying goes, but not as long as AOL Time Warner has its say.

But why did The System's publicists need the utopian story? If all challenges to capitalism were dead, why did we hear so much about democratization and the overturning of hierarchy? Evidently the message has appeal, even in apparently conservative times.

Fine. If a little hierarchy-overturning economic democratization is such a good thing, then why not more? As Jack Kemp once said in a very different context, if you're going to go for it, you should really go for it.

Doug Henwood, After the New Economy, The New Press, New York, 2003, pp.229-230

Sunday, January 09, 2005


Gibson J-55

See Ben F. Shops for an Acoustic Guitar below

Bush is a War Criminal: It's the Law

Singularity in the right, hath ruined many: happy those who are convinced of the general Opinion. --Poor Richard

Mandel: Forgive me, but so far in this discussion I think we've left out the most important issue, legally and morally, which is who started this war in the first place. The invasion of Iraq was a "crime against peace," the number 1 count in the Nuremberg Charter's indictment of the Nazi war criminals: 'planning, preparation, initiation [and] waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties'--international treaties just like the Charter of the United Nations. It's what the Nuremberg Tribunal called "the supreme international crime." The President was made aware of this by a great number of international lawyers around the world before the invasion...Bush and his administration and the US commanders involved are all guilty of this supreme crime. Since the war was unlawful, the many thousands of deaths predictably resulting from it are also crimes, murder in fact, for which Bush and his officials and commanders are guilty in flagrante.

Continued in the link below:

Torture and International Human Rights

Cons vs. Neo-Cons on Iraq, Pt. 1

He that by the Plough would thrive, himself must either hold or drive.
--Poor Richard


It's Cons vs. Neo-cons on Iraq strategy now. Brent Scowcroft in today's NY Times:

In a speech Thursday at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute in Washington, Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adivser of President George H. W. Bush and an increasingly vocal critic of the war, warned of the danger of the election worsening the conflict. "The Iraqi elections, rather than turning out to be a promising turning point, have the great potential for deepening the conflict," he said.

Article continued at:
US is Haunted by Original Plan for Iraq Voting

Slave Sovereignty: Palestinian Elections Under Occupation

A Plowman on his Legs is higher than a Gentleman on his Knees.--Poor Richard

By Omar Barghouti

Many Palestinians are boasting that they will soon enjoy, again, the most free and democratic elections in the entire Arab World. The only problem is that electing a Palestinian president while still under the boot of the occupier is an oxymoron. Sovereignty and occupation are mutually exclusive.

Continued at the link below:

Slave Sovereignty

The Other Tsunami --John Pilger

Pride breakfasted with Plenty, dined with Poverty, supped with Infamy.
--Poor Richard


The hypocrisy, narcissism and dissembling propaganda of the rulers of the world and their sidekicks are in full cry. Superlatives abound as to their humanitarian intent while the division of humanity into worthy and unworthy victims dominates the news. The victims of a great natural disaster are worthy (though for how long is uncertain) while the victims of man-made imperial disasters are unworthy and very often unmentionable. Somehow, reporters cannot bring themselves to report what has been going on in Aceh, supported by "our" government. This one-way moral mirror allows us to ignore a trail of destruction and carnage that is another tsunami.

Continued at the link below:

The Other Tsunami

Saturday, January 08, 2005


T-Bone Walker

See The Essential Liberty of the Smooth Blues below


Misora Hibari

Hibari is the young girl in the bottom left corner.
She was a tremendously talented Korean-Japanese
singer who sang many styles of music, but is most
remembered as an enka singer. I will write a post about
enka music in the near future.


Louis Jordan

See The Essential Liberty of the Smooth Blues below.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Faith Versus Good Works

"Franklin's objection to the Calvinist theology of the Puritans of Boston and the Presbyterians of Philadelphia was based on its insistence that salvation could come only through God's grace rather than through good works. In 1734, a preacher from Ireland named Samuel Hemphill came to Philadelphia and began preaching the doctrine of good works, much to Franklin's pleasure. But the local synod put him on trial for heresy. In a fictional dialogue Franklin printed in his paper, he defended Hemphill and his doctrine."
Walter Isaacson, A Benjamin Franklin Reader, pp.101-106


The Pennsylvania Gazette, April 10, 1735
(Beginning excerpted)
...T. Perhaps you may think, that though faith alone cannot save a man, morality or virtue alone, may.

S. Morality or virtue is the end, faith only a means to obtain that end: and if the end be obtained, it is no matter by what means. What think you of these sayings of Christ, when he was reproached for conversing chiefly with gross sinners, the whole, says he, need not a physician, but they that are sick; and, I come not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance: does not this imply, that there were good men, who, without faith in him, were in a state of salvation?...

T. If Mr. H Is a Presbyterian teacher, he ought to preach as Presbyterians use to preach; or else he may justly be condemned and silenced by our church authority. We ought to abide by the Westminster confessions of faith; and he that does not, ought not to preach in our meetings.

S. The apostasy of the church from the primitive simplicity of the gospel, came on by degrees; and do you think that the reformation was of a sudden perfect, and that the first reformers knew at once all that was right or wrong in religion? Did not Luther at first preach only against selling of pardons, allowing all the other practices of the Romish church for good? He afterwards went further, and Calvin, some think, yet further. The Church of England made a stop, and fixed her faith and doctrine by 39 articles; with which the Presbyterians not satisfied, went yet farther; but being too self-confident to think, that as their fathers were mistaken in some things, they also might be in some others; and fancying themselves infalliable in their interpretations, they also tied themselves down by the Westminster confession. But has not a synod that meets in King George the second's reign, as much right to interpret scripture, as one that met in Oliver's time? And if any doctrine then maintained is, or shall hereafter be found not altogether orthodox, why must we be for ever confined to that, or to any, confession?

T. But if the majority of the synod be against any innovation, they may justly hinder the innovator from preaching.

S. That is as much as to say, if the majority of the preachers be in the wrong, they may justly hinder any man from setting the people right; for a majority may be in the wrong as well as the minority, and frequently are. In the beginning of the reformation, the majority was vastly against the reformers, and continues so to this day; and, if, according to your opinion, they had a right to silence the minority. I am sure the minority ought to have been silent. But tell me, if the Presbyterians in this country, being charitably inclined, should send a missionary into Turkey, to propagate the gospel, would it not be unreasonable in the Turks to prohibit his preaching?

T. It would, to be sure, because he comes to them for their good.

S. And if the Turks, believing us in the wrong, as we think them, should out of the same charitable disposition, send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, ought we not in the same manner to give him free liberty of preaching his doctrine?

T. It may be so; but what would you infer from that?

S. I would only infer, that if it would be thought reasonable to suffer a Turk to preach among us a doctrine diametrically opposite to Christianity, it cannot be reasonable to silence one of our own preachers, for preaching a doctrine exactly agreeable to Christianity, only because he does not perhaps zealously propagate all the doctrines of an old confession. And upon the whole, though the majority of the synod should not in all respects approve of Mr. H's doctrine, I do not however think they will find it proper to condemn him. We have justly denied the infallibility of the pope and his councils and synods in their interpretations of scripture, and can we modestly claim infallibility for our selves or our synods in our way of interpreting? Peace, unity and virtue in any church are more to be regarded than orthodoxy. In the present weak state of humane nature, surrounded as we are on all sides with ignorance and error, it little becomes poor fallible man to be positive and dogmatical in his opinions. No point of faith is so plain, as that morality is our duty, for all sides agree in that. A virtuous heretic shall be saved before a wicked Christian: for there is no such thing as voluntary error. Therefore, since 'tis an uncertainty till we get to heaven what true orthodoxy in all points is, and since our congregation is rather too small to be divided, I hope this misunderstanding will soon be got over, and that we shall as heretofore unite again in mutual Christian Charity.

T. I wish we may. I'll consider of what you've said, and wish you well.

S. Farewell

Poor Richard Denies He Is Franklin

"Although Franklin loved the freedom afforded by writing under the thin disguise of Poor Richard, he occasionally poked through the veil in a humorous way. Some of his pseudononymous pieces he made sure remained anonymous, but usually it was well known that he was the writer. At the end of 1735, he made fun of this process by having Poor Richard, in his preface for 1736, pretend to protest about those who thought he was merely a fictional invention of his printer Franklin."
Walter Isaacson, A Benjamin Franklin Reader, pp.100-101

Poor Richard's Almanac for 1736

Loving Readers,
Your kind acceptance of my former labors, has encouraged me to continue writing, though the general approbation you have been so good as to favor me with, has excited the envy of some, and drawn upon me the malice of others. These ill-willers of mine, despited at the great reputation I gained by exactly predicting another man's death, have endeavored to deprive me of it all at once in the most effectual manner, by reporting that I my self was never alive. They say in short, that there is no such a man as I am; and have spread this notion so thoroughly in the country, that I have been frequently told it to my face by those that don't know me. This is not civil treatment, to endeavor to deprive me of my very being, and reduce me to a non-entity in the opinion of the public. But so long as I know my self to walk about, eat, drink and sleep, I am satisfied that there is really such a man as I am, whatever they may say to the contrary: and the world may be satisfied likewise; for if there were no such man as I am, how is it possible I should appear publicly to hundreds of people, as I have done for several years past, in print? I need not, indeed, have taken any notice of so idle a report, if it had not been for the sake of my printer, to whom my enemies are pleased to ascribe by productions; and who it seems is as unwilling to father my offspring, as I am to lose the credit of it. Therefore to clear him entirely, as well as to vindicate my own honor, I make this public and serious declaration, which I desire may be believed, to wit, that what I have written heretofore, and do now write, neither was nor is written by any other man or men, person or persons whatsoever. Those who are not satisfied with this, must needs be very unreasonable.
My performance for this year follows; it submits itself, kind reader, to thy censure, but hopes for thy candor, to forgive its faults. It devotes itself entirely to thy service, and will serve thee faithfully: and if it has the good fortune to please its master, 'tis gratification enough for the labor of poor
R. Saunders

Mark Anderson:
Props to Hugh Hewitt for the link.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Haloscan in the House

Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Previous commenters:
Importing Haloscan erased all the previous comments. Sorry!


Nat King Cole Trio Posted by Hello

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Ben F. Shops for an Acoustic Guitar

Franklin's talents also included playing the violin, the harp, and the guitar.
K. Sprang

Last month my 1973 Gibson J-55 acoustic guitar finally bought it. I took it in to Willie's Guitars to have them fix the binding around the top (it's plastic and it's decomposing) and reset the neck (the action is too high). They said the quality control on the 70s Gibsons was really bad and they see this constantly. One guy had the top of his 70s Gibson Hummingbird replaced under warranty two or three times and it always got a new crack. The repairs for my guitar would cost more than the guitar is worth (about $600).

So I've been doing a little shopping for an acoustic guitar. I have to say, I came out all right on this guitar from an economic point of view. I bought it at an auction in 1975 for $150. It was never a particularly good J-55, but it was a very good guitar for that price. And I've been playing it for nearly thirty years now. That comes out to about $5 a year!

The problem is, what to replace it with. Do any of you have the slightest idea what acoustic guitars cost these days? To begin to find an acoustic guitar that sounds remotely as good as this mediocre Gibson you have to spend at least a $1000. A really fine one you'd be happy to play until death do you part would run you from $1500-$3000!

When I was younger and played in a band all the time, I was convinced that Gibson acoustics were a lot more rock n' roll than the Martin guitars that all the folkies played. Gibsons have balls. To the ear of a Martin player, Gibsons are just crude and really don't resonate in the euphonic way that Martins do.

Being at Willie's Guitars to pick up my Gibson after it was rejected for repairs, I checked out their stock in acoustics. They had four used Gibson J-45s, a wider necked guitar than the J-55, but a guitar with a fiercely loyal following. They ranged from $1500-$3500. I wasn't charmed enough by any of them to put down that kind of money on one. A couple of them had their virtues. Maybe they just need new strings, but I wasn't feeling it with them.

A few weeks later, I went back in. They had a new Martin D-18 for $1500 and a couple of early 70s ones for $1350. These Martins have a beautiful tone, they almost disappear behind the strings with a very full and soft sound. I think the HD-28 like Lester Flatt plays was $3500. They had a D-18 I became particularly interested in which was custom-ordered with an Adirondack spruce top and scalloped bracing. These are features you normally find only on the D-18 Golden Era Martin which runs to over $3000. They were willing to let this one go for a little over $2000. They let me take it home for a test drive (actually Molly, the acoustic guitar person at the store, told a fellow employee she was changing its strings because it was going out on a date).

I gave it quite a workout that night. I got pretty sore fingers. I played a little Blind Willie Johnson. I played a couple of my own tunes. Some Paul Simon, because his stuff is so acoustic guitar oriented. I even played Mother Nature's Son and Blackbird (except for the intro which still needs some work) while the wife sang along. A lovely time was had by all.

This guitar was very easy to play and sounded beautiful. It was trying to move in with me and it was hard to think of a reason to resist. But $2000(!), I kept thinking. That's a hell of a lot of money for a guitar. You better really be in love with a guitar you spend that much money on. It really was a lot like a date with a cool person you are really attracted to, but something you can't put your finger on is missing. What should you do?

I was still deeply ambivalent as I packed up the Martin to take it back to Willie's. I had to go there anyway to drop off my Esquire. They had done a refret and the neck had dried out at my house and the new frets were sticking out a little too far. What would I say? Ask them to go down a little on the price?

As I was leaving, I decided I would do two things: I would ask them if they could sell my Gibson on consignment to help lower the price and I would ask if they could knock a couple hundred more dollars off the price. I drove a little out of my way to stop at Hoffman's guitars on the way there. Charles Hoffman is a local luthier who makes his own guitars by hand, one at a time. He has a tremendous reputation. I just found out this afternoon that Leo Kottke (who lives somewhere in town) played one for over ten years. I stopped in there to see if that would give me some perspective.

The first thing I had was sticker shock. The lowest priced guitar in the row was $3000. Next, $3500. The top two were $5000. I figured, well, I can't afford any of these guitars, but it can't hurt to see how they play. Maybe someday I'll find a pot of money and I can afford one. The first one I played absolutely floored me. It sounded just like my Gibson, only with a little more presence and volume. The note sustained in exactly the same way. Even the neck had a similar feel. I talked to him about the guitar a little.

"I have a J-55 and it's uncanny how Gibsony this sounds, only better." "That's exactly right," he replied. "My first guitar was an Epiphone Texan [which are made by Gibson--Mark]. I've always loved something about the sound of that guitar and thought it would be important to try to capture it in a guitar I made myself."

He sure did. A new Gibson J-45 straight from the company in Bozeman, Montana lists for close to $4000. I find it hard to believe one of the new Gibsons could touch this Hoffman. But I don't see myself spending $3500 anytime soon, either. So?

Playing this killer guitar by Hoffman made me realize I was holding out on the Martin because as glorious as it sounds, it just doesn't have the meaty sound of this Gibsonesque Hoffman guitar. I am going to have to save my pennies for a used Gibson that suits my fancy or buy one of these Hoffmans when I've paid off more of my student loans (still around $20,000, but $10,000 below where I started). "Sorry, Martin D-18 with the Adirondack spruce top and the scalloped bracings--you have to go back to Willie's." After I told her the story of my trip to Hoffman's, Molly was very gracious about the whole thing. "That's why we let them go out overnight," she said. "So you can figure out those kinds of things." They wouldn't put my Gibson up for sale on consignment, though. "It's decomposing. What if parts of it started falling off while it was here? We wouldn't want to be responsible."

On my way out, Woody, guitar tech to the stars according to my friend, was explaining to a customer why they don't work on guitars made in China, especially the ones under $200. I had seen the signs to that effect before and they struck me as a little snobbish. "Can they be that bad?," I thought. I was curious what he would say.

"We have a term for them in the industry: ISOs--Instrument-Shaped Objects. You start to work on them, and while your fixing one thing, something else snaps off. They are so poorly made, it's just not worth the trouble."

I have a friend with a beautiful Chinese harp handmade in China and lately they've started making some nice tube stereo stuff, but I'll take Woody's word on this. The guitars that we get here made by the transnational corporations in China suck.

The week before, when I was looking at the Gibsons, a customer was talking to Woody about the Gibson factory in Bozeman. They've been making some really fine guitars the last four or five years, he said. They've been doing really well with the quality control. But word has it Gibson is closing the factory and moving production to China. Woody said,"This just doesn't work with guitar production. How many guitar companies have gone out of business after they tried to move to China? Hamer, Charvel, Rainsong, Johnson, the list goes on and on."

Should we hope the Gibson Corporation's talents include the ability to make a guitar in China that isn't an ISO? Or not?