Sites & Sounds
Aurora at Midnight
Mama Said There’ ll Be Days Like This… Mid-summer 1971. My riding buddy, Joe Davis, and I are at Casa Taco, enjoying what we thought was authentic Mexican grub. It made us feel quite progressive, snubbing the Burger King next door. It also made us feel thrifty. We could get a lot of food – a feast – for two bucks at Casa Taco. And having visited most of the record stores in the South Atlanta suburbs that day, spending money at every stop, I barely had two bucks to spend. After all, I had picked up new albums that day by Rod Stewart, Graham Nash, Edgar Winter’s White Trash and Procol Harum, along with older titles by a few other artists. The money went first for the essentials. Then meals.
As we inhaled our food, Joe and I took notice of some tension at the counter. A young woman, quite loud and feisty, was ordering take-out. Upon getting her order, she checked the bag for its contents and asked for another container of hot sauce. “No,” she was told by the cashier, “just two packages of sauce on this order.” “Oh, gimme one more,” the woman said, already exasperated. “No,” the woman at the register said again. The line behind the angry customer is building but the Casa Taco cashier is holding her ground, even if there’s only two cents of hot sauce at stake. I had worked briefly for the restaurant a year or so before, so their discipline regarding portion controls was no surprise. Allowing a big scene before customers, however, was. Whatever, Joe and I were enjoying the little drama, yet hopeful it’d be resolved before we ordered our sopapillas. The drama got louder and quite profane but Casa Taco held on to all the sauce that was rightfully theirs. The customer clutched her bag of food, exclaiming, “OK, bitch,” and headed for the door. A couple of minutes pass. It’s almost sopapilla time. Then the customer reappears. She opens the door and throws her food, hot sauce and all, on the floor, shouting, “Bitch!!!” She heads back to her car, scratching off so everyone will see how tough she is. Joe and I get up, but seeing the line is by now quite long, decide to come back later for dessert. We walk around the frijoles and chips on the floor and go to my car.
Returning some twenty minutes later, we saw the police had arrived but all they did was take down what the cashier said and order a few tacos to go. The cops did not ask for extra hot sauce.
This was a great story for a mild-mannered 17 year-old boy to come home and tell his parents. Or so I thought. My mother was so put out. “You boys saw all that, you leave and come back, even though a woman like that could show up with a gun and shoot everyone there,” Mother said, perhaps confusing Casa Taco with The Long Branch Saloon on Gunsmoke. I tried to explain about the sopapillas, but gave up, learning it was unwise to share too much information with the folks.
A Hot Sauce Shoot-Out? Oh please. Yet my mother was on to something. Mass murders and outbreaks of violence were frequently the news of the day. Young Americans looking forward to adulthood had reason to feel wary about the years ahead. From our elementary school years on, one grim story of violence would be followed by another. First JFK and roughly 15 months later, Malcolm X. Then coming to a community near you: mass murders of everyday people –those known only to family and friends, all victims of slaughter. On August 1, 1966, there was the shooting rampage by Charles Whitman, who killed 16 on the University of Texas campus in Austin. Whitman, finally taken down at the scene by two Austin police officers, also wounded 32 others, making for a total of 48 victims. Only two weeks before Whitman went on his killing spree, Richard Speck murdered eight Chicago nurses. The very next summer, riots resulted in needless deaths; 26 in Newark, 43 in Detroit. In the spring of ’68 Martin Luther King, Jr and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated. Then came the riots in Chicago at the Democratic Party convention. Partisans on both the right and the left still believe America in 1968 was on the brink of another civil war. And then there was the war in Vietnam, the main reason for the widening chasm in America. Given that another Texan had sent over 30,000 young American men to their deaths in Southeast Asia by 1969, and that the war sapping the morale of the world’s greatest superpower seemed endless, even a massacre like Whitman’s would seem like ancient history in less than five years. The country had changed more than we wanted to admit.
“The Wild Truth,” a 1987 song by T-Bone Burnett, brought to mind how chaos seemed to lurk at each corner. Our sense of well-being, even in communities as restful as the Cleavers’ Mayfield, was no longer a sure thing.
Whatever happened to the man walking down the street
With his hands in his pockets whistling a tune?
Science fiction and nostalgia have become the same thing
Lester Bangs Said So… Over several nights in the fall of ’73, Atlanta’s Great Southeast Music Hall presented the Goose Creek Symphony. The Arizona country-rock band, with both rural and progressive flavorings, had developed a solid following throughout Georgia since they played the 2nd Atlanta Pop Festival in 1970. Their performances were lively and infectious. When one saw the show on Friday night, catching it again on Saturday and Sunday nights was imperative. The patrons attending the shows were a fine match for Goose Creek Symphony, quite often as lively as the band itself. They were also receptive to the opening act, yet another group offering a new twist on country music: Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.
Called the “Lenny Bruce of country music” by critic Lester Bangs, Kinky Friedman was intent on pushing boundaries. While his first album, Sold American, featured a traditional country and western sound, the subject matter of the songs were different than those found on a Waffle House jukebox. Friedman’s satirical jabs hit hard at all comers – be they in the Waffle House or houses of refinement. He took on the nonsense of bigotry with “We Reserve the Right to Refuse Service to You,” lampooned feminism in “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed” and poked at young street evangelists in “High on Jesus.” Friedman also reminded listeners of the ’66 massacre at the University of Texas in “The Ballad of Charles Whitman.” Lenny Bruce once said “Satire is tragedy plus time.” The time elapsed had not been that long, yet each successive tragic event was pushed farther back in our collective memories. So with the riots, the assassinations, Kent State, the Manson Family murders and other horrors that occurred since Whitman took aim from the Texas tower, the Lenny Bruce adage applied. It was possible to laugh at Friedman’s take on the University of Texas massacre.
“The Ballad of Charles Whitman,” especially when performed live, is a spirited number. Kick up your heels, laugh and shake your head as the country goes to hell. Highlighted in the chorus was the “rumor about a tumor nestled at the base of his brain.” Friedman sounded almost celebratory.
He was sitting up there with his .36 magnum
Laughing wildly as he bagged ’em
Who are we to say the boy’s insane?
As if they were attending a hoedown, the Music Hall crowd whooped it up over “The Ballad of Charles Whitman.” First there was the audacity of it all. Then there was the matter of mocking the establishment. After all, as the song reminded us, Whitman had been an Eagle Scout and a Marine. The Texas murderer had once been associated with what so many of us, with Vietnam still not in our rear-view, had ridiculed. The crowd wasn’t laughing over the horror of the Austin campus; they were relating to the lies and distortions that had filled their heads as they grew up. As Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer character spieled in Annie Hall, “Everything our parents said was good is bad: sun, milk, red meat, college.” The young people at the Great Southeast Music Hall cheering on Friedman had graduated from Mad to National Lampoon. They understood. Lenny Bruce would have approved.
The Kicking Mule In Queens… Let’s give Elton John credit for understanding. His Caribou album, released in summer ’74, was a critical disappointment. Sandwiched between Goodbye Yellow Brick Road and Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, both ambitious and stunning albums, Caribou was savaged by Tom Nolan in an August ’74 Rolling Stone review. Three months later John was the Rolling Stone cover boy. In a lengthy feature he said to Ben Fong-Torres, “I can see why people hate Caribou.” John may have had Tom Nolan in mind. Nolan had little good to say about the album, giving feint praise to the opener, “The Bitch is Back,” by saying it was Caribou’s strongest cut, yet lacked real punch. From there, according to Nolan, the album was all downhill. He concluded that “nearly every song suffers from a blithe lack of focus, an almost arrogant disregard of the need to establish content or purpose.” Nolan was particularly scornful of the closing track, “Ticking,” calling it “the centerpiece fiasco.”
“Ticking” was a song about a lethal day at the Kicking Mule, a bar in the New York borough of Queens. The song’s story, conjured by John’s lyricist, Bernie Taupin, involved a young man, repressed all his life with the usual suspects, parents, teachers and priests, contributing to his misery. The ticking he heard most of his life grew louder at the bar. He wants to speak to a priest. Someone yells “His brain’s just snapped,” then the police are called. He knifes a waiter. A customer racing to the door is gunned down. Before he’s shot dead by cops while surrendering, he leaves 14 people lying dead in the bar. In getting through this song about the berserk life in America, Elton John sings stoically to his own piano accompaniment and David Hentschel’s synthesizer. Given the production and staging of “Ticking,” it’s apparent within the first thirty seconds of the song’s seven and a half minutes that mayhem will prevail. The overall effect in ’74 could either make a listener believe Taupin and John had gleaned what life in America was all about, or more accurately, believe “Ticking” to be a condescending opus, what Tom Nolan called “an appalling combination of simplemindedness, over-reaching and opportunism.”
Strange Days Indeed… Tens of thousands of Elton John fans in America may have thought more highly of the melodramatic “Ticking” than did Tom Nolan, but many had to be chagrined at the way their fellow citizens were regarded overseas. Condescending or not, the song reminded us of some painful truths. “Violence is as American as cherry pie,” H. Rap Brown famously said in the 60s, as he sought to justify, indict and then declare vengeance. It was hard to find comfort with that. A preferable suggestion came from an unlikely source, Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd, when he sang of dumping pistols “in the middle of the sea” in the band’s 75 recording, “Saturday Night Special.” That was sound advice, and the timing was right for a new direction. America was finally finished with Vietnam. Richard M. Nixon, so often in the maelstrom of our discontent, had made himself a former president. The country could go in peace and live up to the better values we so often extolled. But no, not yet, and probably never.
In September ’75, two assassination attempts within three weeks were made against Nixon’s successor, Gerald Ford. The would-be assassins were Whack-jobs, hardly the sort qualified to foment violent revolution yet both were able to acquire guns. Whack-job number one, Lynette “Squeaky Fromme, took aim with a semi-automatic pistol. Her partner in spirit, Sara Jane Moore, fired her .38 caliber, just missing the president because an onlooker, former Marine Oliver Sipple, grabbed at the gun just before she pulled the trigger. Two people gunning for the president in less than three weeks within 90 miles of each other. Gerald Ford, as much as an average guy to become president in decades, must’ve wondered what kind of country he was leading.
Less than 14 months passed before Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, was elected the nation’s 39th President, placing Ford out of harm’s way. Carter talked about his desire to provide the nation with a government as good as the American people. But he couldn’t have meant all the American people, and certainly not one like 16 year-old Brenda Ann Spencer. Standing at the window of her San Diego home on January 29, 1979, she began shooting at the kids walking to Cleveland Elementary School. Eight children and one policeman were wounded. The school’s principal, Burton Wragg, and custodian, Mike Suchar, were killed as they sought to protect the children. The killer, who received the pistol from her father for Christmas (“I felt like he wanted me to kill myself.”) had no regrets. She explained her actions by saying, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.” Later that year, the Boomtown Rats released a single entitled “I Don’t Like Mondays,” providing an overview of the Spencer shootings and the moral compass too often set aside.
And the beat went on. A very deluded young man with a bizarre personal history bought a gun and waited outside the Dakota in New York City, hoping to see John Lennon once again. The young man, who became a Christian in his teens, neglected what he read in the fifth chapter of Matthew about the meek inheriting the earth. He wanted to inherit headlines and did so with his .38 special revolver, firing 5 hollow point bullets at Lennon. Less than twenty minutes later, John Lennon was pronounced dead.
Shortly after the Lennon murder, President-Elect Ronald Reagan was asked by a reporter if he could support national legislation of handguns. Reagan said, “I never believed that. I believe in the kind of handgun legislation we have in California.” That sounded predictable enough, coming from Reagan the longtime NRA member, but the Mulford Act, which he signed as Governor of California in 1966. was gun law that today’s Republicans couldn’t run from fast enough. The Mulford Act prohibited the carrying of firearms on your person, in your vehicle, and in any public place or on the street. As governor, Reagan also signed off on a 15-day waiting period, an eternity to the bullet-heads, for firearm purchases. Having survived an assassination attempt in March ’81, not even 4 months after Lennon was killed, Reagan came around to even less favorable views about packing heat. After he left the Presidency in 1989, he supported passage of the Brady bill. Named for James Brady, the White House Press Secretary left paralyzed in the Reagan shooting, the legislation established by federal law a national uniform standard of a 7-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns, enabling checks on prospective buyers. Reagan urged his successor, President George H.W. Bush, so often fearful of provoking the far-right, to drop his opposition to the Brady bill. (The Brady bill was signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1993. His successor, George W. Bush, allowed the law to expire in 2004. Ironically enough, both Clinton and Bush had Kinky Friedman for overnights at the White House.)
Holy Second Amendment, Batman… In a ceremony at George Washington University on the 10th anniversary of the assassination attempt, Reagan stated, “With the right to bear arms comes a great responsibility to use caution and common sense on handgun purchases. And it’s just plain common sense that there be a waiting period to allow local law-enforcement officials to conduct background checks on those who wish to purchase handguns.” Reagan, who died in 2004, said that over twenty years ago but it’s a something today’s rabid Republicans, all drunk on the NRA’s Kool-Aid, wished the Gipper had never uttered. That Kool-Aid is quite intoxicating. Even with all the heartbreak of recent years in which Charles Whitman wannabe’s have taken their guns to school, the Sikh temple, the shopping center, the post office and a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, the Republicans have dug in. Deeply. In 2010, the Georgia State Legislature, passed a bill allowing people with gun permits to carry their guns in unsecured areas of the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson. Unsecured areas include the lobby, the food court and baggage claim. People close by when baggage is lost have been warned to take cover. Of course, Georgia is the state where a pastor advocates the right of those attending church services to carry guns in the sanctuary. The pastor, John Wilkins of the Baptist Tabernacle in Thomaston, Georgia, said a ban on carrying guns into churches was a violation of constitutional rights. A federal appeals court rebuffed Wilkins’ claims. The pastor may eventually be thankful for the ruling, especially if one of the church’s more volatile members is angered by his sermons.
Within hours of the massacre at a midnight screening of a Batman film in an Aurora, Colorado cinema, bullet-headed Americans hunkered down. Out of fear President Obama would immediately seek repeal of the Second Amendment, people rushed out to buy more guns and more ammo to sustain the American way of life: two chickens in every pot and a fortress in every home. Radio talkers, like the one who says he studies how Hitler gained power to better understand the Obama presidency, sounded the Second Amendment alarm. How absurd these people are. They must believe American liberals have great power. While many of us wish a more restrictive view of the Second Amendment would prevail, we know it won’t take in this country. A little more sanity would make us feel victorious though. The killer in Aurora bought 6,000 rounds of ammo. Obviously, that didn’t raise eyebrows and the bullet-heads responded with so what – the purchases were legal. Still the NRA could not contain itself. Letters went out seeking more money from its supporters. Checks must have been written quickly as supporters read of the damage a reelected Obama would cause. Weapons would be confiscated. Obama might even force a ban on semi-automatic weapons. This is holding a gun to the head, NRA style. As long as the checks come in, the propaganda needn’t be rational.
Riding Shotgun In The Sky… Later on this month, anniversary stories on the 1969 Woodstock festival will appear in the print and online journals. The stories always make for good reading even as we know the Woodstock ethos is, for the most part, forgotten. Nowadays three days of peace and music seems attainable only when safe at home with the stereo going non-stop. And many who embraced the finer aspects of Woodstock – or said they did- have only themselves to blame. The boomers didn’t get around to changing the world after all. They just became more acquisitive than their parents — the same parents intensely criticized for their supposed materialism. However, the boomers would really show them how to live: in bigger houses, with sports utility vehicles in the driveway and guns in the house and the glove compartment to secure all they’ve acquired. In her song, “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell wrote of being “Caught in the devil’s bargain.” As we attain more treasure, but only allow for a short period – if even that much – of soul searching in the wake of the Sikh temple murders in Wisconsin, it appears the devil still has us caught in his bargain. It’s a bad deal, offering no way to set one soul’s free.
The author wishes to thank his friends Heidi Rizzi, Peter Stone Brown and Rob Geurston for their help on this story.
- Image: Licensed by LikeTheDew.com at iStockPhoto.com © Carl Ballou