Jeff Being Jeff
Warren Zevon & The New Mind Of The South
Thoughts of Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long” are stirred when reading The New Mind of the South , the recently published book by journalist Tracy Thompson. The New Mind of the South , an engaging and edifying work, illustrates that for all the changes the South has experienced in the last 50-60 years, old ways and long-held beliefs still die hard. Thompson is especially clear when explaining that many old-line Southerners still believe the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery. And, yes, the old-line Southerners had that half-baked history passed on to them just as they’ll pass it on the next generation and then the next… These people would fit in nicely with the crowd at the Dew Drop Inn, the shelter Zevon created for fellowship and lubrication.
As “Play It All Night Long” begins, the music is all gloom and dread. An image of Robert Mitchum chasing down those kids in Night of the Hunter comes to mind. The scenes described in this song are not comforting either. A surly grandfather who cannot control his bladder; a violent brother crazed by his experiences in Vietnam. Grandma has cancer. The cattle have brucellosis, There’s drunkenness, incest and a general disregard for life. The family put forward by Warren Zevon makes the Joads seem like the Waltons. But as Zevon begins to sing of the sad, chaotic lives, the beat picks up. The music is tailor-made for a square dance, Southern Gothic style.
The song has a rousing chorus: “Sweet Home Alabama, play that dead band’s song. Turn those speakers up full blast. Play it all night long.” It’s easy to visualize Zevon leading several rounds of the chorus with the guys at the Dew Drop Inn. It sounds like fun. However, one may not wish to linger too late at that watering hole.
According to a Rolling Stone review , “Play It All Night Long” was intended in part as a tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Included on 1980′s Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, Zevon’s fourth album, “Play It All Night Long” was not your typical tribute. The song’s description of country living, “sweat, piss, jizz and blood” was different from life in Alabama where the skies are so blue. But Zevon’s logic and sense of humor were delightfully twisted, allowing him to mix more than a dash of reality in his presentation.
Zevon’s perspective on country living wasn’t the same as Jesse Colin Young’s. Born in Chicago and having lived most his life in California, Zevon may have learned a lot about the Deep South from other Mitchum films such as Thunder Road and Cape Fear. A lot of tough living can be easily visualized or experienced. Encountering willful ignorance in out-of-the-way places isn’t all that rare, even more than 30 years after Zevon wrote “Play It All Night Long,” as Tracy Thompson learned in her reporting. And sometimes, what’s observed makes one careful not to share opinions.
We’ve Let The Demons Loose… In Northeast Georgia, away from the sprawl of the Atlanta area, there’s a cozy cabin serving as a restaurant and bar. It’s slightly more upscale than Zevon’s Dew Drop Inn. Emanating from the cabin often is the smell of barbeque. One day about ten years ago, I drove by the place but quickly turned around. It was time for a chopped pork sandwich. I’m out of my car with a copy of James M. McPherson’s great volume on the Civil War and Reconstruction, Battle Cry of Freedom, thinking I’d read it while drinking a beer. Upon walking inside, there’s a big Confederate battle flag hoisted on the wall, along with unflattering remarks about Georgia Governor Roy Barnes on bumper stickers and signs. Barnes’ great crime was fashioning a new state flag with less prominence for the Confederate battle emblem (St. Andrew’s cross). I headed back to the car to swap out books, grabbing one on baseball to peruse instead. It hardly seemed wise to invite a conversation about Harper’s Ferry or Gettysburg when all I wanted was a beer and a sandwich. After a great expanse of adulthood, one finally learns the proper subjects to discuss with certain folks. These people, fitting the Flannery O’Connor description as being more Christ-haunted than Christ-centered, may believe in Bible-reading and prayer in schools, but cross them and you’ll be praying harder than ever.
Thompson, recalling the 1962 Supreme Court edict prohibiting compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools, notes how the schools in her suburb, south of Atlanta, were determined to ignore the highest court in the land. Even into the early 70s, Thompson’s public high school would set aside time for Christian pep rallies “in which a local youth minister invited people down front to give their lives to Jesus.” In another southside suburb, not far east of Thompson’s home town, I attended public schools that exhibited similar defiance. Programs for all students* in the gym during school hours were held which featured Christian comedians and semi-celebrities (one was a former member of Paul Revere and the Raiders – one of that band’s two dozen former members, that is). Since most middle-schoolers were just happy to get out of class, there was little said between students about the church-state thing. Besides, many of us had gone through elementary school classes where Bible verses were read and the Lord’s Prayer was said, in unison, by all the students. It was part of the daily drill leading up to multiplication tables and past-participles. One teacher continued, Earl Warren be damned, to take 15-20 minutes reading stories from the Bible everyday. Give old Mrs. Bledsoe her due: she was good at it. Those Old Testament stories with floods, lust-inspired murder, a disobedient wife turned into a pillar of salt and other dramatic events were vividly presented.
After Appomattox… On The Losing Side… Warren Zevon could spin some tales himself. On his first album for Asylum Records, he sings of a woman who couldn’t be persuaded. She was determined to “marry that gambling man.” Zevon’s “Mama” paid no mind to her parents as they warned of the troubles ahead. No words, though, even when lovingly offered, could change her mind. The same goes for Mrs. Bledsoe’s stridency about class devotionals and the die-hard Southerners who believe the Confederacy has gotten a raw deal from historians. Such people can’t be persuaded to see things differently because of how fiercely they believe — and their belief that others should see things their way. Mrs Bledsoe believed she was serving God, not nine men in black robes. The die-hard fans of Davis, Lee, Jackson, et al have swallowed gallons of Confederate Kool-aid, holding fast to their contrived beliefs. The world passes them and Mrs. Bledsoe by, but those of us here persevering in the world as it is, see our home turf set back. We have the holier-than-thou who post Ten Commandments signs in their yards (inside their homes must be some really perfect people) along with spiteful reactionaries possessing enough clout to help vote a good Governor out of office. Tracy Thompson, in her journeys through familiar territory finds and reports on situations similar to these, all sad and confounding. Yet she does find rays of hope in a still-evolving South. Perhaps, nearly 150 years after Lee’s surrender, even those in the Dew Drop Inns will accept the war’s outcome.
Quite often we’re disappointed — or just put out — with the places we’ve called home. A lot of my kinfolk were born and raised in Northeast Georgia. I still go up there frequently to enjoy the natural beauty and push the mower through a mile or two of grass. From the ’70s into the early part of this century, it seemed things were getting better there and throughout the state. Old racist beliefs and reactionary politics were being set aside. Citizens seeking moderate and progressive government could point with pride to leaders like Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, Wyche Fowler, Max Cleland, and for a time, even Zell Miller. Georgia-born Martin Luther King, Jr, though gone from us for more than four decades, became a lasting symbol for the state, unlike Lester Maddox, once Georgia’s governor and, despite his popularity with the bigots, a pathetic embarrassment. That silly little man, waving his pistol and ax handles to keep black people from coming into his Atlanta restaurant. In the mid 60s, he had his day, beating the drum for segregation, but Georgians, tired of the clamor, left him and his reactionary politics behind. Or at least they did in ’74, when they denied Maddox another term as governor. But how lasting was this positive change? Here in the 21st Century, the state has slipped back to reactionary ways. There seems to be more representation for those living far from the population centers than for those where the state’s larger economic concerns are tended to.The moderates and progressives shake their heads and hope for change in the next election cycle or maybe the one after that. A leading candidate for a U.S Senate seat, Paul Broun, now representing a portion of Northeast Georgia, claimed two years ago that FDR had sent advisers to the U.S.S.R. in order to study socialism with Josef Stalin. Private sessions with Uncle Joe. Of course, even as that claim and others by Broun were disproved and laughed off, he won reelection (with no real opposition) to his seat in the House of Representatives. Broun (rhymes with clown) also believes that the “only Constitution that Barack Obama upholds is the Soviet Constitution.” When people keep sending a guy like that to Washington, it’s a glaring sign of insecurity. They’re as desperate as Zevon’s man, hiding in Honduras. No rays of hope; just fear and the desire to create more fear.
Trouble Waiting To Happen… There’s nothing like fear to keep the people in line, and as Thompson makes clear, the South, especially Georgia, has churches to exploit those fears. The Pat Robertsons and Falwellians, with their crass form of Christianity, have been particularly successful in scaring conservative white Americans of minorities, homosexuals, immigrants and certain books in the public libraries. By the late 70s, Republicans tapped into that white Christian sub-culture, merging frustrations over the ’62 school prayer ruling, Roe vs. Wade and the struggling Carter Administration. The merger took and helped create a Republican base. Members of mega-churches got behind Ronald Reagan, as he spoke of a “strapping buck” buying a T-Bone with food stamps. Nancy Reagan, at a campaign appearance for her husband, gushed over seeing “all these beautiful white faces.” Battle lines were being drawn.
Touting fear and obedience works on both sides of the street. While not as politically connected, mega-churches have also become prominent in African-American communities, particularly in the South. In College Park, Georgia, close to where Thompson grew up, is World Changers Church International, founded by one of the nation’s most influential black leaders, Creflo Dollar. The chief Changer is quite skilled. He’s adept at mixing fear with promises of material gains. The prosperity pitch works even better when more dollars are sought for the collection plates.
Thompson attended a service at the World Dome, packed in with the other 8,500 congregants, most of them seeking guidance from the Reverend Dollar and willing to open their wallets for the privilege. They must believe they get their money’s worth as Dollar preaches, rambles and preens for an hour and more. Dollar channels his inner Joe Tex, admonishing the men there to cherish their wives, skinny legs and all. Thompson got it all down:
“You have Christian men who are arrogant and prideful and not accommodating, who have the nerve to tell their wives they are fat.” More mmm, mmms. A Christian man can’t just sit back and be the biblical head of the household, he went on; a woman whose man doesn’t treat her right will find a man who does. “An unsaved man will open the door for her. An unsaved man will wine her and dine her!….. “You have to get your mind right with God and treat your woman like she need to be treated! If you drink from the fountain, you ain’t gonna need no Viagra!” The crowd loved that, but Dollar stopped abruptly, as if the word “Viagra” had reminded him of where he was. He managed to look charmingly abashed. “Y’all forgive me. I’m still a work in progress.”
The people feasted on Dollar’s manna, laughing and showering the handsome Reverend with applause. This would be another profitable day for yet another Poseur-for-Christ. Thompson explains how Dollar closes the deal:
Here it comes, I thought, and when it did, it was a straight forward pitch, he had given them something spiritual today that was of value; in return, they should give something of value back.
And it was working: people were getting up from everywhere in the arena and coming down front in a steady stream with white envelopes in their hands, depositing them in front of the pulpit, while others were putting theirs in the buckets the ushers were passing along the rows. While this was happening, Dollar addressed his critics. “Now some people say, ‘I like your preaching, Reverend. I just don’t like all this talk about prosperity and healing.’ I say, fine. You want to be broke and sick?” And the money flowed down the aisles like a river.
The river of money guaranteed Dollar’s high-rolling lifestyle would go on. Jets. A Rolls. An estate. Crisply-tailored suits. All this and more when supposedly representing Christ, who said “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20)
Dollar’s skills at persuasion also enabled him this year to have simple battery charges against him dropped by paying court costs and agreeing to attend anger management classes. There was some unpleasantness over slapping and choking his teenage daughter one night when she said something that set him off. He also claimed she hit him. The daughter, no doubt remembering to honor her parents, consented to the state court’s arrangements.
But what could the poor kid do? She’s still a minor — the daughter of the pastor with over 40,000 members in his church. The pastor with an empire of media and real estate. The material comforts of living at Manor Dollarama can surely ease some pain. And besides, she’s the daughter of one perceived by some of her fellow church members to be nearly Divine himself. The minds of Dollar’s supporters are no doubt filled with admonitions of honor thy father and mother and spare the rod and spoil the child: Reverend Dollar was only showing his daughter the path to righteousness.
Mutual agreement is often found between conservative Christians, be they black or white, about the discipline of their children. When news of the Creflo Dollar broke in summer 2012, well-known electronic media commentators appeared sympathetic to the Pastor. Brenda Wood, anchor for the local NBC affiliate, spoke on the air about spankings she received as a child, concluding, “I like to think I turned out okay.” Wood’s opinion was similar to that of local radio personality Frank Ski, who recalled punches in the mouth he got when back-talking his father. Ski appears to have turned out okay as well. At least that’s what he says. But he, Wood and Dollar also seem to embrace the guidance-through-fear approach, even though striking a child one brought into the world is a degenerate act. Like a lot of Christians, they love to talk about Jesus, but that Old Testament vengeance comes in handy too.
Jubilation In The Land… A rollicking song on Warren Zevon’s last album, The Wind, is “Disorder in the House.” Zevon’s “house” is one “where the tub runneth over” and “plaster’s falling down in pieces by the couch of pain.” He’s “sprawled across the davenport of despair” but vows, “I’ll live with the losses and watch the sundown through the portiere.” Written and recorded in the last year of his life, “Disorder in the House” Zevon reflects Zevon’s ever-twisting perspective, one that’s complicated but teeming with unique clarity.
Thompson captures the complications, some vexing and others compelling in The New Mind Of The South. Like a lot of baby boomers who grew up south of the Mason-Dixon line hoping for more and better, she takes note of the beliefs, attitudes and actions that keep the Deep South states from realizing their potential. She also sees reason for hope, however. It may be that, despite the reactionary politicians and the 21st Century versions of Elmer Gantry, the South is becoming a more colorful and interesting place to live. Throughout the book, she focuses on the Atlanta area, seldom exciting when she was growing up, but now culturally intriguing.
Today, Atlanta really is a cosmopolitan place. The Buford Highway corridor on the Northside of the city is home to a thriving polyglot community of Mexicans, Salvadorans, Vietnamese, Thai, Indians, and people from the Carribean nations: on the Southside of town, where I grew up, a Hindu temple has replaced what used to be a cow pasture on Highway 85 in Riverdale. Tucked away in the pine woods a few miles away is a trailor park of Hispanic residents big enough to qualify as a municipality in itself — just one of dozens like it throughout the country. A sizeable Pakistani community has settled in and around Jonesboro and there’s a mosque half a block from the courthouse on the main square in Fayetteville. East of the city, the DeKalb County Farmers Market — founded in 1977 as your basic roadside stand — is now 140,000 square feet of produce, coffees, chocolates, grains and cheeses from all over the world. These scenes are being repeated on varying scales in places like Raleigh-Durham, Charlotte, Nashville and Little Rock.
Hit Me Like A Ton Of Bricks… “We’ll go walkin’ hand in hand, laughin’ fit to beat the band,” sang Zevon in “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path,” a song from his first Asylum album, released in ’76. Zevon told his wife, Crystal Zevon, “When I’m dead, wait and see if they don’t figure out that was the best song I ever wrote.” Zevon may have been right. “Backs Turned Looking Down the Path” is a sprightly song, direct and optimistic, Zevon comes to a crossroads where he “had to get my outlook fixed.” A lot of outlooks have changed down South, as Tracy Thompson would acknowledge. Consider one white Southern family who lived in the Atlanta neighborhood of Grove Park, west of Downtown, near the epicenter of the region’s hip-hop scene: Bankhead Highway. In the 50s, the family moved from Grove Park as the kids all grown up and married, settled in the city’s suburbs, mostly south of the city. To say the least, it’s been a conservative crew, but in certain ways over recent years, they had to get their outlook fixed. Another human emotion: love, more potent and pleasing than fear, took hold again and again. Love across color lines and borders. Showing up at Thanksgiving were the new members of the family from Brazil, Sweden, Colombia, Venezuela and one from whose people were established in this country long before the landing on Plymouth Rock. Potential spouses with lineage from Mexico, Korea, and slave cabins have also shown up. Over turkey and dressing, backs have turned and some old ways become history. People can get their outlooks fixed.
*No students were forced to attend. They were allowed to sit in a study hall during the programs if they wished. That still didn’t mean the law of the land was obeyed.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Doug Monroe, a longtime Atlanta reporter for chatting with me about the matters addressed in this story. Also, a full disclosure: Tracy Thompson, while growing up, attended East Point Christian Church, just south of Atlanta. My grandparents taught Sunday School there and my parents were married there in 1951. She also worked at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as a reporter in the ’80s, around the same time I began a 27 year career in the newspaper’s advertising department. Still, Tracy Thompson and I have never met.