A new HBO doc paints a grim picture of the medium’s future as landmarks are torn down and artists move indoors
Last week, HBO debuted Banksy Does New York, a documentary on Banksy’s 2013 residency in NYC, where he debuted a new work every day in various areas of the city, each imbued with his trademark wit and moralistic commentary. Each of his pieces ignited some sort of confrontation, be it another artist painting over his work to make a point, or individuals with an entrepreneurial spirit charging admission to see a section of a wall. In Queens last fall, I got to look at one piece just hours after it was created and moments before it was defaced. The graffiti was of a workman erasing a quote from Gladiator — “What we do in life echoes in eternity.” Both the piece within the piece and the work itself would now only be echoes, as a local graffiti artist angrily tagged over it while a hissing crowd pleaded him to stop. The next day, it was painted over.
One early morning this year I was taking the 7 train in Queens, a mostly-elevated line that runs from Flushing to underneath Manhattan. The 7 is a unique vantage into the state of NYC graffiti, where street-level murals meld with larger tags in harder-to-reach places further up on buildings. In fact, it’s almost a museum in itself, with established artists like Klops sharing space with kids who are just learning the art. If you’re lucky on this early train ride, you get to meet some of the artists. At 74th street in Jackson Heights, a group of teenagers got on the train and huddled at the window. For them, it was the first time they were seeing their art the way most people do.
“Oh shit, we got high up!”
They were pointing at a tag that was almost impossibly placed on the side of a building. In the first light of day, they were finally seeing the danger that they had faced during the night before, all in their attempt to have their names echo with the riders of this train. Almost a year later, that tag they put on the side of the building remains, and will possibly stay there until the building is re-painted or torn down.
It’s the tearing down that causes a larger threat to graffiti than even policing. While famous, established groups like T.A.T.S. Cru have set up shop in community centers and been given studio space and walls on which to work, the urban environment itself is presenting less canvas than ever. As the necessary push for density emanates ever outward from the city center, gleaming condominiums have crossed over from Manhattan and into Brooklyn and Queens (one of the few places to still see graffiti in downtown Manhattan, Chinatown, has so far remained resistant to massive upscaling . . . but stay tuned), and quite symbolically, 5 Pointz is being torn down to make way for condos. While graffiti presents itself as an art with a rather low cost-of-entry, works of graffiti are now being absorbed by these massive developments, who advertise their galleries as one day hosting a show featuring the very same graffiti they replaced. The canvas has moved inside the building — to the benefit of developers, a select group of artists, and the architects of the city, who badly want more apartments built on former industrial sites as soon as possible.
So the canvas moves ever outward — not that it ever knew a boundary in the first place. When the MTA finally cracked down on graffiti artists who turned their trains into murals in the 1970s and 80s, graffiti remained on overpasses and buildings, and still appeared in subway tunnels and, every now and then, on a train. But as parts of New York City might finally become the first graffiti-exclusion zones, either by design or by their sheer inaccessibility, one wonders where the push will end. Because we’re not really talking about graffiti at all, but how one can leave their mark on what was home. And, however cheesy, how long that mark can echo.
Max Rivlin-Nadler is a freelance writer who has covered culture and politics for The New York Times, The Nation, The New Republic, and Gawker.
Technology is making us blind:
The rise of smartphones and social media has ushered in a new age of techno-optimism. And that’s a big problem
The technology pages of news media can make for scary reading these days. From new evidence of government surveillance to the personal data collection capabilities of new devices, to the latest leaks of personal information, we hear almost daily of new threats to personal privacy. It’s difficult to overstate the implications of this: The separation of the private and public that’s the cornerstone of liberal thought, not to mention the American Constitution, is being rapidly eroded, with potentially profound consequences for our freedom.
We could say that it’s simply a matter of habit, that we have become so used to using devices in such a way that we cannot imagine using them any differently. Or we could, for example, invoke a tragic fate in which we simply have no option but to accept the erosion of our privacy because of our powerlessness against corporations and governments.
These are, however, retrospective justifications that miss the kernel of the truth. To reach this kernel, we have to excavate the substratum of culture to uncover the ideas that shape our relationship with technology. Only here can we see that the cause is a profound ideological shift in this relationship.
Over the last few hundred years, it has been one characterized by deep ambivalence. On the one hand, we have viewed technology as emancipatory, and even, as David Nye, James Carey and other scholars have argued, as divine. On the other hand, we have seen it as dehumanizing, alienating and potentially manipulative — a viewpoint shaped by historical figures as diverse as William Blake, Mark Twain, Mary Shelley, Charlie Chaplin, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ned Lud, Samuel Beckett and Karl Marx. However, over the last 20 years or so, this latter perspective has largely been thrown out of the window.
There are many areas of culture that witness this shift, but none does so as lucidly as science fiction film. Even when set in the future, science fiction explodes onto the silver screen the ideas held about technology in the present. Indeed, the success of many of the best science fiction films is undoubtedly because they illustrate their time’s hopes and fears about technology so clearly.
Those of the late 20th century clearly suggest the prevalence in American culture of the old fearful view of technology. The 1980s, for example, saw the advent of personal computing, innovation in areas like genetic engineering and robotics, job losses brought about by industrial mechanization, and the creation of futuristic military technologies such as the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka Star Wars).
Lo and behold, the science fiction films of the time betray cultural fears of keeping up with the pace of change. Many explore the dehumanizing effects of technology, depicting worlds where humans have lost control. “Terminator,” for example, conjoins fears of mechanization and computing. The human protagonists are powerless to kill Schwarzenegger’s cyborg directly; it ultimately meets its end via another piece of industrial technology (a hydraulic press). Another classic of the era, “Blade Runner,” is a complex thought experiment on the joining of technology and humans as hybrids. The antagonist, Roy, whom Harrison Ford’s Deckard must kill, represents the horrific synthesis of unfettered human ambition and technological potency.
The 1990s was the age of mass computing and the rise of the internet. In response, new technological metaphors were created, with the 1980s’ imagery of hard, masculine technology replaced by the fluidity and dynamism of the network. In “Terminator 2,” Schwarzenegger’s industrial killing machine is obsolete, and no longer a threat to humans. Instead, the threat comes from the T-1000, whose speed and liquid metal form evoke a new world governed by the data stream.
The ’90s also witnessed increasing virtualization of everyday life — a trend reflected by Jean Baudrillard’s identification of the Gulf War as the first truly virtual war. Films explored the loss of the real that virtualization implied. “The Truman Show” and “The Matrix” both involve their protagonists being “awoken” from everyday life, which is shown to be artificial.
However, this view of technology as fearsome is seldom expressed in the sci-fi films since 2000, while it’s also difficult to identify many common themes, or many iconic genre examples. Is this simply because sci-fi as a genre has exhausted itself (as Ridley Scott has claimed)? Or is it symptomatic of something deeper in the culture?
The answer becomes clear when we consider two recent examples that do express fears of technology. “Transcendence” and “Her” join a long line of sci-fi films that portray artificial intelligence as out of control. Both, however, were not huge commercial successes. Was this because they were simply bad films? Not necessarily. While “Transcendence” was poorly received, “Her” was a thematically sophisticated exploration of love in a virtual age. The problem was that both missed the zeitgeist. No one really fears artificial intelligence anymore.
The notion that technology is fearful relies upon three assumptions: First, that technology and humans are self-contained and separate from each other (the old dichotomy of man and machine). Secondly, that technology has its own nature — that it can determine human life. (As legendary media theorist Marshall McLuhan once put it, “we shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”) Thirdly, that this nature can direct technology against humans.
However, the last 20 years have seen a dramatic erosion of all three assumptions. In particular, we no longer view technology as having any intrinsic meaning; the medium is no longer the message. Instead, its only meanings are those that we give it. For us, technology is a blank slate; it’s cultural matter waiting for us to give it form. Allied to this has been a new sense of intimacy with technology: a breaking down of the boundaries between it and us.
Perhaps the key driver of this has been technology’s centrality to the foremost pursuit of our times: the quest for the authentic self. This quest tasks us with finding ways of demonstrating to ourselves and others what makes us unique, special and individual. Technology has become a powerful way of doing this. We see it as a means of self-expression; it allows us to fully be ourselves.
The smartphone is the exemplar here. The cultural understanding of the smartphone was initially driven by BlackBerry, who positioned it as a corporate tool. Such meanings have long since lost resonance. Now, smartphone brands position their products as central to relationships, creative expression, play and all the other things that apparently make us authentic individuals. Apps are important: The customization of experience they allow helps to make our smartphones unique expressions of ourselves.
This association of technology with ideals of the authentic self is not confined to smartphones, however. Many researchers into artificial intelligence no longer aim to create ultimate intelligence; instead they replicate the “authentic” qualities of humans through creating machines that can, for instance, write music or paint.
Only recently, at the launch of Apple’s smartwatch, Jonathan Ive claimed that “we’re at a compelling beginning, designing technology to be worn, to be truly personal,” signifying a new frontier in the quest to eliminate the boundaries between ourselves and technology.
Similarly, the Internet of Things promises to make us the center of our worlds like never before. This is a world in which we will know about medical issues before we have even felt the symptoms, be able to alter the temperature of our home from wherever we are, and be warned in advance when we are running out of milk. It is one in which it’s claimed technology will be so in tune with our needs that it will anticipate them before we have.
Thus, we now view technology not just as empowering but as self-actualizing as well. Because it’s positioned as key to our authentic selves, we are newly intimate with it. This sounds utopian. It seems as if technology is finally reaching its potential: It is no longer the threat to human freedom, but its driving force.
Undoubtedly, there may be great pleasure in this new utopia, but this does not make it any less ideological. As Slavoj Zizek points out, ideas can both be true and highly ideological insofar as they obscure relations of domination. Indeed, it is the wrapping of technology in the “jargon of authenticity” (to borrow a phrase from Theodor Adorno, another critical theorist) that makes this new “ideology of intimacy” so seductive.
In the past, it was easier to critique technology because the dichotomy of man and machine clearly kept it separate from us. As such, we were able to take it as an object of analysis; to hypothesize how innovations might affect our freedoms for better or worse. This becomes infinitely more difficult in a context that has conflated ourselves and technology. We struggle to achieve the distance needed to critique it.
The result is that we become blind to technology’s dark side — its potential to be misused in ways that encroach on our privacy. How can we see the privacy implications of our smartphones when we see them first as the key to the authentic self, or the Google Car when it looks so cute, or Google Glass when we believe that it will allow us to transcend our bodies to allow a new mastery of the world.
It is, though, a question not just of blindness but also of will. The injunction to treat technology as an extension of our authentic selves encourages a kind of narcissistic love: We love technology because we love ourselves. In Freudian terms, the ideology of intimacy incites us to invest our love in the technological object through presenting it as key to the pursuit of our ego ideal. Thus, we do not want to really separate ourselves from technology because doing so would be experienced as a traumatic loss, an alienation from part of ourselves. Perhaps this is the true power that the ideology of intimacy holds over us.
Yet somehow we need to take a step back, to uncouple ourselves from the seductive devices around us. We need to end our blind devotion and rediscover critical distance. This way we can start to view technology as it is: as both the key to our freedoms, and also their greatest threat. If we don’t, we may discover too late that the new technological utopia is actually a poisoned chalice, with profound implications for our privacy.
The Great Deporter’s new executive order for a “sweeping overhaul of the immigration system” deserves no praise. If there is anything “sweeping” about President Obama’s immigration policy, it is his six years of deporting 2.4 million immigrants, his repeated lies regarding his so-called legal incapacity to issue presidential executive orders to mitigate the horrors that immigrant communities have been subjected to, and his total failure to pursue anything resembling “comprehensive immigration reform.”
What Obama did do, as with his all-pervasive surveillance system, was to order the implementation of a vicious program to criminalize immigrants in order to jail or deport them at will and to spend countless additional billions to militarize the border to keep them out.
Obama made clear that his executive order was “no different than all previous Democrat and Republican Party presidents over the past half century.” This statement alone immediately conjures up the heinous “bracero programs” of decades past, when strictly controlled cheap or near slave-wage labor was systematically imported from Latin America to serve the needs of the nation’s major agricultural titans and their associated industries.
The price to be extracted by Obama’s “promise” to refrain for three years from deporting undocumented immigrant parents of children born in the U.S. is a requirement that all such immigrants officially register their names, addresses, employment records, wages, salaries, and other data with the government, thus subjecting them to immediate persecution or deportation if they don’t pass Obama’s muster. Those with previous felony convictions or perhaps lesser “infractions” of America’s racist system of “law and order” remain subject to immediate deportation.
Obama’s decree, purportedly affecting four to five million undocumented immigrants, was described by administration officials as prioritizing the deportation of “felons, not families,” as if the remaining seven to eight million immigrants not covered by his plan were little less than dangerous criminals. Indeed, immigration officials will be instructed to prioritize the hunting down and deportation of so-called “gang members, felons, and suspected terrorists.”
“Today our immigration system is broken and everybody knows it,” Obama said. But Obama’s “fix” to date has been to deport more immigrants than any and all previous U.S. presidents combined!
Obama’s order supposedly offers those who qualify the chance to remain in the U.S. temporarily for three years, as long as they pass background checks and pay back taxes—to be determined, no doubt, by tax collectors who will have the final word. Not a single immigrant will be offered a “path to citizenship” nor will any be eligible for federal benefits or mandated health-care coverage.
Obama failed to mention that these same immigrants have often had state and federal taxes deducted from their salaries or wages by merciless employers while simultaneously being denied benefits supposedly mandated to all taxpayers! Obama’s order will demand the extortion of back taxes but there will be no retroactive back payment to immigrants for their exclusion from the benefits of paying these taxes. Obama’s program is worse; it will now demand that back taxes be deducted from those who register to comply, while all benefits will still be denied.
To demonstrate his fidelity to his Republican “critics,” who will undoubtedly appreciate Obama’s supplying corporate America with a steady supply of cheap, no-benefit labor who will be required to pay enormous sums in “back taxes” for future corporate plunder, the president issued his decree in condescending and threatening language: “If you meet the criteria, you can come out of the shadows and get right with the law. If you’re a criminal, you’ll be deported. If you plan to enter the U.S. illegally, your chances of getting caught and sent back just went up.”
But Republican “critics” were nevertheless more than willing to partake in the great American charade that passes for real politics. “Instead of working together to fix our broken immigration system, the president says he’s acting on his own,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner said in a YouTube video released before the president’s speech. “The president has said before, that he’s not king and he’s not an emperor. But he’s sure acting like one.”
In truth, what Obama “unilaterally” proclaimed was likely what the twin parties of capital had previously agreed to during their multi-year “debate” on immigration legislation. All sections of the ruling class understand well that cheap labor with zero benefits is a prized commodity. Obama’s supposed three-year reprieve from government deportation is little more than existing policy, in which immigration officials, in collusion with corporate America, selectively determine who will be deported and who are still urgently required to service corporate interests.
This unofficial selective persecution and deportation policy serves capitalism well. Lower wages, if wages are paid at all via employer pre-planned deportations arranged before pay day, to immigrants always exercise a downward pressure on the wages of all U.S. workers, including and especially union members. The wage differential also serves capitalism’s need to divide workers by race and legal status, with the ruling class ever placing the blame for unemployment not on its failing system but rather on immigrants who “illegally” take the jobs of “Americans.”
Government-promoted reactionary patriotism is routinely employed to scapegoat the most oppressed and exploited. Obama’s spokespersons took great care to stress that the new plan was both temporary and subject to cancellation at any time by any president.
“Deferred action [that is, postponing deportation punishment] is not a pathway to citizenship. It is not legal status. It simply says that for three years, you are not a law enforcement priority, and [we] are not going to go after you,” said one senior official. “It is temporary and it is revocable.”
Working people have nothing to gain by faint praise or other attributions of support to Obama’s racist and anti-immigrant policies—in this case, a policy likely announced with great fanfare to crudely manufacture Obama’s future “legacy” as a humanistic president concerned with the plight of the poor and oppressed.
All “reforms” extracted from corporate America are derived from the independent self-organization and fightback of working people. To date, the growing immigrant rights movement has increasingly demanded an immediate end to all deportations, immediate amnesty and legalization, full benefits to all undocumented workers, and an immediate end to the militarization of the borders. The unity of the broad working class in defense of full rights for immigrants is a prerequisite to winning real victories for all the oppressed and indeed, for all workers.
Subordination of this critical struggle to support for “The Great Deporter,” or any other posturing politician, only furthers illusions in the credibility of the racist capitalist system.
The massive mobilizations in virtually every U.S. city, in which people expressed their rage against the racist grand-jury decision in the case of the police murder of the unarmed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., was an important step toward awakening the American people to the real source of oppression in the United States.
Similarly, the five million immigrants who struck nationwide in 2006 against the racist immigration bill proposed by Republican Congressmen James Sensenbrenner and Peter King entitled, “Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act” offered a living example of the power of mass opposition and protest that raised the level of political consciousness of all. It is no coincidence that Obama’s executive order employs Sensenbrenner-type language—“terrorism, border protection, and immigration control.”
Obama’s fake decree was nothing less than a ruling-class effort to set the stage for the next round of electoral debate, in which the “lesser evil” will be once again counterposed to the so-called greater evil. But the massive 2014 election abstention rate of Latino workers—and indeed, the vast majority of all the oppressed and youth—was a stinging rebuke to Obama’s across-the-board policies of austerity, racism, environmental destruction, endless war, and atrocities against immigrants.
There are no capitalist “saviors.” The gap is narrowing between the growing hatred of capitalism’s brutality and the still modest number of acts of resistance. The prospect of explosive events that can bring millions into the streets and into the political arena—making use of a new fighting labor movement, mass organizations of struggle, and independent working-class political parties was significantly advanced when tens of thousands took to the streets nationwide to express their solidarity with Ferguson’s Black community and to condemn the inherent racism of corporate America and its militarized police-state-like criminal “justice” system.
“They knew, even then, they were seeing the greatest thing”
Cash, Perkins, Jackson — they were all legends, they were all young, and the early tours were unforgettably cool
Jerry Lee Lewis did not know where he was, precisely, just somewhere in Canada. The caravan thundered down highways that were barely there, the roadbed eaten by permafrost, the gravel flying like buckshot against the bottoms of the big cars. There was a long Lincoln Continental, a Fleetwood Cadillac, a mean-looking Hudson Hornet, and a brand-new Buick Supreme; it was new for only a thousand miles or so, till the potholes got it. The big sedans might have been different colors, once, but now they were all a uniform gray, the color of the blowing dust. Jerry Lee rode in the passenger seat of the Buick, sick of this great distance between crowds and applause, six hundred, seven hundred miles a day. “I didn’t drive. . . . I was paid to play piano and sing. Stars don’t drive.” Instead, he read Superman, or used a cigarette lighter to fire up one cherry bomb after another and flung them out the half window to explode under the trailing cars.
“That first tour was me, Johnny, and Carl, and Sonny James, Marvin Rainwater, Wanda Jackson. We put eighty, ninety thousand miles on that Buick, across Canada, across everywhere . . . throwing cherry bombs the whole way.” Sometimes he missed high and the cherry bombs exploded against windshields or on the hoods, and Johnny and Carl would curse him mightily, curse unheard, but one time he misjudged and the cherry bomb bounced off a window frame and into J. W.’s lap, and J. W.’s screams echoed inside the Buick for a good long while, longer than was seemly for a man. They could have used a chaperone, all of them, or a warden. The lead car was jammed with drum kits, guitar cases, and sharp-cut jackets and two-tone shoes. The only other provisions they packed were whiskey, cherry bombs, and comic books.
He cannot really remember all the little cities and towns they traveled through, not even the names on the road signs, only the vast, empty spaces in between. They would go two hundred miles or more and not see a café or a motel. “We’d stop at a store and get some Vienna sausages and bologna and bread and pickles and mustard, and pull over to the side of the road and have a picnic. . . . Calgary, that was one of the places. Quebec. They went crazy in Quebec. Pulled their dresses up.”
To the owners of the motels and truck stops, it must have seemed like the lunatics had wandered off the path, had stolen some good cars, and were terrorizing the countryside. “Johnny came in my room and saw this little bitty television in there, and he said, ‘You know, my wife’s always wanted one of them.’ And I told him, ‘Fine, go steal one from your own room.’ ” And it went that way, eight hundred, nine hundred miles a day, half drunk, pill crazy, larcenous, and destructive and beset by loose women and fits of temper, and it was perfect.
“We had some good fights,” says Jerry Lee. “A good fight just cleared the air.”
Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash had begun the tour as headliners. They were still the big names at Sun then and, Sam Phillips believed, his best moneymaking ventures. The problem was this newcomer, this blond-haired kid, who did not know his place and had no governor on his mouth, and in such close proximity, they could not tune him out and could not run away and could not kill him, either, though they considered it. He even had the gall to suggest, as the days wore on, he should close the shows, him with just two records cut and shipped and not even one yet on the charts. Who, they wondered aloud, did that Louisiana pissant think he was?
They were starting to call the music “rockabilly” now, but the kid refused to label himself as that, to endorse any kinship with that hillbilly-heavy blues that sold so well in any town with a tractor dealership on its main drag. To Jerry Lee, the word was denigrating, something imposed on these country boys and their music by the outside world. “I wasn’t no rockabilly,” he says, “I was rock and roll.” Carl was pure rockabilly—“Blue Suede Shoes” was the music’s anthem—and Johnny, the storyteller, was more country than most young rock and rollers aspired to be, though his “Get Rhythm” rocked out good and strong, as Jerry Lee recalls. The audience loved all of it, bought tickets by the handful and just moved to it, man, because it made old, traditional country music seem like the record player was too slow, and in town after town they lined up, hungry. But increasingly, as his stage presence swelled and swelled, it was Jerry Lee who created the excitement, who got them dancing, and so he demanded more and more of the spotlight. It was, he believed, only his due.
More than one music fan, more than one historian of rock and roll, have wished for a time machine, just so they could travel back to this one time, this one tour, to wedge into those packed auditoriums on the vast plains and in the Canadian Rockies, to see it all happen the way it did, to see Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, young and raw and wild, singing into big Art Deco microphones that looked like something that shook loose off the hood of an Oldsmobile, on stages scarred by a million metal folding chairs, in auditoriums where next week the featured attraction would be a high school production of The Merchant of Venice.
* * *
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, from Maud, Oklahoma, it’s the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda…” And before the announcer could even get it out, the crowd was hollering and hooting—with here and there a wolf whistle or two—as Wanda Jackson came out from the wings in high, high heels, hips swinging free and easy like she walked that way going to the mailbox. She had not a made a sound yet, and already the loggers, drillers, and insurance men were beginning to sweat. This was no cowgirl. Her dresses were fringed, to accentuate her flying hips, and low-cut, to accentuate something else, and her legs were slim and perfect and her waist was so tiny a big man could encircle it with his two big hands. Her big hair was dark brown and flowing, and her big eyes were framed by a starlet’s arched eyebrows; she was a goddess with a voice like a beast, and she growled as she sang that a hardheaded woman is a thorn in the side of a man.
That was hard to follow. But here came Sonny James of Hackleburg, Alabama, striding out in his Western suit, a thin, dark-haired man who had survived the Korean War, singing a love song of the ages. “Young Love” was the song, and it wasn’t the words that made it lovely but how he did it, like smoke on velvet.
Next came that good-looking Marvin Rainwater, who wore a fringed buckskin shirt and a headband onstage, because he was one-quarter Cherokee. He sang in deep baritone about how he was “gonna find him a bluebird, let it sing all night long.” He was a mellow singer, a balladeer, and smoothed out the crowd before the real headliners came on, the boys from the land of the rising Sun.
First came Carl Perkins, in his too-tight pants and pointy sideburns, and he let it rip:
Well, it’s one for the money
Two for the show . . .
Through force of will, Jerry Lee had climbed up the bill and over and straight through Carl, till now there was only Johnny Cash, in his elegant, somber black, hovering just above him on the marquee. That night, there had been the usual argument over who would close the show. Johnny, with the bigger name and a song on the charts, had the promoters on his side: he got top billing, which meant he had to follow Jerry Lee. But first Jerry Lee had to surrender the stage.
The stage had become a kind of laboratory for Jerry Lee, and he was the mad scientist. Onstage he mixed and matched songs and versions of songs, stitched together some parts and discarded others; because he was Jerry Lee, he did what he felt like in the moment, in a set that was supposed to be four or so songs, but he ignored that, too. He gave them “Crazy Arms” one minute and “Big-Legged Woman” the next, and they clapped to one and stomped and howled to the other. His show got wilder and increasingly wicked on that tour, and the audiences bellowed for encores. He had heard that Canadians were earnest, reserved people, but he must have heard wrong. More and more he was beginning to understand that, while the music was at the core, that was just the start of it. Putting on a show was like flipping the switch on Frankenstein’s monster, then watching it show the first twitching signs of life. “You got to dress right, act right, carry yourself right; it all had to come together.”
The good-looking part, well, God had handled that. But you had to use it. His hair, by now, had become almost like another instrument. Under the lights, it really did shine like burnished gold, and at the beginning of a show it was oiled down and slicked back, and he looked respectable, like a tricked-out frat boy or preacher’s kid. But on the rocking songs, he slung his head around like a wild man, and that hair came unbound; it hung down across his face, and that just did something to the women—and their screams did something to the crowd, and things just got kind of squirrely. As it came unbound, the waves turned into tangled curls and ringlets, and it seemed to have a life of its own, a wicked thing, like Medusa herself. Sometimes he would whip out a comb onstage and try to comb it back under control, but it was too wild to tame. “I was the first one in rock and roll to have long hair,” he says, thinking back to that night, “and I did shake it.”
These were the biggest crowds he had seen or heard, and he can see and hear them still.
He did one encore, then two, and at the end he did “Shakin’,” in pandemonium.
“They wouldn’t let me off the stage.” By the time he finished, the people were out of their seats and the constables were looking antsy. Jerry Lee swaggered off the stage, one arm held stiffly in the air, a salute more than a wave. “And I left ’em wondering who that wild boy was.”
Johnny Cash stood there, sweating and almost white, as the crowd screamed for more. As Jerry Lee remembers it, “he was like a statue. He never said a word.”
In the auditorium, a woman had fainted in the aisle.
Jerry Lee walked right on by Johnny. “Nobody follows the Killer,” he said over his shoulder.
The crowd was still yelling “Jerry Lee! Jerry Lee!” as Johnny came out onstage.
They quieted, respectfully, as he sang “I Walk the Line.”
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
They loved Johnny in Canada, but it was like a lull after the storm. “Johnny wouldn’t follow me after that, said he wouldn’t never follow me again,” says Jerry Lee. “He said, ‘When he’s through, it’s done.’ Can’t nobody follow me.” That night, after the show, the girls came by not one or two at a time but in a crowd. “It was unavoidable, too,” says Jerry Lee. “The girls come by in the evening, even before the shows sometimes, when the sun went down. And I just told ’em to go on,” and then he smiles at that, at even the possibility of such a thing happening, of his sending away a beautiful girl.
“My gosh, what a time.”
Some legends begin like that, in great drama, and others are purely accidental. Somewhere on the road, in another place he cannot really recall, he got sick and tired of playing sitting down while everybody else in the place was on their feet, so he just rose up to play standing. He loved the piano, but it did anchor a man and give him feet of clay. But as he rose, the piano bench was in the way. “So I decided I would just take the heel of my boot and push the piano bench back just a little bit, to make some room, but my boot got caught and I gave the bench a flip across the stage, and man, it tore that audience up. And I said, ‘Well, so this is what they want.’ ” If they liked it when he just tumped it over, what would they do if he hauled off and kicked it across the stage? So he did, and they howled and hooted and the women screamed, so he had to do it every time now, every blessed time.
“Oh, yeah,” says Jerry Lee, “I was a little bit out of control.”
Performers came and went on the tour, but Jerry Lee spent most of his time with Johnny and Carl despite the tension between him and the other two. It seems almost sweet now, to think of them as a fraternity of young men playing jokes and scuffling in the dirt and acting like spoiled children on the road, as they hammered out their craft. But the road was a good bit darker than that. Everyone was addicted to something. Carl drank hard, most nights and some days, and Johnny was hopelessly hooked on pills, always talking about deep things like man’s inhumanity to man, and prisons, and whether or not pigs could see the wind. And there was Jerry Lee, flying high on all of it and running hot.
“I liked Carl,” says Jerry Lee. “He became my friend. He was a great talent. He could sing, had a real good voice, and he could play that guitar. He could play all over that guitar.” His feelings about Cash are more complicated. “Johnny, well, I just didn’t think he could sing. Wrote some real good songs . . . but let’s just say he wasn’t no troubadour.” He and Cash would be friends off and on and even record together as older men, but in the cold northern spring of ’57, the man in black was one more obstacle in his way.
Oddly enough, when things finally boiled over, it was not Cash he had to fight. One night, in a town he cannot really recall, he and Carl Perkins sat in some lounge chairs outside a small motel, just cooling it in the chill air. Springtime temperatures in the Canadian mountains were about zero some days, but they hated being cooped up in the tiny hotel rooms. At some point in the evening, there had been a quart bottle of brown liquor in their proximity, but no one could remember exactly where it went.
“Carl was pretty well drunk,” recalls Jerry Lee, “and I was just drinking, a little bit.”
That night, Perkins was wearing a fancy shirt from Lansky’s in Memphis, where Elvis got his clothes. “Does this shirt look good?” he asked Jerry Lee.
Jerry Lee did not care if Carl was wearing a burlap sack tied together with fishing line. He only cared what he looked like, and he knew he would be elegant standing in a mudhole.
“Don’t I look good?” Carl asked.
Jerry Lee felt like spitting. He snarled, “You an’ Elvis, always walking around in these fancy clothes, always worried about how you look . . .”
Jerry Lee may have been slightly more drunk than he recalled. “Carl come out of that chair ready to fight, and the next thing I knew we were fighting across the trunk of that Buick.” It was not, he says now, an epic battle. “I wasn’t throwing no good punches, and Carl wasn’t, either.” He does remember getting in one good backhand, and then it was over, and they were friends again, but the jealousy would continue. “It was unavoidable. I would get encores in front of twelve thousand people, two encores, three encores. . . . They knew. They knew, even then, they were seeing the greatest thing.”
He played one stage that was built on a giant turntable that spun slowly around as he played. “I didn’t like that. I liked to stay in one spot, so I could keep my eye on certain people.” He would lose sight of a pretty girl, he said, if he was spinning, spinning. “And then I just had to get my eye on ’em all over again. I could always spot my girl then. Wasn’t no problem, finding a beautiful girl. Look, I’d say to myself, there’s a couple. I’d say, Look, there in the third row.” In Quebec, he almost fell in love. “They pulled them dresses up, and I hollered, ‘Pull it up a little bit higher, baby,’ and they did. Man, they just laid it on you. And they kept on just layin’ it on you, night after night, city after city.”
He was still married, of course, to the volatile Jane, who was still in Ferriday with his son and his parents’ family, but the truth is that he tried not to think about her that much, anymore. It had been a marriage of necessity, and it seemed less necessary two thousand miles away. “I was living the dream,” he said, even if the reality it was based on was, for the time being, more than a little thin.
They drove on for nearly two months, doubling back for even more shows in more remote places, wide-open during the day, wide-open at night, smelling of sweat and whiskey and gunpowder. He was off his leash completely now and, it seemed to some people, almost a little out of his mind. He had taken to playing the piano sometimes with his feet, his size 9½ loafers, and the crowd roared for that, too. “I played it with my feet, in key. It can be done, if you know what you’re doing. It wasn’t just no stunt. I played it.” He was showing off and showing people up, and the crowd was in love with all of it, and by late spring his lightning was bouncing around the airwaves, just weaker and more distant than he would have preferred.
The musicians who played with him remember any encounter with him as a kind of validation, a kind of certificate of authenticity. Guitarist Buzz Cason would later write how he walked out of a theater in Richmond and saw Jerry Lee, the great Roland Janes, and Russ Smith, his pint-size touring drummer, dancing after a show on the roof of a ’58 Buick, just dancing, because the time onstage was never quite long enough. He remembers traveling with Jerry Lee to Buffalo, and that Jerry Lee wanted to make a side trip to Niagara Falls. He stood on a wall overlooking the great cascade, his blond hair whipping in the wind, and stared down into the abyss for maybe thirty seconds, then jumped to the ground. “Jerry Lee Lewis has seen the Niag-uh Falls. Now let’s go home, boys.”
Once on a swing through Texas, he saw two singular-looking individuals sitting at a table in a big nightclub. One was his onetime piano hero, Moon Mullican. The other was the homely but melodic Roy Orbison, another Sun artist. “It was in Odessa, Roy Orbison’s hometown. Roy, his point was, he wanted to borrow fifty dollars from me, so he could get out of that town. . . . He said he knew he could cut a hit record if he could ever get out of that town. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll be glad to loan you fifty dollars.’ ” Orbison quickly grew jealous of Jerry Lee at Sun, believing that Sam Phillips was devoting too much of the label’s energy to one man. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened. “He got a little upset,” says Jerry Lee, but at least he got out of Odessa.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was finally on the radio, not just in Memphis but nationwide, and according to Billboard, “taking off like wildfire” in country, rhythm and blues, and pop. By the time he got back to the South, it had become a constant on Memphis radio. “They were playin’ it in all the hamburger joints,” he says, and he would ride down the streets of Memphis in his red Cadillac with the top down and hear his own genius wash all around him and into the almost liquid air that is Memphis in summer. Sometimes he’d take his cousin Myra, who made goo-goo eyes at him under her dark-brown bangs.
Excerpt of “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” (C) 2014 JLL Ferriday, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
By Peter Symonds
28 November 2014
The US has seized on Syrian air force strikes on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stronghold of Raqqa to denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and push for his government’s removal. For the past three years, the Obama administration has backed anti-Assad militias in Syria. The main aim of its new Middle Eastern war remains regime-change in Damascus.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Wednesday said the US was “horrified” by reports that Syrian air strikes the previous day killed scores of civilians. She condemned the Syrian regime’s “continued slaughter of Syria civilians” and “callous disregard for human life,” declaring that “Assad long ago lost all legitimacy to govern.”
According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 95 people were killed in the air strikes on Tuesday, including 52 civilians. A Raqqa activist with the Syrian opposition network—the Local Co-ordination Committees—told the BBC that further deaths were likely because only one hospital was operating normally in the city and “a lot of people [are] dying from their wounds.” Both organisations are aligned with the pro-Western opposition in Syria that is hostile to both Assad and ISIS.
Psaki’s comments are utterly cynical from every standpoint. The Pentagon routinely dismisses evidence of civilian casualties from air strikes by US and allied war planes in Syria and Iraq, as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, even in the face of eyewitness statements. It wages its bogus “war on terror” with complete indifference for civilian life.
Earlier, the same Syrian Observatory for Human Rights released figures on Saturday indicating that at least 52 civilians, including 8 children and 5 women, were killed in air attacks by the US-led coalition in Syria. Given the organisation’s political sympathies, this figure is likely to be an under-estimate. Not surprisingly, the US State Department expressed no horror over these casualties.
It is also unclear whether the deaths in Raqqa were solely due to the Syrian air force. American warplanes bombed the city as recently as Monday. A Wall Street Journal report stated: “It wasn’t clear whether the US and its allies had carried out airstrikes in Raqqa on Tuesday. The scale of the casualties and how many were civilians or Islamic State militants was also unclear.” It noted that it was often “hard to distinguish Raqqa locals from the extremists.”
The Raqqa activist told the BBC: “All the markets in the city are closed after the air strikes. There is nobody walking in the streets … They are just afraid because they say in the morning there are regime air strikes and in the evening there are [US-led] coalition air strikes and it’s very, very hard to live under IS [ISIS].”
According to US Central Command figures, its war planes carried out 41 air strikes inside Syria and Iraq from last Friday up until Wednesday, including on Raqqa and the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. The Voice of America web site reported yesterday that the US recently brought a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt fighter jets from Afghanistan to Kuwait to carry out low-level bombing raids in Iraq and Syria, as well as six more Reaper drones armed with missiles.
Inside Iraq, US-backed government forces are battling to retain control of the city of Ramadi in the western Anbar province, much of which is already under ISIS control. ISIS militias launched an offensive earlier this week to capture the provincial capital. According to government officials on Wednesday, ISIS fighters advanced to within several hundred metres of governor’s office, before being pushed back. Kurdish peshmerga forces in the northern province of Kirkuk are also involved in heavy fighting to hold off a major ISIS offensive.
Last weekend, US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Turkey to try to patch up frayed relations and enlist greater Turkish support for the war in Iraq and Syria. The Turkish government has pressed the US for a more explicit call for regime-change in Damascus, as well as support for the imposition of a no-fly zone and buffer zone inside Syria. It has also been reluctant to support Kurdish militia holding out in Kobane, due to their affiliation with the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey.
After meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Biden told the media they had agreed not only to roll back ISIS in Syria, but also to “strengthen the Syrian opposition and ensure a transition away from the Assad regime.” The Turkish foreign ministry announced it would collaborate with US forces in training 2,000 “moderate Syrian opposition fighters” at a base in the central Turkish city of Kirsehir. Turkey has also indicated it would be prepared to equip and train national guard units in Iraq to fight against ISIS.
Biden clashed with Erdogan last month when he accused Turkey of encouraging the rise of ISIS in Syria. While Turkey has certainly backed the Syrian opposition militias that have been dominated by right-wing Islamist organisations such as ISIS and the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front, it is not alone. The US and its other Middle Eastern allies have been closely involved in training, financing and arming anti-Assad forces. The CIA has maintained a base inside Turkey to assist and arm opposition forces in Syria.
Reuters reported on Wednesday that the CIA was also involved in covertly training anti-Assad fighters at a camp in the Gulf state of Qatar. The desert camp lies inside a military zone guarded by Qatari special forces. The program has been running for a year and reportedly involves small groups of 12 to 20 fighters affiliated with the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA). According to Reuters: “In recent weeks, the Qataris, disappointed by the lack of progress in the fight against Assad, have started to consider training members of the Islamic Front—another Islamist militia.”
While the US claims to distinguish between ISIS and “moderate” anti-Assad fighters, these forces have commonly worked closely together. Arms supplied to the pro-Western FSA have ended up in the hands of Islamist militias. Now amid a groundswell of civilian opposition inside Syria to US air strikes, sections of the FSA are going over to ISIS, according to a Guardian article on Monday. Such defections will only encourage the US to openly declare war on Assad, sooner rather than later, in a bid to stem the tide.