Those Were the Days (Didn’t Archie Bunker Teach us Anything? )

On January 7th, 1971 an event happened that would forever change the way kids of my generation interacted with the world around us. That evening, America was introduced to Archie Bunker and he changed everything. The premiere of the sitcom, All in the Family proved to be a society altering event that shaped much of the popular culture of the 1970’s.  It remained at the top of the Nielson ratings for over half the decade and spawned a slew of other shows that also remained in the top ten. In the pre-cable era of three networks and PBS, these shows as well as others, provided insight and offered healing from the chaos of the 1960’s.

1971 was actually a frightening time in America. The Viet Nam War was still in full force, and the anti-war movement had become fractured and more violent. The civil rights movement as well, had moved from the non-violence of Dr. King to the threatening nature of the Black Panthers. The Aquarian promise of Woodstock had quickly given away to the dark violence of Altamont. As an eight year old who liked to watch the news, I soaked all that in. We all did. We couldn’t help it. I remember being somewhat disturbed by the body counts reported from South East Asia every week, while also taking comfort in the fact that our number was usually lower. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did this. The chaos and tumultuousness of the 1960’s were played out before all of our eyes as we sat on our collective couch and waited for Gilligan’s Island to start.

Mine is a generation raised on television- Saturday morning cartoons, soap operas, afternoon talk shows- they all were important to us.  For better or worse, television informed us and shaped us. It provided insight into the larger world and helped us to understand our place in it. The premiere of All in the Family in 1971 represented a shift in the way this world was going to be presented to us, and it was a positive change. It may seem odd to say it, but All in the Family provided comfort and an assurance that things were getting better. The struggle for civil rights, the emergence of the women’s movement and the Viet Nam War were tearing our society apart. All in the Family took each of those issues and addressed them in a serious, yet comedic way. It provided the opportunity for Americans to take a serious look at those topics, laugh at them and deal with them in the safety of their own family rooms. Archie Bunker was a bigot, but he was a lovable bigot. As such, he gave Americans the opportunity to look at themselves, reflect on the past with a little laughter and move forward.

All in the Family was the most popular show of the 1970’s and directly gave life to other popular shows- The Jeffersons and Maude. Maude led to Good Times. By the mid-70s network TV was full of programs that represented lives quite foreign to the white suburbia I knew. Prime time television taught me a lot. I learned that life in projects of Chicago was hard. I learned that gay people existed. I learned that interracial marriage wasn’t a big deal. All of this was good. I wasn’t the only one learning these lessons. We all were. Regardless of where we lived or what our family was like, as long as we watched television, we all were hearing the same message- Racism is bad. Sexism is bad. Equality is good. These lessons were not limited to the shows of Norman Lear. They were an intigral part of the weekly line-up of each network. Though Mash was set during the Korean War, it provided an opportunity to deal with Viet Nam. The Mary Tyler Moore show showed us that a single woman could survive in this world. You could find an After School Special to help you through everything from divorce to drugs.  The Phil Donahue show provided an opportunity for us to take part in a collective discussion about all these issues. All of these programs, and many others informed us as well as entertained us. They provided the opportunity to know we were ok.

By the end of the decade. Television had made us better people. For a white, suburban kid like me, it was quite reasonable to conclude that the issues confronted in the 1960’s had been dealt with and we had moved positively forward. We were better people. The lessons had been learned and our collective future was bright. Fittingly, All in the Family’s final episode aired on April 8th, 1979. Racism was a thing of the past. Sexism was a thing of the past. Hateful political and social movements were things of the past.

What happened?

Perhaps we expected too much from television.

The reality is that television is a much more powerful reflection of society, rather than an agent of social change. At its best, television can be informative and be emotionally moving. It can represent the shifting sands of the culture, but it cannot implement those changes. We once were able to laugh at the oafish bigotry of Archie Bunker because we knew he was wrong and we knew we were better. We no longer have that confidence. The racism and sexism expressed on television for comic effect throughout the 1970’s have once again become common place in both our social and political discourse. Overt racism might still be frowned upon.  The character of Archie Bunker  is still viewed negatively for his blatant bigotry.  It’s the subtle bigotry that has always been woven into the fabric of our society that once again has been given a voice.  The election of a black President and the prospect of a woman waiting inthe wings has awakened the worst of who we are as a people and we can hear the hate  loud and clear as it manifests itself on the streets of our cities, in our classrooms and in our debate halls.

I am now older than Archie Bunker was when All in the Family first aired and I find myself echoing the lament he sang in theme song:

Those were the days

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My Guilt is a hard Pill to Swallow

I am a 53 year old, white, suburban, middle class, male. I am also a racist.

Now, by “racist”, I don’t mean that I believe that one race is superior to others. My racism is more subtle. As such, it’s more insidious. I am racist in the sense that I have lived my entire life in a society that culturally, economically and politically gives me as a white male advantages that someone of color is not given. My racism is grounded in my unquestioning enjoyment of those privileges and the understanding that they come to me simply because of the color of my skin. I come upon my racism honestly, but not accidentally. I’m not proud of it in any way, but it’s built within me and at times, I have willingly embraced parts of it.

I have lived my entire life in suburban California. Race was not an issue in the house I grew up in. It was a subject that simply never came up because it didn’t need to. No one ever seamed to give it a thought. The first time I met a black man was in kindergarten. My dad was a car salesman and my mom was a substitute teacher. On days my mom worked, my dad had the responsibility of picking me up from school and taking me back to work with him. My dad never picked me up. Instead, he had Johnny do it. Johnny was a large black man who washed cars at the dealership. On days that my mom worked, Johnny picked me up from school. I can only imagine the look on the school secretary’s face when Johnny first walked into the office and said, “I’m here to pick up little Ricky.” There were no black kids in my class. There were no black kids in my school. There were no black teachers. Johnny was probably the only black person within a three mile radius of my school on that day in 1969. In spite of all that, I was called out of class. Johnny flashed me a smile, took my hand and walked me out to the tow truck. He lifted me onto the seat and we left. As a five year old, I was more fascinated with Johnny’s gold front tooth than the color of his skin. (I can’t even begin to imagine what this experience was like for him.)

In junior high, I made my first black friend. We shared a table in the library every day before school. We never actually spoke to one another, but we nodded. I read about the life of Joe Namath and he read a real book, one with chapters. I intuitively knew he was much smarter than I was. Aside from my literary friend, my exposure to issues of race at that time was limited to what I saw on T.V. I was sophisticated enough as a twelve year old to know a few things:

I knew that Huggy Bear was not a positive representation of a black American male.

I knew that Good Times was based on a truth I didn’t understand. Happy Days was more my reality.

I was glad for George Jefferson when he was able to, “Move on up to the East Side.”

I watched Roots! What a watershed moment for race relations in America. I learned that even the dad from the Brady Bunch and Sandy Duncan could be racists. That was awful. But also, it was a story from the past. The mini-series taught me a lot, but it did not resonate with my personal understanding of the world.

High School broadened my experience a bit. I learned about slavery and the civil rights movement. Again, these were events from the past. I couldn’t relate to them. I watched the handful of black students I saw struggle to navigate their way through a predominantly white high school. Some of these folks were my friends- we never talked about it. I had no teachers who were black. No black families moved into my neighborhood. I got a job working at the car dealership. As a sixteen your old, I now washed cars alongside Johnny. For me, it was a way to earn a few bucks after school. For Johnny, this was his livelihood.

As a liberal minded college student, I was thankful for all I was learning and honestly felt that I had a pretty good handle on the race thing. I wrote papers on the plantation economy of colonial Virginia and the biased incarceration rates of African-American males. I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X and was aware that Martin Luther King wrote a powerful letter from his Birmingham jail cell. I grew increasingly appalled at the ways blacks had been mistreated throughout history. At times, I even got angry. But still, this was the history of another people. It wasn’t my experience. It wasn’t me.

In adulthood, my circle of friends has grown to include a number of people of color. I have enjoyed very much the opportunity to hear small snippets of their life experience, but a real discussion of race has rarely taken place. I have grown in my understanding of such things a bit. I visited Memphis and stood bellow the balcony of the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot. My reverence for the place even allowed me to be able to resist buying a beer cozy in the museum gift shop. I even took a humanitarian trip to Africa. I felt they needed my help to do something that they were actually more than capable of doing themselves. (It’s occurred to me only recently, the colonial mindset I was actually perpetuating.)

In the past year, I have found that I have gotten pretty good at recognizing certain aspects of racism, especially in others. It started with the debate over the Confederate battle flag in South Carolina. I was quick to jump into any discussion regarding the history of the flag and how its continued use perpetuates racial problems. The confrontations of white police officers in cities such as Ferguson and Cleveland, intensified that debate and I became quick to recognize the racist tendencies in those folks with whom I was arguing. I was much, much slower in recognizing the faults in my own thinking by acknowledging the inherent biases I bring to discussion.

The events of the last week or so have caused me to take a step back. Up until this week, I had a limited recognition of the deplorable state of race relations in the United States. I felt free to state my opinion and argue my points. I did so with the honest belief that things were improving. I thought we were getting better. I am no longer confident of that. Not only is the racial divide in this country getting wider, it’s fracturing into smaller and smaller subgroups. Each of these groups have their own grievances and biases. We can’t even agree that Black Lives Matter. Rather than listening to the stories of systemic racism that African-Americans deal with every day that sparked the movement, the response has been to be offended and point out that All Lives Matter (duh). The ability to listen to one another is absolutely missing. We are not having a conversation. There is no give and take. There is only anger, yelling and posturing. This is an environment that can only breed greater division and violence.

Reflecting on all this has forced me to consider my own place in all of this. My conclusions are not flattering. I have lived the first fifty years of my life happily being part of the problem, not the solution. My racism is not overt, it’s subtle. Sometimes it’s even couched honest attempts to be empathetic and inclusive. I am racist is my willful ignorance of the world around me. I am racist in the limited perspective from which I view history. I am racist in the assumptions I make about the people I interact every day. I am not proud of my biases. I am ashamed of my assumptions. My guilt is a hard pill to swallow.

Does Anyone Drink Bourbon and Seven Anymore?

day 25 scotch on the rocks

My dad would have turned 75 tomorrow. This is an edited post I wrote for my “50 for 50” blog a couple of years ago. I might have to have one tonight.

Smells are an interesting thing aren’t they? I am constantly surprised by how the scent of something can conjure memories of people and experiences that had been long forgotten.  The scent of a fresh Christmas tree being decorated in the living room and the smell of a box of candy hearts when you open it on Valentine’s Day are two of my favorites.  I love those moments. My favorite smell of all time is the scent created when you mix bourbon and Seven-Up over ice.  Bourbon and seven was my dad’s drink.  Every time I happen to smell one, he jumps right into my head.

As a kid who grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s my experience was not uncommon.  Every night, my dad would come home and fix himself a drink.  Bourbon and seven was usually that drink. (My mom would have a Screwdriver).  I don’t remember him ever having more than one, but he did have that ONE every night.  At some point in junior high I became old enough to make his drink for him.  He asked me to make one, but never showed me how.  (He was like that.)  As a result, I’m sure my creations were often much stronger than what he was used to.  Maybe he liked that?  This practice of a nightly drink ended for my dad, sometime around 1980.  I’m sure it wasn’t a conscious decision to stop.  It just seemed to fade away as something dads did when they got home. Maybe it was Ronald Reagan’s fault or the death of John Lennon?  I doubt it though.   My dad never gave more of a passing thought to either of them.  I guess, it just went out of fashion like the large lapels on his sport coats.

I have never been much of a drinker of hard liquor.  Whenever the situation presented itself for me to order a drink I have never ventured far beyond my dad’s tried and true.  A few times while playing slots at a casino a waitress dressed in shiny gold would ask me what I wanted.  It was free, so I had to ask for something and  a bourbon and seven is all I really knew to ask for.  Every time she returned with the glass and handed to me, I was shocked by the smell.  How good it was.  How pleasurable it was.  It tasted good too, but it wasn’t the taste that floored me.  It was the smell.  It made me feel good. It made me think of people I loved and memories long lost. It made me think of my dad. It was nice.

In a sense, this “50 for 50” list is forcing me to do the same thing.  It’s forcing me to think a lot about the past.  My father certainly, but others as well- childhood friends, family members who are long since gone. Like the smell of a bourbon and seven, it’s been nice. I have been told many times that I tend to live my life too much in my head.  This is true.  It’s always been true.  It’s caused some difficulty from time to time, but I have never apologized for it. I can’t help it. It’s just who I am and I like it that way.  One advantage of being stuck in my head so much is I get to hang on to these thoughts and memories for a long time. I get to ponder them, play with them and enjoy them.  How can that be a bad thing?

 

All I want next Christmas is for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to get it right.

Last month, two seemingly unrelated things happened that got me thinking. The first was Christmas, and the second was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announcement of their class of 2016. I realize that for most people those two events do not intertwine in an obvious manner, but for me memories of Christmas always contain a connection to my love of music.

After a decade of listening to AM radio in the back of my Mom’s station wagon I was pretty sure that I had developed a fairly refined sense of what good music was. I first asked for the gift of music in 1973. I gave my mom a list of bands I liked and Santa came through in a big way.  I am proud to say that the first album I ever received was The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s my claim to fame. “What was the first album you ever got” is a question that quickly gets asked among music loving friends. My answer wins every time. What I fail to mention in those conversations is that Santa brought two other albums that year- Chicago VI (It had “Feelin’ Stronger Everyday” on it) and Jim Croce’s “Life and Times” (It had Bad, Bad Leeroy Brown” on it.) Now, those aren’t bad albums, and in Chicago’s case, it could be argued to be one of their best. But, in terms of rock and roll history and musical legacy, they are lightweights. The Beatles were IT, and continued to be IT for a long, long time.

I found music under the tree every year that followed. Some of it was good and has remained on my turntable- Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and others. Some albums were enjoyed for a time, but eventually worked their way into the garage where they sit waiting to be rescued from the box they are in by someone with less discerning taste.  I don’t think those John Denver or Barry Manilow records are being played by me any time soon.

Reading the list of this year’s group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month brought me back to that initial gift of music I had received forty two years ago. It also got me thinking about other bands I liked and albums I asked for as I worked my way into junior high school. In those ensuing years, my musical tastes became more refined, but not much improved. In early December of my 8th grade year, I was overjoyed to sneak through my parent’s room and discover a copy of Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” under the bed. Any white suburban American thirteen year old would have been overjoyed by that gift in 1976. My musical discernment was still questionable as I entered high school. In 1978, the album I desperately needed was “Cheap Trick at Budokon”.  That album provided the soundtrack for my freshman year. Doesn’t every shy and awkward fifteen year old dream of yelling out to crowd of screaming fans, “I WANT YOU TO WANT ME!”  Clearly, I was not cool.  If I were cool, I would have discovered Bruce Springsteen. “Born to Run” would have made that year much more bearable.  That discovery wouldn’t be made until much later. Instead, I was looking forward to the release of the next Cheap Trick album. I got” Dream Police” the following Christmas along with The Eagles, “The Long Run” (both on cassette).

Given the nostalgia, you’d think I would be very happy this year’s list of Hall of Fame. I’m not. This list sucks.

The hall has been controversial since it opened in 1986. Enshrining someone into a museum dedicated to music born out of teenage anger and rebellion seems a bit odd. What type of music is rock and roll anyway? At Its inception, it was a mixture of blues, country and gospel. Over the last six decades every other genre of music has been thrown into the mix as well. All of that is great, but it creates a group of musical styles and performers that often seem to have little in common.  If anyone can draw me the connection between Chuck Berry and Abba, I’d love to see it. For the most part, this is all good. It has created a catalogue of music that is awesome, but it does create difficulties. The dilemma for the hall has always been trying to balance rock and roll as both an art form and a commodity.  Speaking of Abba, they entered the hall in 1996 along with The Stooges. Both deserve to be there, but they were inducted for completely different and contradictory reasons. I’m okay with that. This year is different.

There were thirteen nominees this year. Of those, a good argument could be made for about half of them to get in. Most did not. A fan of disco I have never been, but as a musical style it is an under represented genre in the hall. The band Chic has been on the nomination list for years. They deserve to be inducted. They introduced the disco beat to the world and shaped the development of dance music as it moved forward.  The Smiths are in the same boat. Was there a more influential band to come out of the 90’s? Every band that grew out of a garage during that decade owes everything to them. It is a crime that they aren’t there.  The band Yes should also be there. So should Janet Jackson and the Spinners. They were all denied this year.

Instead of the aforementioned deserving artists, this is what we get-

Of those who made the cut, only NWA is clearly deserving. Again, I am not a fan, but their impact on music and most importantly, on our culture is unmatched over the last two decades. I have no argument with Chicago either. They have been a beacon for anyone who was ever a member of the junior high band who needed a rock and roll band to latch on to. They brought jazz into the mix in a way that was accessible to the teenagers of the 70’s. Their example led directly to the progressive rock of Yes and Kansas. I get it. But, Deep Purple, Cheap Trick and Steve Miller? No.

Let’s take them one at a time:

Deep Purple: Here are some questions- Does one guitar riff justify your election into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  No.  What if it’s the greatest guitar riff in the history of guitar riffs?  Still, no. Their influence spreads little further than the fact that every fourteen year old with a guitar can play, “Smoke on the Water”. So, no.

Cheap Trick: I cannot, for the life of me, figure this one out. A couple of good songs, a couple of albums that sold well, is there anything else? “Live at Budokan” wasn’t even really a live album. The screams of the Japanese audience were manipulated to the point that they are pretty much fake. Cheap Trick might be providing work for a cover band here or there, but has any band of substance ever pointed to them as the reason they play music? No. Should they be in the hall? No.

Steve Miller- I will concede that Steve Miller has a little more substance than the other two, but not enough to justify his induction. From a historical standpoint, he dates all the way back to the hippies of Haight Ashbury. He did help to bring Chicago blues to the San Francisco sound, but he was a minor player. His work in the 1970’s was poppy and a bit shallow. There are some good songs. Enough to fit a Greatest Hits album, but nothing lasting. He wasn’t breaking any new ground. His impact on the future of rock and roll was minimal at best. Should he be in? No.

Is my problem here a result of “old man bias”?   “Back in my day, music was good. All the best bands are gone.” Well, I don’t deny that might be partially true but “back in my day” I listened to all these guys. I bought their albums and I enjoyed them as I cruised the strip in my ’68 Firebird. But, enshrining them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, waters down the quality of what it represents.

I am pulling for Chic and Janet Jackson to get in next year. If you know me, you know that is a very funny thing to hear me say.

Check out the Hall here:   http://rockhall.com/inductees/

 

What’s Your Favorite Song?

Everyone has a favorite song. If you ever meet someone who says they don’t, they are lying. They are just embarrassed by the song they love and don’t want to have to explain it to you. Even my dad, who connected himself in no way to popular culture, had a strange fondness for, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Lynn Anderson.

My earliest musical memories take place in the “way back” seat of our family’s Pontiac station wagon.  My youth was spent looking out that back window, listening to the best that AM radio had to offer. I was nine years old in 1972. The Beatles broken up two years earlier and Dylan was still making his way out of his motorcycle accident haze. If the radio played any of their songs, we were lucky.  In their absence, the airwaves were filled with lots of really bad songs and few really great ones. But, at nine years old, I had no ability to discern between the two. The songs just washed over me as we drove from the house, to the supermarket, to the pool. The songs all sounded great to me.  Elton John, Bill Withers, Mac Davis, I loved them equally. My favorite song of that year was Brandy, by the band, Looking Glass. Why the story of an A-hole sailor who chooses the sea over such a “fine girl” as laments, “what a good wife she would be”, appealed to a nine year old boy, I have no idea. The song still holds a fond place in my heart, but it did not live on as my favorite. Though, the song that did live on, was also from 1972.

Brandy charted as the twelfth most popular song of 1972. My favorite song of all time, the song that I have carried with me for the last fifty one years, is Heart of Gold by Neil Young It finished the year at seventeenth on the Billboard chart.  Looking back at it now, it makes perfect sense. I am a huge Neil Young fan. I own every record he’s ever released, including all of his questionable choices of the 1980’s. I’ve seen him a dozen times and will argue his importance to any fellow music snob that wants to debate the issue.  But, when I was nine, all I knew was that song, and that song stuck with me. The music I gravitate to has often been described by others as, “sad bastard music”. I accept that label and chart my affinity for such songs back to Heart of Gold. Songs of heartache and lost love have a staple to my ears from that point on.  At nine years old I set out on my quest to find that golden heart.

As I grew up, I refined my skill at discernment. My sense about what made songs good became more clear. At the same time, I became much more strident in my view of songs I considered bad. I discovered The Beatles with a passion and Dylan with perpetual awe. Heart of Gold was always there, ready to be set on the turntable. The mixtapes I made through the 80’s and 90’s might include Elvis Costello or Tom Petty, but Heart of Gold almost always started them off. Girls were confusing and beyond my reach, but Heart of Gold set the standard I strove for.

In the liner notes for the compilation album, Decade, Young comments on Heart of Gold this way: “Heart of Gold’ put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch.” The ditch he headed for produced some of his best and my favorite albums.  His affection for the song waned and he refused to play the song live for over a decade. The first time I saw him was at the Cow Palace in 1982. I was nineteen years old.  I had found my “heart of gold”, and recently lost her. My heart was broken and  I was playing that song every day with tears in my eyes.The song’s power had grown and often overtaken me. I looked to the show with great anticipation, but I knew my favorite song was rarely played and I wasn’t hopeful. As I expected, the show included very few older songs. Young was in his techno-electronic phase. Most of the crowd was mystified by what they were hearing. Heart of Gold had no rightful place in that vocoder/synthesizer experiment. Yet, in the end, there it was. The acoustic guitar came out and the vocal enhancement gear was left back stage for the encore. As Neil sat on a stool and set the guitar on his knee, my atisipation grew.The first strum set my heart a flutter. I wasn’t the only one. The crowd went crazy.  My favorite song was back on his set list and all was right with the world. I sang every word at the top of my lungs. Though I shed a tear of two, I was happy. That’s the thing about favorite songs, they can run you through an infinate range of memories and emotions in a span of two and half minutes and you love them because of that.

Since 1972, the strum of an acoustic guitar and a smart turn of phrase have always turned my ear to a song. I love when those moments happen. Every time they do, I am brought in some way back to the “wayback” seat of that station wagon. A time when music was new and every melody and lyric opened a world to me that I loved. I also am reminded of my quest for that golden heart.

Thoughts on popular culture, history, politics and other random stuff I find interesting.

According to the experts who make such decisions, I am a baby boomer. But, in real practical terms, I am not. A real baby boomer can tell you exactly where they were when Kennedy was shot. I cannot do that. I can only give you the educated guess that I was lying in my grandmother’s arms because she didn’t trust the parenting skills of my mother. I am a white, middle class, suburban male in his early fifties. I view life from that perspective. I take on popular culture and politics are shaped from that perspective. My goal in writing is purely selfish. It allows me the opportunity to clarify my thinking and share the conclusions I come to. If anyone reads what I have to say, that is great. If anyone enjoys what I have to say, that is awesome. If anyone is moved by what I say, you need to move on and pay attention to somebody else.

My mom thought this would be a nice picture. Proof that she was either a terriable mother, or she had a good sense of humor at my expence.

My mom thought this would be a nice picture. Proof that she was either a terriable mother, or she had a good sense of humor at my expence.