Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tom Snyder

The Hill notes the passing of Tom Snyder, iconoclastic host of late night TV who died Sunday at age 71 from leukemia.

Snyder gained fame as the host of NBC's Tomorrow, which from 1973 to 1982 followed Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. The prickly Snyder gained fame as much for his unusual choice of guests as for his interviewing style. Snyder's show was canceled in order to make room for a hot young comic named David Letterman. Letterman, ironically, was a big fan of Snyder's (one can detect a bit of Snyder in Letterman's on-air personality), and invited him to become the first host of CBS' The Late Late Show when it first aired in the early 90's.

For those who may not be familiar with Snyder, the best way to understand what he was about is to watch him in action. This interview with Kiss (Part I and Part II) is a good place to start. Snyder frequently interviewed acts which hadn't quite caught on with the mass audience, as he did with the Clash. Often abrasive, his interview with John Lydon and Keith Levine of Public Image Ltd. (Part I and Part II) showed he could take as well as give. His style changed little over the years, as Howard Stern discovered.

Sadly, there seems to be little place on TV today for a man like Tom Snyder. He will be missed.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

One for the ladies

Last time I grabbed something from Randy Raley's View From The Dark Side, it was something for the men. In the interests of equality, I present the Hill's female clientele this blast from the past:

A Lysol douche. Yeeoww!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Paving the dirt path

The Hill's connection to the rest of you out there in the many internets is a balky dial-up connection provided by AT&T (BellSouth until recently). BellSouth repeatedly has told me that there aren't enough people out here to make broadband worth providing. This is despite the fact that I live less than fifteen minutes away from one of the state's largest retail districts. AT&T says that one day all former BellSouth customers will have access to broadband; they just won't say when.

You folks who are saddled with dial-up like me understand my frustrations. I have to reload some of my favorite blogs two and three times because the connection times out. Posting to Blogger is always a crapshoot, even with the new system. I've learned to write my most important stuff in Word and paste it into the browser in case something profound (heh) gets lost. Downloading audio and video content - forget it. Anything like that I have to view at work, where time is limited at best, and non-existent at worst. I don't embed videos here because I don't want to wait half an hour to load my own blog.

At OpenLeft, a new project started by the folks behind MyDD, they're focusing this week on developing a national broadband policy. One of the highlights at OpenLeft this week is the participation of Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of the good guys in Congress. Durbin is working on legislation that would encourage the growth of broadband availability nationally, and he's getting a lot of good feedback in the comment threads. Some of the jargon gets thick, but I know you are smart folks who can follow along with the gist of the conversation.

Just across the border, the ConnectKentucky project provides a model for how broadband accessibility can be increased on a statewide level. As a Tennessee resident, it's hard to point at Kentucky as a model for much of anything, but the ConnectKentucky folks seem to be on the right track. The state has put together a group of civic, political, education, and business leaders who recognize the economic and cultural advantages of providing broadband access to all Kentucky residents, and they have sponsored a series of initiatives that have extended high-speed Internet access to most Kentuckians. According to ConnectKentucky, 93% of the state's households now have broadband access; this compares to a mere 27% of households in Tennessee.

Kentucky has shown great foresight in getting their residents connected to broadband, but there are still many areas of the country whose rural and low-income residents wait for broadband while their legislators shrink in fear of the telecommunications lobbyists. Rural telephone service exists because of universal access legislation enacted long ago, and large parts of rural America have the TVA and REA to thank for their electricity. Such a sweeping program may prove to be necessary in order to bring those of us out in the sticks into the modern era of Internet technology. Kudos to Senator Durbin for laying the groundwork that will finally get the last mile of the information superhighway paved for us.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Beck's Bolero

Jeff Beck provides this week's musical interlude with a performance of the classic "Beck's Bolero" from a 2006 show at Japan's Fuji Speedway.

One of the greatest rock instrumentals of all time, "Beck's Bolero" is credited as having been written by Jimmy Page. How'd that happen? Beck explains:

'Well, with some difficulty and largely without me! He had heard me play in the studio after hours - in those days there was a lot of naughty recording sessions going on late at night. We would do this crap single for someone in about ten minutes 'cause they didn't have enough money to pay for the studio, then we'd leave the gear set up and have some fun! I fell in love with Jim's playing 'cause we spoke the same language - we probably still do but I dunno. I think we're both still steeped in the old days. We were out to get the most out of the studio, bending the rules like using slap echo - doing all the things you weren't allowed to do on a session.

'It was decided that it would be a good idea for me to record some of my own stuff like 'The Nazz are Blue' with a view towards making a solo album - this was partly to stop me moaning about the Yardbirds. I went over to Jim's house and he had this 12-string Fender and he loved the idea of using a bolero-type rhythm for a rock record. He was playing the bolero rhythm and I played the melody on top of it, but then I said, "Jim, you've got to break away from the bolero beat - you can't go on like that for ever!". So we stopped it dead in the middle of the song - like the Yardbirds would do on 'For Your Love' - then we stuck that riff into the middle.

As a bonus, check out the first Jeff Beck Group (featuring Rod Stewart) demolishing "Shapes Of Things", the Yardbirds hit that Beck played on when he was with that group. Both tracks come from the LP Truth, which nearly 40 years later is still suitable for cranking up to maximum volume and scaring the crap out of your neighbors.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The circus comes to town

Pardon me for not getting overly excited over President Bush's visit to Nashville yesterday. It was, as these things go, a standard outing for Our Maximum Leader: a visit to the Nashville Bun Company to celebrate the virtues of small business, praising an Iraq War veteran who lost his legs in an explosion for his courage and patriotism, making the same tired speech to the Chamber of Commerce about tax cuts and economic growth, and admitting that he doesn't know how music royalties work - almost a unpardonable sin in this company town.

The excitement for the day was provided by one Kristin Ashton, a Nevada woman arrested for driving around a roadblock set up to protect the President's motorcade. Interestingly, she apparently was in town to see Todd Snider, a previous Hill subject. Ashton had earlier raised a ruckus in Snider's front yard; she also left rambling messages about 9/11 on his web site, and declared the she loved Snider and that he was the only one who could save her.

Appropriately, perhaps, I stayed home last night and watched Death Of A President on DVD. Death Of A President is a fictional documentary depicting the assassination of President Bush that stirred controversy when it was released. Highlights include a Syrian immigrant convicted of the shooting on flimsy evidence, and a power-mad President Dick Cheney ramming the PATRIOT III act through Congress. The events struck too close to home for some folks, including a number of Republicans, and also Hillary Clinton, who pronounced the film "despicable" without having seen it. An interesting film, although not remarkable; it's thought-provoking in some places.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Admittedly, I don't keep up with new music like I once did. I hear some good songs from time to time, but I can never seem to remember who performs them. Usually when I hear new music, it's on the radio in the car, and it can be tough to remember the song titles and artists the DJ announces while trying to negotiate Nashville traffic. I sometimes listen to WRVU, the Vanderbilt radio station, and they can be especially frustrating because the kids will sometimes go for an hour between announcing the tracks. Back in my college radio days, I emphasized making sure the listeners knew the titles and artists of the new tracks, because I wanted people to go out and buy the music I liked.

One new band that has caught my attention is Augustana. "Boston", the first single from their most recent album, is a nice song, if a little wimpy. But it's "Stars And Boulevards" that has me knocked out right now, and is linked for your listening pleasure today.

Although Augustana is based out of southern California today, the original band got together at Greenville College, a small Methodist institution near my old southern Illinois stomping grounds. Jars Of Clay got their start at Greenville as well. Gretchen Wilson is from Pocahontas, about ten miles west of there. I can't for the life of me figure out what's in the environment around there that led to all that musical inspiration. Greenville's a nice enough town. The college sits at the top of a hill, and there's a quaint little neighborhood on the slopes below. The other thing that sticks out in my mind about the town is that the only place you can buy a drink is at the bowling alley just outside the city limits.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Exhuming the Lizard King

Posting about Jim Morrison is as good a way as any for a blogger to mark himself as an old geezer. Younger readers may wonder why the fascination with the music of the Doors and the life of their leader continued for years after Morrison's death in 1971. Poet, magician, mystic, shaman - Jim Morrison captivated classic rock listeners with his provocative lyricism and outsized persona, while the other Doors - Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore - weaved hypnotic and sensual musical patterns behind him. With over three decades hindsight, though, the image of Morrison as a troubled soul whose alcoholic binges and substance abuse caused him to wind himself into tighter and tighter knots becomes clearer, and his death from an apparent drug overdose seems a fitting end.

Plenty of speculation has surrounded Morrison's death over the years. The official death certificate claims Morrison died of "natural causes". An overdose of heroin has been the most accepted explanation, although no autopsy was performed. Yet Morrison feared needles, and a number of his close friends claimed he never used heroin. Some think he snorted heroin by accident, believing it to be cocaine. Others believe that he was set up by drug dealers. Still others swear that Morrison is still alive somewhere, faking his death to escape the rock star image that he felt was increasingly confining to his creativity.

Now, after 36 years, the manager of the Paris nightclub where Morrison was seen prior to his death has come forward with what he claims to be the truth about what happened that night. Sam Bernett, at the time manager of the Rock 'n' Roll Circus nightclub, says that Morrison died in the bathroom at the club, that drug dealers carried Morrison's body back to his apartment and dumped him in the bathtub, and that Bernett was warned not to tell of what he saw.

Bernett describes greeting Morrison in the crowded club on July 3, 1971, the night of Morrison's death:

"I greeted Jim as I always did," recalled Bernett from his home in Paris.

"He didn't look in great form, and immediately went to his usual spot at the bar and ordered a bottle of vodka. He was also drinking beers.

"I was used to talking about everything with him - from Janice
(sic) Joplin to the beatniks - but that night it was just a bit of small talk."

Morrison had come to pick up heroin for his girlfriend Pamela Courson, a frequent user of the drug:

"He'd come in to pick up heroin for Pam. He was always collecting drugs for her and the club was full of dealers."
According to Bernett, Morrison bought the heroin from two men working for Jean de Breteuil, a French playboy and drug dealer.

"The dealers who Jim was talking to were well known," said Bernett.

"Both were French guys in their 20s. I knew what they were up to, and kept an eye out for Jim. He disappeared to the toilets at around 2am.

Like Elvis, he never returned.

"Then, about half an hour later, a cloakroom attendant came up to me and told me someone was locked in one of the cubicles and wasn't coming out. It was then that I got a bouncer to smash the door down.'

Bernett was met by the sight of Morrison's body, slumped on the toilet.


"For a few seconds our eyes were glued to the unmoving corpse. We were mesmerised by the baffling spectacle.

"The flamboyant singer of The Doors, the cool and good-looking Californian guy, was now a collapsed and inert lump lying in a nightclub toilet.

"Seeing Jim in such a bad way was pretty awful. We were certain he'd been snorting heroin because there was foam coming out of his lips as well as blood. He was scared of needles so never injected drugs. He just snorted them."

Is there a doctor in the house?

Bernett's first reaction was to send for one of his regular customers, a doctor. The medic, who Bernett refuses to name, "recognised Morrison but kept his cool. Very calmly, and expertly, he examined the body for a few seconds.

"He pushed Jim's head back, lifted his eyelids, opened his mouth, and fixed his ear to his chest to listen to his heartbeat. He looked for marks and bruises on the body and the arms.

"It was a quick and professional examination. His diagnosis was very confident: 'This man is dead. Apparently the victim of a cardiac arrest.' The doctor was not stupid and spoke of a lethal overdose."

The drug dealers then showed up and hauled Morrison back to the apartment. Meantime, the club owner swore Bernett and other witnesses to secrecy:

Minutes after the tragedy, a representative of the club's owner - a well-connected Paris businessman called Paul Pacini still alive, we are trying to get a comment from him] - warned Bernett not to tell anyone what had happened.

Bernett says: "I was told, "Since Morrison's friends want to take him with them, we have nothing more to do with this story.

"The club has no responsibility for what happens here. It was a sad accident, certainly, but that's fate. So we saw nothing, we heard nothing, we shut up! OK? It's what we better do to avoid a scandal."

Bernett adds that he saw little point in calling the emergency services, as he was convinced Morrison was already dead and nothing could be done for him.

And he says anyone else in the club that night who had an inkling of what went on - including Marianne Faithfull - was also sworn to secrecy.

So why is Bernett talking now? He says he wants to clear his conscience after all these years, but as a coincidence, Bernett has also written a book about his experiences with Morrison that he'd like to sell some copies of. Bernett is 60 now, and looking to pad his retirement fund.

So what of Bernett's story? It does seem a bit strange that he's coming forward now, although I would suggest that if he really was wanting to cash in, he'd have done it in the 80's, when posthumous Morrison fascination had hit its peak and speculation about his death was rampant. Pamela Courson died of her own overdose a few short years later, and good luck finding those drug dealers and getting them to talk. Jim Morrison's death will likely remain one of the great mysteries of rock 'n' roll's glory days.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Lady Bird Johnson

The Hill wishes to pay its respects to Lady Bird Johnson, widow of former president Lyndon B. Johnson, who passed away Wednesday at age 94 following a long illness.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor, her nursemaid commented that she was "purty as a ladybird", and the name stuck for the rest of her life. She graduated from high school at age 15 and eventually earned a journalism degree from the University of Texas. She wanted to become a reporter, but abandoned those plans when she met Lyndon Johnson, then an ambitious young Congressional aide.

Living with LBJ was certainly difficult. He could be charming and gracious one minute, rude and arrogant the next. Lady Bird felt the brunt of LBJ's infamous temper on many occasions, as did nearly everybody who knew him. He embarrassed her with frequent dressings-down in public, and humiliated her privately with his affairs. Lady Bird coped by developing a quiet resolve, and learned a variety of methods of playing to his mood swings to get him to do what she asked.

Lady Bird's business acumen played a major role in developing the Johnsons' financial wealth. With her inheritance, she bought a struggling Austin radio station and made it the cornerstone of a media empire. She immediately went over the books, and within months the station began to turn a profit. She did everything from hiring the on-air talent and selling ad time to sweeping the floor. The Johnsons would eventually own a string of radio and TV stations worth millions.

As First Lady, Lady Bird became synonymous with beautification and environmental projects. A bill that regulated the placement of billboards on interstate highways became known as "Lady Bird's Law". She was also active in promoting and advocating for funding the Head Start program.

In later years, Lady Bird continued to work on environmental projects. She co-founded the National Wildflower Research Center, later renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Her legacy is the thousands of beautification projects throughout the country that she helped inspire.

A collection of Lady Bird Johnson quotes from the Washington Post. Also, my Watching Those We Chose blogging colleague Shortstop has written a recollection of Lady Bird's life that is well worth reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Who knows where the time goes?

That's a question that often comes to my mind these days, now that I've reached the point where there's most likely more years behind me than in front of me, and also the title of the song that's stuck in my head lately:

Across the evening sky
All the birds are leaving
But how can they know
It's time for them to go?
Before the winter fire
I will still be dreaming
I do not count the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Sad deserted shore
Your fickle friends are leaving
Ah, then you know
It's time for them to go
But I will still be here
I have no thought of leaving
You know I have no thought of time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

And I am not alone
While my love is near me
I know it will be so
Until it's time to go
So come the storms of winter
And then the birds in spring again
I do not fear the time
For who knows where the time goes?
Who knows where the time goes?

Words on the printed page cannot do this beautiful song justice. "Who Knows" was written by the late British singer-songwriter Sandy Denny. Her definitive performance of the song, from the classic Fairport Convention LP Unhalfbricking is unavailable on the free internets. The best I can do is this 1967 demo version. The demo gives you the feel of the song, but you can tell that Denny is still working it out. On the Unhalfbricking version, Denny's vocal is more assured, It also features Richard Thompson's intricate guitar accompaniment, which lifts that performance over the myriad cover versions that have been recorded since, the most famous being by Judy Collins.

Denny and Thompson were the leading lights of Fairport Convention's classic period, which also included the albums What We Did On Our Holidays and Liege And Lief. After their departure for solo careers, Fairport became another run-of-the-mill British folk band. Denny would record several solo albums during the 70's, as well as guest on a number of other artist's LP's. Her best-known performance today is probably the guest vocal she contributed to Led Zeppelin's "Battle Of Evermore". Sandy Denny's life came to a tragic end in 1978, when she fell down a flight of stairs at a friend's house.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Campaign finance

Dave got started on this, having posted last week on the Supreme Court's striking down certain provisions in the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law pertaining to corporate-funded "issue ads". The court basically ruled that banning of "issue ads" in the weeks prior to an election violated the First Amendment free-speech guarantees. This once again brings up the question of how much wealthy donors should be allowed to dominate the electoral process. Dave pointed me towards this New York Times Magazine article in which author Jeffrey Rosen seems to pick up where we left off. Rosen's opening concerns are much the same as mine: "How can the principle of one man, one vote be honored when the accumulation of dollars translates so readily into the accumulation of political influence? If all citizens enjoy the equal right to participate in politics with their wallets, is it possible to hold a fair election?"

Comprehensive limits on election spending have been thwarted by the Buckley v. Valeo decision in the 70's that declared election spending to be a form of free speech. Since that time, groups advocating campaign finance reform have resorted to a number of piecemeal measures. The intent of McCain-Feingold was to control the amount of unregulated "soft money" that corporations and other wealthy donors could contribute directly to political parties, and limit the influence of "issue ads" funded by deep-pocketed groups. Now that the Supreme Court has struck down the issue-ad prohibition, there is a good possibility that the soft-money restrictions may be next to go, perhaps followed by efforts to remove spending restrictions altogether. Candidates have a right to spend as much of their own money as they want on their campaigns, the argument goes, why should those without access to a personal fortune be handicapped?

Rosen provides a glimpse of what the future could look like without campaign finance regulations:

In some ways, it would look a lot like American politics before the 1970s. Corporations would give freely to state and national parties. The effects of wealth would once more be magnified as the size of donations ballooned. But not all of the effects of radical deregulation would be negative. Mega-rich candidates would face better-financed rivals and thus inspire less fear. And, having discovered the virtues of Internet fund-raising, candidates are unlikely to ignore small donors, as they did in the ’90s.

The most significant result of a decision to strike down virtually all campaign-finance regulations would be to dash reformers’ hopes for more comprehensive reform — hope, that is, for the sort of policies that proponents of equal access in politics believe would actually work. In Belgium, for example, parties receive 85 percent of their revenue from the government, and spending is strictly restricted during the three months before an election. Such an approach, however, would be hard to reconcile with Americans’ dislike of subsidizing politicians — or with our First Amendment tradition, whether interpreted by the Warren Court or the Roberts Court.

Americans have conflicting attitudes when it comes to political spending. On the one hand, our sense of fairness demands that our politicians be responsive to the needs and desires of all Americans, and we dislike the undue influence that deep-pocketed contributors, including corporations and unions, can exert on our elected representatives. On the other hand, we also feel that anybody who earns their money fair and square has a right to spend it as they see fit. In this view, buying a politician is seen as no different from buying a yacht.

What I'd like to see is a system of campaign financing similar to the Belgian model, with elections funded primarily from federal sources (yup, that's taxes) and restrictions in the weeks leading up to election day. Such an approach may be desirable but is probably not realistic. The Constitutional concerns involved would likely require an amendment to pass. The restrictions on private funding would seem unfair to many, including a lot of folks who aren't rich. The American people have also been loath to fund the electoral process, although my feelings on that are if the American people are unwilling to take responsibility for funding elections, then we will get the politicians we deserve.

At the same time, I can't endorse removing nearly all restrictions and requiring full disclosure, the approach Dave tends to favor. This would cause campaign spending to spiral far beyond the levels we see now. This would force aspiring office-holders without a personal fortune to seek wealthy backers even more than they need to now, which I think would tend to discourage, rather than encourage, potential candidates who lack money. Those who would seek office anyway would constantly be faced with charges of "selling out" to those who bankrolled their campaigns. Also, although I don't have time to research it right now, my gut tells me that the list of deep-pocketed contributors would be far longer on the right than it would be on the left.

One approach that could hold down the costs of campaigning that might not raise so many Constitutional questions would be to require media outlets, particularly TV and radio, to provide free ad time to qualified candidates. The lion's share of campaign spending is used on advertising. The problem here would be to determine a "qualified candidate". There would have to be a formula in place to distinguish serious candidates from cranks standing in the courthouse square with a sandwich board, or with a cheap Internet site. But there needs to be a way to grant eligibility to serious independent candidates, as well as to minor parties such as the Greens and Libertarians who have demonstrated their ability to organize a national following.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence Day

Look at that hair, that attitude, those steely looks - those guys were rock stars, dammit!

In the light of recent events, when those we elected to represent us in governing our great nation seem to be unresponsive and irredeemably corrupt, we are wise to recall the great words of Thomas Jefferson:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Boots Randolph

Boots Randolph performing at Nashville's Centennial Park in 1964.

Legendary Nashville saxophone player and session man Boots Randolph passed away this afternoon in a Nashville hospital. He was 80 years old.

Randolph did his best work in the 60's and 70's; he isn't particularly well-known to younger music fans. He's best recognized for his one big hit, "Yakety Sax", which was later used as the theme music for The Benny Hill Show. He gained respect as a member of Nashville's "A-Team" of session musicians, a group that included Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer. Randolph can be heard on a number of Nashville-produced hits of the early 60's, including Elvis Presley's "Return To Sender" and Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman". He even worked with REO Speedwagon on their cover of "Little Queenie" from their early classic LP R.E.O./T.W.O.

Uh, yeah, I met Boots Randolph once, too. Before the breast cancer, Mrs. S. managed a limousine company here - running a limo company in Nashville, the list of famous people she's met is even more impressive than mine. Her clients included Boots Randolph's management. At the time, Randolph did a regular theater show with Danny Davis, and when my parents came down for a visit, she got us free tickets for their show. After the show, Randolph and Davis came down to talk to us for a couple of minutes. Randolph and Davis were really closer to my parents' generation of musicians, and they were impressed that they got the chance to meet the two men.