A Prayer for the Dead and the Rest of Us

We first learned of the past weekend’s mass murders in Florida while at our Sunday morning worship services. The very fine fellow who leads our congregation’s singing and offers its closing prayer is the sort of early-riser who eats a full breakfast and drinks a cup of coffee and looks over the day’s song list and catches up with the latest news before arriving resplendent at worship, whereas we’re the more nocturnal types who stumble more or less directly and somewhat shabbily out of bed and into our usual spot in the last row of pews at some point during the opening hymn, so it was news to us when he prayed for the redemption of those souls that had been taken in yet another of those all-too-common tragedies, and for the quick recovery of those who had been gravely injured, and for comfort to all those who know and love them.
Constant scanning of the local radio stations on the short drive home turned up nothing but ads and awful country music, so when we arrived at home we re-heated the coffee we’d earlier brewed but didn’t have time to drink and went to the internet for further details on the latest atrocity. Even the earliest dispatches we found reported that the attack had occurred at an Orlando nightspot that catered to homosexuals, and by the time that very fellow fine who leads our singing had left for the all-too-early morning Bible classes he had probably also heard about the murderer’s all-too-common Islamic beliefs, so we were pleased he had humbly admitted none of us yet knew all the facts and addressed our prayers only to the more pressing matter of the lost souls and the gravely wounded and the suffering of those who know and love them. Now that the all-too-predictably dreary facts of the matter are better established and the inevitable necessary dreary political debates are following, we appreciate that fine fellow’s priorities all the more.
Over on the secular left there’s the all-too-familiar clamor about America’s gun culture and the anti-homosexual stance of America’s conservative Christian culture and even some talk about how the latest carnage occurred because so much of America’s common sense culture has resisted the new rules about men using the women’s rooms and hanging around their public showers. The President of the United States acknowledged that the murders were terrorism but once again wouldn’t go so far as to describe its motivation, the presumptive Democratic nominee at long last called it “radical Islamic terrorism,” but everyone else on the secular left was trying to deny the plain fact that one member of its designated-for-protection minority groups had perpetrated such a horrible mass murder against one of its other designated-for-protection minority groups. None of it, of course, is likely to make any sense to the common sense majority of the voting public.
As usual nothing on offer by the gun-grabbing left would have prevented the murderer from obtaining the mundane weapons he used for his carnage, and he not only passed all the background checks for ownership even after two federal investigations but also passed muster to work for a security company often hired by the federal government, with his outspoken Islamism apparently being more a shield than a signal to investigators, and we’re sure if he’d tried his plot in a gay bar in the more gun-friendly jurisdiction of Wichita, Kansas, even such church-going types as ourselves have some dear and rather formidable homosexual friends who would have been armed and ready to lower the resulting death toll. The idea that western Christianity’s rigidly traditional yet ultimately forgiving belief in procreative sexuality as a social and spiritual ideal is responsible for Islam’s more stern and frequently murderous stance against the alternatives is laughable, and the notion that the ridiculous recent flap over men using the women’s restrooms and showers is more laughable yet.
These days the once-feared looming “Handmaiden’s Tale” theocracy of the “Religious Right” is reduced to defending its right not to bake a same-sex wedding cake or have nuns or Baptist entrepreneurs pay for contraception coverage, and with a presumptive Republican nominee who’s a thrice-married and boastfully adulterous and four-times bankrupt casino and strip joint owner who says he’s good with God because he “eats his little cracker” and “drinks his little wine” on infrequent Sundays there’s nowadays a certain unmistakeable secularism to the rest of the right. That presumptive Republican nominee has little to say about same-sex marriage or the right of people to not be involved in it, and has been utterly worthless on the matter of creepy men hanging around women’s restrooms and public showers on the federal government’s say-so, but he’s bound to gain some ground in the lately unfavorable polls by his full-throated denunciation of the secular left’s obvious nonsense.
Regular readers of this publication already know that we don’t place much hope in the presumptive Republican nominee’s ever-shifting yet always cocksure proposed solutions, either, so for now we’re left with that fine fellow’s prayer. The congregation we worship with is affiliated with one of those “politically incorrect” evangelical denominations that is invariably and and more or less accurately described as politically and theologically conservative, and despite those old-fashioned views we pray the same prayer as that fine fellow we know for the recently deceased no matter what their private lives, and no matter how vigorously we disagree with the religious beliefs of their killer we will pause to pray for their souls and those who were gravely injured and all those who know and love them, not matter what they say on the secular left and the secular right. There seems to be a battle between good and evil looming, and at this point we’re not looking to politics for redemption.

— Bud Norman

The Pathetic State of the Races

Tonight brings the latest episode in Donald Trump’s highly-rated reality show, also known as the second debate of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination race, and it’s as good a time as any to note that the Democratic Party’s less-watched show is just as appalling.
In one of those surprise plot twists that any half-attentive viewer could have seen coming from a mile away, the sudden front-runner in the Democratic race suddenly seems to be the self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He’s still frequently described as a “long-shot” by most of the media, who with the same hopefulness occasionally use the same term for Trump, and the consensus of pundit opinion is still that former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and presumptive-first-female-president Hillary Clinton will somehow survive all the scandals her resume has to offer and eventually wind up in a successful race against some more-or-less establishment Republican or another. This strikes us as an unlikely scenario at this point, and not just because it’s too boring to generate any ratings. This Sanders character, on the other hand, inspires all sorts of intriguing and yet oddly plausible plot lines to grip the public’s attention.
On Monday Sanders spoke at the self-described conservative and Christian and Rev. Jerry “Moral Majority” Falwell-founded Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the speech lived up to its fish-out-of-water possibilities. Although the presumably anti-abortion, pro-same-sex-marriage, and reliably left on every other social issue Sanders was preaching to the wrong choir at Liberty he was nonetheless treated with a quiet consideration of his views and a respectful round of applause at the end of his rambling and insane speech, quite unlike the treatment that a pro-abortion, anti-same-sex-marriage, and really right on every other social issue conservative speaker might expect at almost any other university. The speech and its civil reception didn’t get nearly so much coverage as The Donald’s latest “tweet” about some woman’s ugliness and how he bangs hotter broads all the time, but it’s just as disturbing in that ironic way that modern television viewers seem to relish.
Sanders made a valiant attempt to cloak his socialism and social issues libertinism in scripture, citing Jesus’ admonition in Matthew 7:12, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you,” but then undermined the argument by insisting that all the world’s religions take the same generous view. Islam as practiced by the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran and all the rest of those head-chopping, stoning, burning-at-the-stake adherents of the Religion of Peace apparently sees no religious obligation to treat the infidels as they would hope to be treated, and we expect the ordinary Liberty University student is at least well educated enough to understand that. Most of the media also understand this, and understand that most of America understands this, which is probably why they’d prefer to report on The Donald’s latest “tweet.” Sanders also quoted the Old Testament book of Amos, chapter five and verse 24, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a falling stream,” to justify his pro-abortion and pro-same-sex marriage stands, but we expect the average Liberty University could cite other chapters and verses of other books in both the Old and New Testaments that are more specific about such matters. Most of the media couldn’t, we suspect, which is another reason they’d prefer to report on The Donald’s latest “tweet.”
Sanders also cited scripture through the rest of his rant, mostly about the dreaded “1 percent,” “with huge yachts, and jet planes and tens of billions. More money than they would ever know what to do with,” and their obligation to cough it all up to finance a few hours of federal spending. We suppose there’s something somewhere in the scriptures about greed or one of the other relevant Seven Deadly Sins that might bolster Sanders’ theological argument, but even such protestant students as one might find at Liberty University are likely to notice there’s a certain amount of envy and covetousness in Sanders’ pitch, and the economic considerations are too ridiculous to contemplate. The Wall Street Journal has tallied all the spending that Sanders proposes and come up with an $18 trillion price tag, which would be added to the $18 trillion or so already owed, and not including the many tens of trillions of previous unfunded promises, as well as all the the state and municipal and private debt that’s accumulated, and it’s going to take some hellacious scripture-citing to make that work out.
The best we can say for the Democrats is that Sander’s explosion is just the equal and opposite reaction to Clinton’s implosion from various scandals and the increasingly apparent fact that she has no provable accomplishments to show for her many titles and is just an awful, awful woman, which we saw coming from a mile way, no matter what predictable plot lines those hack writers in the media type up, and perhaps there’s some out-of-the-blue plot twist that will lead to a happy ending. They’re pitching the idea of Vice President Joe Biden, at which we point the storyline has reached the absurdism of Samuel Beckett. We’re waiting for a Democrat more worthy than The Donald, which isn’t asking much, but at this point its going to take some deus ex machina that the jaded public won’t buy.
We can only hope that there are still a few twists left in the Republican plot line, as well, and that it ends with one of the many other more heroic characters somehow prevailing over Trump’s “tweets.” Tonight’s episode of the Donald Trump reality show might even set that in motion, and we’ll be watching with avid interest.

— Bud Norman

Tommy, Clif, and Tommy, RIP

All of the original Ramones are now dead, two of the best rockers in our prairie city have recently passed away, and what’s left of rock ‘n’ roll music suddenly isn’t at all satisfying.
You probably had to be a troubled youth in the late ’70s and early ’80s to fully appreciate The Ramones, but we were there and you can trust us when we say they were one of America’s greatest musical creations. At a time when rock ‘n’ roll stars were absurdly overpaid prima donnas striking ridiculous poses in even more ridiculous clothes, pretending that a musical style derived from greasy-haired poor white trash in the hills and prairies and bayous in an unholy alliance with the no-account negroes on the street corners of the roughest slums was now some sort of effete art form, The Ramones came out of the garages in some nondescript New York suburb wearing leather jackets and torn jeans and cheap sneakers with shaggy hair in their eyes to pound out a fast and furious and funny reminder of what the real deal sounded liked. No synthesizers or drum machines or fancy production techniques or any pretense of redeeming social value, just an insistent man-made beat and a thudding bass line and three chords screeching from an electric guitar while a gloriously ugly lead singer wailed “I”m a Teenage Lobotomy,”  “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,” “Gabba Gabba Hey,” or similarly understandable and socially irrelevant rock ‘n’ roll sentiments. The Ramones’ formula distilled rock ‘n’ roll to its intoxicatingly stupid quintessence, and even now when we slap the old sides on the turntable we still tremble at its all-American brilliance.
That basic idea of The Ramones became known as punk rock, and was eagerly embraced by a smattering of oddball kids here in Wichita. With the band’s music blaring on record players at parties and in the afternoons at the apartments of unemployed friends we’d share the half-baked ideas that had been inspired by the demonstration that rock ‘n’ roll or any other cultural expression was something to be created at ground level by ordinary Americans such as ourselves rather than a commodity to be purchased from the established manufacturers. The more musically inclined among us formed bands such as The Agaarns and The Dream Dates and The Inevitable and that classic international cult band The Embarrassment, others painted pictures, some took photographs, and a few of us were compelled to write breathless accounts about with a few pieces that were somehow sneaked into the pages of the local newspaper. It was great fun, the sort of giddy entertainment that can only be enjoyed at a young age and with plenty of rock ‘n’ roll, and seems to have had some lasting value.
Some of those troubled and creative kids we knew on the scene have died early deaths from various causes, one is locked away in a federal prison on some very embarrassing charges, others have drifted away to unknown fates, but many are still coming up with something worthwhile to contribute to the local culture, or at least offering some much needed friendship. The art shows that still draw a crowd on the “Final Fridays” of every month by collusion of the painterly part of town aren’t so interesting these days, but they’re still there and so long as they are it provides hope that another John Noble or William Dickerson or one of the other truly great Wichita painter will some day arrive. The band scene is in one of its periodic slow points around here, so far as well gather from our admittedly infrequent forays into the bars where live music is still heard, but there’s still enough of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll to germinate another generation.
The young punks will have to do it without Clif Major and Tommy Crabb, though, and that’s going to be tough. Major was a local guitar star going back to the mid’-’60s, when his screeching solos for the oh-so-southside band The Outcasts transformed the local scene. Most of the well-scrubbed Wichita youth back then preferred the bouncy rock ‘n’ roll of such uniformed midwestern horn bands as The Fabulous Flippers, while the more sophisticated college hippies went for the slightly jazzy psychedelics of the great Mike Finnegan and his Serfs or the San Francisco-connected Jerry Hahn Brotherhood, but The Outcasts introduced the bluesy working class that was being exploited by British bands such as The Yardbirds and The Rolling Stones and wound up winning all the battles of the bands. The feat almost killed Major a couple of times, and we got to know him well enough that he laughingly recalled for us how a subsequent stint in a bluegrass gospel band saved his life by keeping him off the prodigious diet of drugs that had fueled those screeching guitar solos, but he lasted long enough to enliven the ’80s rock scene with some gritty sax-driven ’50s rock ‘n’ roll and offer guitar-playing advice to the 21st Century’s local rockers at his ultra-cool instrument shop and to raise a son who slaps a pretty mean rockabilly upright bass in the local bands. Major was a good musician and a good guy, right up to the point that he lost his long battle with cancer, and Wichita and the world can ill-afford to lose either of those.
Crabb was a longtime musical collaborator of Major’s, and his death in his early ’60s about a week after Major’s passing was an unexpected blow. Every local music lover we ran into had the same stunned reaction, that they’d just run into him a few days before and thought he looked great. He’d been drumming for local bands as long as anyone could remember, and it was widely expected to last forever. We remember with particular fondness a night that he and Major had a gig backing up the great Bo Diddley at a sleazy little strip mall on the near west side, and how their natural affinity for the good time music with the Bo Diddle beat had propelled the jaded old pioneers to new frontiers of the real deal rock ‘n’ roll. His last gig was The Tom Page Band, a rootsy outfit that jumps from old-time country to down-home blues to long-haired rock with an effortless knack and is about as good as it gets around here, and its sad to be dreading their next performance. Crabb was a good drummer and another good guy, and a friend of ours who used his bills-paying services laying tile in a renovated kitchen assures us he was quite good at that job, and we’ll miss a drummer a who could answer a cell phone call in the middle of a show without missing a beat.
Tommy Ramone and his fellow Ramones and Clif Major and Tommy Crabb all died younger than people are supposed to in this day of medical miracles, none of them reaching that three score and ten that the Bible described as the age of man, and we lament the work they each left undone. There was never going to be a Ramones reunion, as there’s no sense in sixty-something gray hairs banging out three chords about sniffing glue, and when replacement Marky Ramone tried to revive the old punk spirit at the Wichita River Festival last spring one of our original punk scene friends complained that some idiot was trying to start a “wave,” but we understand that Tommy Ramone was still performing some interesting acoustic folk music, going back to an even more democratic era of American music, and we would loved to have heard it. One of the guys from The Embarrassment is back in town to take care of his aging father, who was once a prominent player on the local big band swing scene, and the most famous local act is Split Lip Rayfield with their punk-meets-bluegrass blend, which can be quite exhilarating when the boys are on their game, and we hold out hope that Wichita will once again realize the glorious possibilities of that unholy alliance of greasy poor white trash and the no-account negroes on the street corners and the very heart and soul of working class America..
Maybe it’s already out there, and we’re just too inclined to stay home to have heard it. We’re always asking the young folks we run into about it, though, and they always glumly assure us that we’re not missing anything special. Nobody we run into eagerly debates who’s the best guitar players out there, the way that Major’s fans did back in the ’60s, and they certainly don’t argue about who’s the best clarinet player, the way our old fogey friends did even into our early youth, and these days the best drum players are all computer programs. America’s popular culture is now just another commodity bought from the established manufacturers, not something that ordinary Americans create spontaneously and joyously and rebelliously and dangerously, and we mourn that passing most of all.

— Bud Norman