Don, Sleepy, and Gertrude, RIP

Over our many years in the writing obituaries for daily newspapers we noticed that January was the busiest time of the year on the dead beat, as many terminally ill people cling to life through one last holiday season. This young year has already brought obituaries for three very different individuals, and we think passing is worth noting.
The first obituary we noticed was for Don Larsen, who died New Years Day at the age of 90. Larsen was a journeyman baseball pitcher, just good enough to hang on through a journey of 14 seasons in the major leagues with seven teams before arriving at a career record of 81 wins and 91 losses, but he’s well remembered as the only man to ever pitch a perfect game in the World Series.
He’d been been knocked out of the second game of the ’56 Fall Classic in the second inning by a powerhouse Brooklyn Dodgers squad and didn’t expect to get another start, but New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel gave him the ball for game five, and Larsen went out determined to at least do better. He had a full count against future Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese in the first but threw a third strike and retired the side in order, and after that he turned in the most flawless pitching performance ever seen, and on baseball’s biggest stage. Larsen got some help from one of Mickey Mantle’s signature spectacular defensive plays after Dodger great Gil Hodges slammed a likely single to the middle of the outfield, and the legendary Yogi Berra was calling the pitches from behind the plate, but Larsen earned his place in baseball history.
Back in Larsen’s day journeyman pitchers didn’t earn enough to retire to a life of leisure, and he spent of the rest of his working days as a liquor salesman and the a paper company executive. His second marriage lasted 62 years and produced a son and two grandchildren, he got to be in the stands when David Cone pitched a rare regular season perfect game for the Yankees, and he always had that one October afternoon of perfection. This gives hope to all of us journeymen journeying through life, so he’ll be missed, and we hope he’s safe at home.
We were also saddened to read about the passing of Sleepy LaBeef on the day after Christmas at the age of 84. If you don’t know the name that’s because you’re not sufficiently hep to cosmic American music jive, as LaBeef was as rocking and rolling a singer and guitarist as you’re ever likely to hear. His 6-foot-6-inch and 270 pound frame packed a basso profundo voice that could shake a honky-tonk’s roof, and he could do anything with the full-sized hollow body electric guitar that looked like a mandolin in his hands.
Born during the Great Depression in Smackover, Arkansas, as Thomas Paulsey LeBeff, or LeBeouf according to some accounts, he took his stage name from the droopy eyelids he had despite constant coffee drinking and his massive size and burly guitar licks. He grew up playing the black gospel music he loved, but first broke into the music business playing the rockabilly style that was hot in the late ’50s, and despite cutting some classic records for obscure labels he didn’t generate sell a lot of records at a time with the good-looking and hip-shaking Elvis Presley was the big deal. He kept at it long enough that he was around for the big rockabilly revival craze in the ’80s, though, and his Rounder Records releases and live appearances wowed all the aficionados around the world.
One hot August in the ’80s LaBeef played a four-night stand at the Spot Recreation Center, a notorious dive just east of downtown where we liked to hang out, and we were there for every minute of it. The music was as raw and real and rocking and rolling as we could have hoped for, and we got the chance to hang out with the man between sets. He was friendly and funny and turned us on to the gospel great Sister Rosetta Tharpe and all sorts of other fantastic musicians we’d been missing out on, and it saddens us to think of all the great American music that the young folks of today will be missing out on from now on.
The death of Gertrude Himmelfarb at the age of 97 is also worth noting, and perhaps more consequential at the moment. She was best known as the historian who came to the defense of the Victorian era, which had long been much derided for its puritanism and imperialism despite the great advances in social justice and modernization she demonstrated had been made, but she was also an important voice for conservatism in general, and wound up playing a role in America’s victory in the Cold War.
She was born in 1922 in a Jewish ghetto of Brooklyn, with immigrant and Yiddish-speaking parents who had no formal education but ambitions that their daughter would do better, and she became a star student of history and philosophy and economics at Brooklyn. While there she met and fell in love with Irving Kristol, a formidable intellectual in his own right, and they remained married until his death in 2009. Both were Trotskyites during their undergraduate courtship, but both gradually grew to recognize the error of their ways, and became leading voices of the neoconservatism that provided the intellectual underpinnings for President Ronald Reagan’s more aggressive and ultimately successful stance against the Soviet Union.
Back then conservatism was an intellectual movement, led largely by such bona fide intellectuals as Himmelfarb and such Nobel Prize-winning economists as Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek and such erudite commentators as Bill Buckley and Russel Kirk, and it saddens us to think what the kids are missing out on in an age when low-brow radio blowhards such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and such demagogues as President Donald Trump define conservatism.
It’s a rough start to a year when we could use the likes Larsen, LaBeef and Himmelfarb, but we’ll hope somewhere out there are those ready to step up and take their places in history.

Scotty Moore, RIP and Good Rockin’ Tonight

During our daily efforts to find something in the news to write about other Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump or the rest of all that dreary business we happened upon an obituary for Scotty Moore, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, which only accentuated the decline of western civilization to our rockabilly-loving sensibilities.
Only the true rock ‘n’ roll aficionados will recognize the name, but they’ll all gladly explain to you that Moore was somehow one of those rare guitarists who made on a real mark on American culture. He grew up picking cotton and playing guitar with his musical family in rural Tennessee, then quit school after the ninth grade and lied about his age to join the Navy at age 16, then wound up in Memphis working in a tire factory and a dry cleaning shop during the day and at night trying to make a mark on the city’s world-class music scene. He was an acolyte of country virtuoso Chet Atkins, as is obvious on any listening to his playing, but he mostly liked to play jazz in a Les Paul style, and was more obviously familiar with the hard-edged blues sound of his adopted city, so of course he wound up in a very nasal and twangy and hillbilly band called Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers, which cut a couple of not-bad sides for the fledging Sun Records Company over on Union Avenue. Which wound up changing the course of American musical history in the late 20th century.
The guy who started and pretty much single-handedly ran Sun Records was a cotton-picking white boy from rural Tennessee, too, but he’d heard enough black folks singing the blues in those cotton patches that it was his greatest musical passion, and although he was also a some-time country fan and would occasionally release singles by the likes of Doug Poindexter and his Starlight Wranglers his business was mostly in such all-time great blues acts as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton and Junior Parker and Pat Hare and the rest of Memphis’ top-notch blues talent. Those guys eventually headed north in the great black migration, though, and wound up signing with the Chess Records label in Chicago that had previously paid for the rights to the master recordings done in the Sun studios, so Sun Records boss Sam C. Phillips started looking around for some white guy or another who might be able to approximate that black sound he loved so much.
Sun Records had already released a record by “Harmonica Frank,” a ruggedly fine piece of folk art primitivism by some wrinkled white rural Tennessee sharecropper that even the most Afro-Centric ears would assume to be some wrinkled old black guy, and white honky-tonkers such as Roy Hall and Smokey Woods had already been playing a black-hillbilly miscegenation style of music for so long they were already old and ugly, but Phillips was looking for something more marketable to mid-’50s America. Sun Studios also made much-needed money by pressing vanity records for a reasonable fee for anyone who dropped in, and one of those customers wanted to make a hokey record for his mother on her birthday was such a good-looking guy that the the Sun Records secretary made a note of him, and she insisted that he listen to the hunk’s recording of “My Happiness,” and thus Elvis Presley wound up making his debut recordings over on Union Avenue. With his stripped-down primitivist philosophy of music, Phillips shrewdly decided to have Presley accompanied only by the reliably on-the-beat bassist Bill Black, and that guitar-pickin’ guy from the Starlight Wranglers who provided the best of their not-bad recordings.

By all accounts the recording session started horribly, with some desultory run-throughs of such corny fare of “My Happiness,” but after so many hours and so many cigarettes and so many sips of moonshine whisky and indulgences of whatever other vices you might have encountered at Sun Studios over on Union Avenue after midnight they started messing around in their hillbilly way with a 10-year-old and not well-known but definitively-black blues song by otherwise long-forgotten Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup called “That’s Alright, Mama,” and it sounded pretty damned good. They also came up with a blackened by rhythm-and-blues version of Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys’ definitively hillbilly “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” which also sounded pretty damned good and wound up on the B-side of a single that was a regional hit in both the black and white record stores of the segregated south, and set in motion the Presley phenomenon. That was followed by such hot wax as “Good Rockin’ Tonight” and “Trying to Get to You,” and with every white and black girl in the south hot for Elvis he was soon sold for a relative song to to the major label RCA records and its multi-media reach, and suddenly the bizarre miscegenation musical style of poor white trash and ghetto blacks called “rock ‘n’ roll” was an undeniable influence on American culture.
We hate to overstate anything, and abhor our cultural tendency to do so on almost every occasion, so we’ll admit that that rock ‘n’ roll might well have happened without Elvis, and that Elvis might have well happened without Scotty Moore, but we’ll still insist that seems the way it’s turned out.
The interracial music of Elvis and Scotty and Bill, as they were billed on that initial release, exemplified a cross-cultural tradition that had already been going in America from the beginning and through the note-reading masterpieces of African-American culture and the the suddenly polyrhythmic and intuitive styles of European-American had already been going on for decades, from the jazz age through western swing and those old and ugly rhythm and blues honky-tonkers, and the western civilization classical aspirations of Duke Ellington and the rest of the best of the black talent, so there are no essential people in a true republic.
Elvis Presley was undeniably good-looking and could surely shake those hips as well as any black man, and he could sure as hell sing, too, so there’s always a chance he would have made his mark without Scotty Moore playing the lead guitar, but we doubt it. Those first Sun Records releases were credited to “Elvis, Scotty, and Bill,” and although we liked the “Elvis the Original Hillbilly Cat” signature on the later releases we always thought the original credits summed the band up best. The lead electric guitar-playing on those original Sun sessions still strikes us as extraordinary, and the bass-playing by the the formidable Bill Back is still exactly on beat, and our favorite part of the masterpiece “Tryin’ to Get to You” is still that soulful solo by the not at all good-looking cotton-picken’ white boy playing that mean guitar. Scotty and Bill stayed will Elvis through the early RCA hits, and wound up in some of those embarrassing movies Elvis did, but they both eventually dropped out of he shadows of his good-looking spotlight.
Bill Black’s always on-beat “Bill Black Combo” had some minor rock ‘n’ roll hits, and Scotty Moore had some minor success doing studio work, but he mostly lived off his family’s various business, and both were memorably in on that epic Elvis “comeback special” on network television, but they were mostly confined to anonymity until Moore’s death. The Washington Post and The New York Times and all the polite media have taken notice of Moore’s passing, even if it’s left to such rockabilly-loving and impolite media as ourselves to truly fret about it, or the cultural decline that his little-noticed passing heralds. These days the ideas of fusing hillbilly and black music is derided as a politically incorrect “cultural appropriation,” and even  the most anti-politically correct types probably have no idea who Scotty Moore was, and we’re left with only the heartening licks of a cotton-pickin’Tennesse farm boy’s prototypical rock ‘n’ roll.

— Bud Norman

Rock ‘n’ Roll and Other Museum Pieces

The Sedgwick County Historical Museum was rockin’ and rollin’ on Tuesday night, which somehow seemed sadly appropriate.
Headlining a fundraiser for the elegant but cash-strapped museum was Los Straitjackets, a crack surf rock quartet clad in matching black suits and skinny black ties with Mexican wrestling masks, and Deke Dickerson, a famously ferocious rockabilly guitarist wearing a brand new cowboy hat acquired just down the street at Hatman Jack’s Wichita Hat Works, and it made for quite a commotion. The music was rough and rowdy and inventive and goofy, and altogether fitting for the gorgeous old limestone venue that the city’s great Proudfoot and Bird architectural firm built as Wichita’s original City Hall back in the days when public architecture inspired awe and respect rather than rolling eyes and a run through the metal detectors. Such real deal rock ‘n’ roll is now a relic of a long lost past, just like the nearby display of antique toys that a friend of ours acquired from his Depression-era pop and has loaned to the museum, or the once-upon-a-time locally-built Jones 6 automobile that is exhibited two stories up, or any of the other intriguing artifacts that clutter the place, and it now makes for a worthy museum piece.
It was heartening to think to that such delightfully low music had found a place in the local pantheon, a shrewd choice we attribute to another old friend of ours who was once a key figure in the original local punk rock scene and is now the museum’s outstanding director, but sad to realize how small a role it plays in the contemporary popular culture. The gradual demise of surf rock and rockabilly and all the other beer-fueled styles of all-American music wouldn’t be so bad if something worthy had come along to replace them, just as those genres had knocked off jump blues and big band swing and hillbilly boogie and Tin Pan Alley pop quartet Gospel and all the other rough and rowdy and inventive and goofy ideas that had preceded them, but when we scan through the local radio stations or search for the latest offerings from the hippest web sites we never find anything comparably cool to take its place in the progression. Every so often we’ll ask the young hipsters who hang out at the local bistro where we mull over the day’s events with a gray-ponytailed friend if we’re missing anything great, but even the most immaculately tattooed yo among them tell us that it’s all as just bad as we’d suspected. There’s no doubt something very cool going on out there if you dig deep enough for it, as there always is, but it’s not like the old days when you just had to turn on the radio and let it come pouring out.
The same lack of new ideas seems apparent in our visits to the local art galleries, and our perusals of the new releases at the local independent bookstore, and our occasional samplings of the latest cinema on Netflix, as well as all our other occasional forays into contemporary popular culture. There’s no shaking a nagging suspicion that it’s somehow related to the same paucity of innovation in our politics, where liberalism offers the same old policies that have had Europe in decline for the past century and conservatism is still hoping for another Ronald Reagan to talk the public out of such foolishness, or in a an economy where the big money is flowing towards new social media that allow people to more efficiently disseminate pictures of their cats or share their gripes about the service at a local restaurant. Perhaps the artists are lacking the big ideas that come from social change, or social change is stalled by lack of artistic impetus, but in any case the result is inescapably desultory.
We’re in search of a big idea as well, and our best guess is that we’ll find it in the museums. Given a choice between the old ideas that have had Europe in decline for the past century or another Ronald Reagan to thwart such nonsense we’ll opt for the latter every time, and given a choice between surf rock and whatever it is they’re playing on the FM stations we’ll spin the former. There’s something to be made of such rough and rowdy and inventive and goofy stuff, we’re sure, just as the surf rockers drew on rockabilly and Reagan drew on ideas at least as old as Edmund Burke, and maybe someday it can added to the museum to inspire yet another generation.

— Bud Norman

High Taxes and Happy Days

When it comes to waging class warfare, President Obama is practically a pacifist compared to Paul Krugman. For pure Jacobin zeal even Francois Hollande, the admittedly Socialist president of France, pales in comparison to the New York Times’ columnist.
Obama only wants to raise the taxes on the highest earners by a few mere percentage points, and makes it a point to politely describe the multi-billion-dollar heist as “asking the wealthiest Americans to give a little bit more.” Hollande, who has stated with a more admirable French frankness that “I hate rich people,” only wants to help himself to 75 percent of the earnings of his most fortunate countrymen. Krugman scoffs at such extravagant government largesse toward the wealthy, and insists that they fork over a full 91 percent of what they earn.
The idea will no doubt have wide appeal, people being prone by nature to envy and all sorts of economic craziness, and Krugman’s prestigious endorsement will no doubt give such avarice an added intellectual respectability. We don’t mean that there’s any prestige attached to being a New York Times columnist, of course, but we refer rather to his Nobel prize in economics, an award which some people still take seriously for some reason. Those people should note that a Nobel prize in economics was also bestowed upon Friedrich Hayek, who believed in limiting the size of government to the point it could easily get along without 91 percent of anyone’s money, so at least one of these laureates is wrong about everything.
Perhaps sensing that his credentials are in insufficient to persuade a properly skeptical reader, Krugman wraps his class resentments in a widespread nostalgia for the 1950s. Most people fondly recall the decade as an age of tail fins, pony skirts, and danceable records, but in Krugman’s rhapsodic telling the decade was a halcyon era defined by Twinkies, powerful labor unions, and sky-high federal tax rates. As it hard as it may be for conservatives to admit, given their lingering fondness for Eisenhower, Krugman is quite correct on every count. The Age of Ike did indeed bring the invention of the artificially flavored snack cake, a historic peak in union membership, and the same 91 percent top tax rate that Krugman proposes to restore.
If Krugman hopes to return to ‘50s-era tax rates, though, he’ll have to replicate every other facet of the ‘50s-era economy as well. That would involve a global war that left the industrial infrastructure of every other advanced country in shambles, a federal government that spent only 25 percent of the gross domestic product, with no EPA or OSHA or EEOC or countless other regulatory agencies, a very strong dollar, a president who was widely ridiculed for his obsession with balanced budgets, most women staying home to tend to their multiple children, men smoking heavily at their three-martini lunches, and aggressive enforcement of global order. Liberals aren’t as enthusiastic about these sorts of things, but they might just be willing to put up with it in return for confiscatory tax rates on the rich.
While liberals such as Krugman wax nostalgic about the ‘50s as a time of enforced economic equality, they also tend to decry the culture of the decade as a dark age of suburban conformity and repressed sexuality. Somehow they square this with the invention of rock ‘n’ roll and the baby boom, but they fail to consider that the much hated old-fashioned morality of the era was also an important facet of the ‘50s economy. The young folks might not believe it, but in the ‘50s out-of-wedlock births were quite rare and intact families provided most of the services now performed by the social welfare agencies. The social culture also celebrated self-sufficiency and stigmatized dependence to much greater extent than today, judging by the music, movies, television, and presidential speeches of then and now, and the modern liberal is unlikely to embrace such archaic notions along with a soak-the-rich tax hike.
There was also poverty in the ‘50s, or at least enough of it that liberals felt obliged to wage a war on it in the ‘60s. That was the beginning of the social welfare state that supplanted the nuclear family for millions of Americans, with the unhappy results fully on display in the police reports of your local newspapers, but it seems unlikely Krugman has learned anything from the past five decades of social deterioration. The economy has grown since the ‘50s, rapidly following John Kennedy’s tax cuts for the rich and even more rapidly after Ronald Reagan’s even deeper tax cuts for the rich, but Krugman seems not to have noticed that, either.
Alas, Krugman is also correct in assuming that the fact tax rates did reach 91 percent back in the ‘50s will make it seem more acceptable. People associate the decade with a wholesome all-Americanism, either from their own recollections or the endless re-runs of “Happy Days,” and it is often assumed that anything that happened then — other than racial segregation, the Cold War, and chastity — is therefore non-controversial. The ‘50s aren’t coming back, though, no matter how much both conservatives and liberal desire it for their very different reasons. If any of it is to be revived, let it be rockabilly music or oversized Cadillacs, not some dumb plan to run all the money out of the country.

— Bud Norman