Monday, August 21, 2006


SUVs & minivans -- is there some way to confiscate them, drive them out to deserted areas, and blow them all up? If so, I'd be all for it. This is not a call for random violence or property destruction, but one of social beautification. Call me a dreamer, but I believe that eliminating these rolling beasts would do wonders not only for the American landscape, but also for our national mentality. And of course there's the environmental angle to consider, once the final flames die out in those distant desert graveyards . . .

Such thoughts came to me while dodging said beasts over the long weekend. As I mentioned Thurs, the family and I struck out for Western Michigan in what will have to serve as our summer vacation. Unlike educated and economic elites, we working stiffs must grab what free time we can, when we can. And I have to admit that while I dreaded what we might encounter in the sticks, the wife, kids and I had a pretty damn good time. Oh sure, there were a few unsettling sites, to me, anyway. But then, my antennae have been extra sensitive of late, and it doesn't take much to rattle my spine. One interesting theme I noticed on back rural roads is that every small town we drove through had at least one big gun shop (in one town, a huge sign boasted of "500 Guns, Right Here!"), several liquor stores, and churches.

Firearms, booze, and religion. Ya cain't git more 'Murican than that, Son.

The other prominent thing that hit me is that apart from TV, there's no real news to be had. You have to look hard to find any national newspaper, and of course, no one talks about the real world, save for the predictable "Support The Troops" t-shirts and car magnets. I saw how easily Americans can divorce themselves from what's happening Over There in Our Name. I knew this already, but you have to be in deep Americana to fully appreciate it. The one news item that did break through the general ignorance and apathy was the newest chapter of the JonBenet saga. This you couldn't avoid, but more on that later.

My daughter pointed out the numerous anti-suicide billboards seen along our journey. There did seem to be a lot of them, and while I've not researched the suicide rates for that area of the country, I doubt these were put up simply to cover empty ad space. There is a sense of desolation there, and I cannot imagine having to grow up under those conditions if one had any curiosity about the world or a measure of creative intelligence. I lived in the boonies as a teen, and it wasn't fun. In fact, it was quite depressing, which is why I got out as soon as I could. For those who can't or won't, God knows what what's going through their heads as they endure the rigid monotony of that world. I suspect that those billboards are aimed at them.

Despite this backdrop, we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The amusement park wasn't terribly crowded, and I got to ride several rollercoasters, which I love. I took the boy on his first serious rollercoaster ride, not a terribly big one, but for him a large step. He had a look of panic in mid-ride, but I squeezed his hand and told him to yell. Yelling when you're being shot around up and down at fast speeds is the only way to go, and he let out a little yelp before the cars came to a quick halt.

"Next year," I told him, "we're doing the Corkscrew," a ride that takes you upside down and sideways.

"No way, Dad!" he said, looking wide-eyed at the looping tracks.

I patted his head. "We'll see . . ."

My daughter and I rode the Corkscrew, which took some coaxing on my part. She nervously strapped herself in, but after the ride, she was all smiles. I convinced her to go on the park's second largest rollercoaster with me (I knew she'd never consent to going on the monster one, and even I had my doubts about that thing), and as we stood in line, she studied the track layout and wondered how high the first hill was. The more she surveyed the hill, the higher it grew in her eyes. Finally, she asked that we leave and ride something less daunting. She confessed to being a little embarrassed about backing out, but there was obvious relief in her eyes. We bought some cotton candy instead, a frightening ride for my aging, brittle teeth.

The next day, all of us went on a 40-minute dune buggy ride over the sand mounds near Lake Michigan, which was great. We then visited a historic village nearby, complete with one-room school, tiny church, blacksmith shop, post office, etc. I really enjoy this stuff, and have since childhood, when I would tour similar sites in rural Indiana. I feel an instant connection with mid-19th century prairie living, as awful and dangerous as it must have been. I'm not a believer in past lives, but I always get an immediate jolt of deja vu whenever I smell those old wooden walls, read the tiny textbooks in a classroom, scan the tintype photos of stern-looking people long dead. It feels familiar and in a way comforting, despite the lack of electricity, antibiotics, air conditioning and central heating, among other contemporary delights. I could probably live with the music of that period, though once ragtime and jazz came into being, I'd be too old and reactionary to appreciate it. So there's a downside to living in that "simpler" time.

At the end of the day, we hit another part of Lake Michigan, the boy and I splashing in the surf as the sun went down, the women sitting in the sand, absorbing the beautiful vista. I never get over the vastness of that lake, and it's nice to swim in water free of seaweed and jellyfish. And while the waves aren't as big as Malibu's or Long Island's, they were tall enough for me to teach the lad how to body surf. Once he got the swing of it, he threw his lanky frame into the waves over and over and over again, allowing the current to determine his landing. As was the case when he was an infant, when he'd cry as we removed him from the bathtub, we had to literally drag him out of the water so we could find the "authentic" Mexican restaurant I'd seen advertised the night before. The food was delicious, and reminded me of the Mexican fare I've enjoyed in LA. It was the filling end to a wonderful day.

Speaking of surf and beaches, I'm currently in a serious Beach Boys/Brian Wilson state of mind. This was jump-started a week or so ago when I caught on VH1 Classic the TV movie "The Beach Boys: An American Family." It appeared on ABC in 2000, and was produced by the actor John Stamos, who plays drums in Mike Love's band and apparently wanted to portray Dennis Wilson in the film. Thankfully, he was prevented from doing so, but the film, while factual in many areas, is quite fictional in many others, especially when it comes to Love, who's shown as the Boys' realist and ultimate savior. Brian Wilson's creative genius is acknowledged, but grudgingly so, his emotional fragility and numerous insecurities and fears whipped up to a cartoonish froth, which of course allows Mike Love's character to put the band back on the correct and profitable path. The people behind this film clearly cribbed much from Steven Gaines' book, "Heroes & Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys," but mysteriously left out a lot of Love's own bad behavior, like beating and verbally abusing his wives, for example. Had Brian Wilson done anything like that, you can bet that Stamos and company would have dramatized it from every available angle. (A fine rebuke of that film can be read here.)

Anyway, I've been deep in Brian Wilson's music, from "Surfin' USA" to "Smile," one of the most moving and inspiring albums I've ever heard. It never ceases to floor me the sounds Wilson heard in his head, some of which still defy conventional musical understanding, and many of which move me to tears. "Pet Sounds" is part of this, too, an introspective look at longing, joy and regret, miles away from the traditional Beach Boys themes of cars, girls and surfing, which is why the Boys, especially Mike Love, hated and feared it (as did Capitol Records) when Wilson first exposed "Sounds" to them. But they went along, laying down vocal tracks for music already recorded by Wilson and Phil Spector's seasoned session players, the Wrecking Crew. "Smile," however, was even further out for the Boys (though Dennis Wilson seemed to appreciate it), which is why it was abandoned until 2003, when Brian Wilson and lyricist Van Dyke Parks reunited and finished their masterpiece.

Sadly, the wife and daughter don't share my enthusiasm for Brian Wilson's music. My daughter's 15 and currently into Nine Inch Nails, so Wilson's stuff must sound like poppy mush to her (she does like "Wouldn't It Be Nice," however); but the wife's antipathy stuns and confuses me. She plays piano, loves Broadway show tunes, gospel, is extremely well-schooled in classical music, among other genres, yet apart from "California Girls" and "Good Vibrations," Wilson does very little for her. During the trip I played both "Pet Sounds" and "Smile," adding some early Beach Boy tunes like "I Get Around" which, despite Mike Love's dopey lyrics, shows the first real progression in Wilson's composition. Pursed lips and a blank stare. She conceded that Wilson is talented, but believes that he was stunted somehow as a composer. I replied that others near the Wilson camp believed this as well. Chuck Kaye, once part of A&M Records, whose publishing arm bought the rights to the Beach Boys' music from Murry Wilson, Brian, Carl and Dennis' embittered and abusive father, told Steven Gaines, "[Murry] was a sick fuck, that's who that guy was. He reared a brilliant genius of a son [Brian], raised him as a total neurotic. Look what could have been and what is."

The wife immediately concurred with Kaye on this point. But for me, if "what is" is incomplete, I cannot imagine what a stable and secure Brian Wilson would've produced, though I'd love to hear it, even if it would shatter my senses (in a pleasant way, of course). In any event, here's a clip of Wilson playing "Surf's Up" from the original "Smile" sessions for a 1966 CBS show about pop music, hosted by Leonard Bernstein (with commentary at the end from Van Dyke Parks). It's but a mere acoustic glimpse of a larger, magnificent tapestry.

Back at hotel Saturday night, after our large Mexican meal, the wife and boy retired early in the adjacent room while my daughter and I flipped through channels and came across NBC's "Dateline" special about JonBenet Ramsey and the man who confessed to raping and killing her. You have to hand it to NBC -- just days after John Mark Karr claimed to be the missing piece in this crime puzzle, they threw together a report covering every aspect available, then aired it as soon as they could for the tabloid-hungry public. But the report offered nothing terribly new. The first third was a reprise of the Story So Far. The second third was a sketchy profile of Karr, complete with testimony from a now-grown woman who briefly had Karr as a substitute teacher in the second grade. Her recollection seemed more "Now that you mention the guy . . ." than any kind of serious remembrance. But hey, "Dateline" has deadlines, and ratings can't wait, so you go with what you can grab on the fly. Overall, it appears that Karr has possessed child porn and displayed certain pedophilic tendencies. But nothing was concretely established. The final third of the report tried to find ways to connect Karr to JonBenet, but even host Hoda Kotb had to admit that there were more holes than connecting facts, so the viewer was left up in the air -- until the next flurry of specials, which are bound to come, now that Karr is back in the States.

My daughter and I laughed through much of this wretched program. But it wasn't a casual or mocking laughter. We were more appalled than anything else, and laughter seemed the only sane response. Ten years after her brutal death, the American corporate media continues to drag JonBenet Ramsey's body across the public stage, knowing that people will crowd to see her and anyone related to her murder. There are plenty of Iraqi and Afghani JonBenets who've been butchered in less plush surroundings, and there's no mystery as to how or why they were killed. But this would require actual journalism to reveal, and besides, the bulk of America couldn't care less about those whose names they'll never know. At least that's what our "news" media appears to believe. To them, American consumers prefer stories about pedophilia, child rape and murder, presented in the gaudiest colors. Judging from the big ratings that JonBenet still generates, who's to say that they're wrong?