Monday, April 29, 2013

Tribute to Michael Black

Remembering Michael Black
By: Langdon Winner

On my way to a conference in San Francisco last month I learned that Michael Black, a dear friend of many years, had been killed by a hit and run driver while walking along a country road in northern California.  I was devastated by the news.  Michael and I had talked by phone about getting together sometime over the weekend to catch up on recent developments in our lives.  But was not to be.  As the Dalai Lama once observed, "No one knows what comes first -- tomorrow or eternity."

Michael Black was truly a free spirit -- scholar, raconteur, singer, environmental activist, spiritual healer, ebullient visionary -- a person overflowing with joyful wisdom.  Long before the term became fashionable, he was a pioneer in studies of “sustainability.”  His PhD dissertation explored the collapse of ancient empires caused by ecological mismanagement, a fate that he believed was likely in store for our own civilization unless drastic measures were taken. His continuing efforts to find ways to heal the planet and its people carried him into wide ranging inquiries in political theory, American politics, social movements, natural history, forestry, the life cycle of West Coast salmon, and eastern philosophy.

I first met Michael, characteristically,  one afternoon in 1973.  As I banged away on my typewriter in an old Berkeley house, there was an unexpected knock at the door.   On the front porch stood a stranger smiling at me. "Hello!  I'm Michael Black.  I've heard about you and your work on the politics of technology.  We've got to talk."  We spent the rest of the afternoon drinking coffee and sharing thoughts about ecology and politics, the beginning of more than four decades of conversations.

 In variety of temporary and part time positions, Michael taught at several colleges and universities over the years.  Much beloved by his students and colleagues, his way of pursuing questions combined the intensity of Socratic method with an Aristotelian preference for philosophizing while walking around the campus.  Although he wrote continually and published steadily, academic administrators frowned at the relatively low rate of publication in the approved scholarly venues and, thus, he never received tenure.  I recall using the phrase "refereed journals" in a conversation with him one day, at which point he laughingly made the “tweet-tweeet” sound of whistles blown by referees at a football game.  That was his comment on the ways in an over-emphasis upon thinking by “peer review” had enforced a dull conformity in American higher education to the exclusion of other, more lively ways of knowing.  Nonetheless, as the years rolled on, Michael persisted, piecing together one class here, another class there twenty miles down the freeway, a vocation that he liked to call “Roads Scholar.” 

A colorful talker with an inborn love of word play, he used language in ways that delighted his friends and horrified university bureaucrats.  Within the grimly “serious” discussions about “curriculum reform” and “strategic planning” and similar matters (that waste far too much of the time of the nation’s best minds), Michael would often launch in to free association riffs that revealed the underlying absurdity of the conversation while angering the stuffed shirts who’d convened the meeting.  His everyday observations about the world were sprinkled with a range of signature phrases, delivered with a distinctive chuckle, ones that his friends will long cherish:

“Oh, oh.  I think reality’s breaking out today!” 

“Yes, it looks like we’re having too much fun!” 

My favorite story about Michael’s antics comes from the birth of my twin boys.   Following a 1:00 a.m delivery by Cesarian section, Gail was neatly stitched up by her doctors.  Around noon that day it was finally possible for family and friends to visit her and newborn Brooks and Casey in the hospital room.  The first person other than close family to arrive was Michael, who happened to be in town.    When he appeared at the door Gail raised her hand firmly as if to block his entrance,  “Michael, whatever you do, don’t get me laughing!” she exclaimed.  He came in accompanied by a group friends and within 30 seconds was telling jokes and had the whole room literally in stitches.  Of course, Gail eventually forgave him.

What Michael enjoyed most were days spent walking in nature.  On several occasions he took me high up on the west-facing slope of Mount Tamalpais just north of San Francisco Bay where we’d begin a long hike down to the sea.  As we strolled along the trail Michael would point out how gracefully the micro-eco-systems changed from place to place: from oak grove, to redwood glen, to grassy field, to sage brush chaparral, and eventually to the shores of a Pacific Ocean beach.  He enjoyed pointing out the details, sharing his sense of the world’s divine interconnections.  As Walker Black, his teenage son, commented at Michael’s memorial service, it was on those mountain strolls that "he felt most happy, most at completely at home."

Open on his desk at the end was a manuscript for first of three books Michael was writing about the spiritual explorations that occupied much of his life during the past decade.  In truth, he left behind a great deal more -- ideas, pieces of wisdom, joyful moments inscribed directly on the hearts and souls of his friends.  For those who knew and loved him, his presence in memory will continue to be: “Too much fun!”

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Amazing new invention -- The Minimum Wage Machine

This wonderful new machine, shown in prototype here, comes from the web page of Cesarea Treehugger of Duluth, Minnesota.  It provides an answer to the question that many young people, including ones with excellent credentials and experience, are asking these days: "Where can I find a decent, well-paying job?"  Here's the product description from April 10, 2013.

 "This machine allows anyone to work for minimum wage for as long as they like. Turning the crank on the side releases one penny every 4.97 seconds, for a total of $7.25 per hour. This corresponds to minimum wage for a person in New York. This piece is brilliant on multiple levels, particularly as social commentary. Without a doubt, most people who started operating the machine for fun would quickly grow disheartened and stop when realizing just how little they’re earning by turning this mindless crank. A person would then conceivably realize that this is what nearly two million people in the United States do every day…at much harder [] than turning a crank. This turns the piece into a simple, yet effective argument for raising the minimum wage."

The likely demand for this much needed device is indicated by a story in today's New York Times:

City Report Shows a Growing Number Are Near Poverty

" The rise in New York City’s poverty rate as a result of the recession has apparently eased, but not before pushing nearly half of the city’s population into the ranks of the poor or near-poor in 2011, according to an analysis by the ...[mayor's] administration."

Many of my colleagues tell me that the cure for joblessness and poverty is a talisman called "technological innovation."  The minimum wage machine seems to be yet another example of the kinds of "breakthroughs" that have done so much to boost the fortunes of American working people since the late 1970s. 

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Masked Marauders on Rock Center

                                   Brian Williams, Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner (at the piano)
                                                  Rock Center interview, New York 3/4/14

The Masked Marauders joke/hoax was hatched in the fall of 1969 while I was doubling as a political science grad student and writer for Rolling Stone Magazine.  It began as a fake review written by Greil Marcus (under the pseudonym "T.M. Christian") as a send up of the trashy "super session" rock albums that were flooding the market at the time.  According to the review, the "The Masked Marauders" included the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and some other well known musicians playing together for the first time at a secret location in Hudson Bay, Canada.  While the idea was obviously absurd on its face, the piece was written in a manner that made the project sound almost plausible.  Soon the possibility that a "Masked Marauders" album might actually exist somewhere became the talk of the music industry.

At the time I had a radio program on "underground" radio station KMPX.  For a hour each Friday afternoon my friend and music writer John Morthland would gather around the microphone, play records, and talk about them.  Just after the "Masked Marauders" review was published, it occurred to me and to Greil: Why not play some cuts from the fictitious album on the show?  We knew a group of Berkeley folk/rock musicians, The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band, headed by our old friend Phil Marsh, and were also familiar with a fellow who had build recording facilities in the garage of his house.  Hence, on a warm September evening with a lot of beer and maybe some other controlled substances we gathered the group of musicians and pranksters and cut three songs: "I Can't Get No Nookie," (sung by fake Mick Jagger, Brian Vorhees), "Cow Pie," (an instrumental in the fashion of Dylan's "Nashville Skyline" album), and "Duke of Earl" (sung by fake Bob Dylan, again the multi-talented Brian Vorhees).  The first two songs were written on the spot with the musicians locating some threadbare riffs to play and Greil out in the driveway sketching the flagrantly obscene lyrics for the two originals.

The following Friday, John and I went on the air as usual.  At the end of the program I said, "As you probably know, everyone's been talking about The Masked Marauders album reviewed in Rolling Stone.  Many have said that it doesn't exist at all, that the review was just a fraud.  Well, I'm here to tell you that the album does exist and that we've been lucky enough to obtain three cuts from it.  This is the first time these songs have ever been played anywhere.  So, yes, The Masked Marauders are real.  I'm sure you'll agree that they've never sounded better!"  

After we played the songs, the DJ, Tom Swift, opened the phone lines for listener comments.  Several people called in saying, "Long live the Masked Marauders!" "What hoot!" and the like.  Obviously, they'd gotten the joke.

It's a long story from there.  Soon after the radio program the Berkeley musicians along with some friends and with me on piano, finished an LP that was released by Reprise Records under the special "Deity" label.  It sold at a pretty good clip for a while and then dropped like a stone.  Among those taken in by the joke were none other Brian Williams (then ten years old) and his older brother.  For a while the boys apparently believed the record was a genuine recording of the stars mentioned in the original review.  

Recently, Brian Williams, anchor of the NBC Nightly News and host of the TV magazine show Rock Center, produced a segment on the history of The Masked Marauders, thoroughly checking various news stories and background documents from the historical period, interviewing Greil Marcus and me in (appropriately) a New York City recording studio where Mick Jagger himself had once done an album.  Williams presents himself, tongue-in-cheek, as an aggrieved victim of the hoax.  The show aired last Friday and is now archived at this link:

Were You a Believer in The Masked Marauders?

For the historical/hysterical record, here are the liner notes I wrote for the album, using the T.M. Christian moniker. 

"Only once in a lifetime does an album like this appear.  Only once in a millennium does it become possible at all.  But like the return of Hegel's Comet every 738 years or the coming of the fresh leaves in the icy breath of spring, it was inevitable.  It had to happen.  In a world shrouded in the pitch darkness of war and political strife, The Masked Marauders stand as a luminescent flashbulb of truth exploding before our eyes.

Super sessions come and super sessions go  Ever since Socrates jammed with Alcibiades and Anthony played with Cleopatra, they have been a mainstay of Western Civilization.  All of them are memorable.  All of them produce music beyond precedent.  For when the gods meet and pool their talents, even if only for a few brief hours, the result is certain to be  a monument to creativity itself.

Sly critics, of course, will continue to scoff.  From their flimsy tin thrones of journalistic cynicism they will continue to exclaim "It's all a shuck" and "What can you expect from prima donnas who've never even rehearsed together?" But truly devout rock listeners will not be swayed by such bitterness.  They know a super session when they hear one.

When I was asked to attend The Masked Marauders' recording session date several months ago, I couldn't believe it was true.  A humble man like myself listening to the spontaneous creations of ... of all those great performers!  It was only as I mushed my dog sled that last two miles from the Hudson Bay Air Terminal to the basement studio of Igloo Productions that I was able to convince myself that a fantastic dream would become a reality.  A meeting of the gods at last!

The sessions went quickly.  After brief troubles with the magnificent 80 track tape machine and some minor adjustments to the microphones, we were off an rolling.  Inspired by the peaceful glow of the aurora borealis overhead, the musicians seem to merge into a single body.  Seldom was more than one take needed to finish a given cut.  Often it required less than that. 

There is an unforgettable story behind each song on this epoch-making album.  "I Can't Get No Nookie," for example, was recorded at 4:00 in the morning after an all night party on the tundra with the local Eskimos.  "Boy, those Eskimo women sure are something," the lead guitarist said to me as he shook the snow from his parka.  He was right.  The title of the song actually refers to one of them -- "Nookie," the lovely girl friend of Nanook of the North who attended the sessions.  Rumors that the title and lyrics contain an obscene reference are nothing more than a vile ethnic slur cooked up by some demented mind.

Looking back on it now, I am certain that the magical element which held it altogether was the incredibly solid rhythm section.  We have all heard the great Memphis sidemen and their compelling beat.  In recent months the Nashville rhythm sections have achieved a long-deserved acclaim.  But compared to the distinctive groove of the Hudson Bay group, all of these seem weak and uninteresting.  These men produce a rhythm which literally jolts the listener with the spirit of that simple, joyous early rock and roll.  It is, unmistakably, the sound of the future -- the Hudson Bay Sound.

Unfortunately, the musicians on this record must remain anonymous.  The web of entangling legal commitments in which they have become enmeshed over the last few years prevent them from revealing their true identities.  But here they are, nonetheless.  The haunting thump-thump-thump of the drums.  The rippling chords of the piano.  The moaning of the harp and dobro.  The familiar voices which shook the foundations of two continents.  Yes, they are all here.

None of them is dead.

Leading experts now estimate that the music business is currently 90% hype and 10% bullshit.  The Masked Marauders, bless their hearts, have gone far beyond that.  Their music needs no hype.  It transcends the very essence of the bullshit for which the public pays millions each year.  Do not be fooled by gossip and idle rumors.  In a world of sham, The Masked Marauders are truly the genuine article.

-- T.M. Christian


Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Great U.S. Military Victories of the Past Half Century

I'm proposing a series of historical lectures to be delivered at West Point on the theme: Great U.S. Military Victories of the Past Half Century.  Below is the complete list.

1.  "The Strategy and Conflict in Granada: Defeating Communism in the Caribbean," by retired General V.A. Ganar