The value of father-son respect

Joe Bageant told many stories about his time two decades ago in Idaho as a reporter and columnist for The Idahonian, a newspaper that has since merged with the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Joe did not save copies of many of his old articles and columns, but a reader has recently sent me some copies. Below is one of those columns.

– Ken Smith


May 1, 1990
Moscow, Idaho

By Joe Bageant

I look at those old pictures of my father, just returned from Korea with his khaki hat cocked at a devilish angle, leaning on the shiny black Plymouth. He looks happy and proud. I was six. He was my absolute hero. My total respect for him was never in question.

That respect was part of a long chain of fathers and sons. For most of American history fathers could take the respect of their sons for granted. Particularly prior to World War II, when the majority of families lived on farms — before the post-war shift to the cities that changed American family culture forever. A country boy grew up watching and working with his father, with few outside distractions and little media to create other realities than the daily rhythms of life and work.

Then over the next few decades, a strange thing happened. Television came along and planted new images of family life in the American unconscious. Dads became bumblers in shows like the Life of Riley, or Dick Van Dyke. The kids always caught bigger fish than dad on camping trips while dad couldn’t even build a campfire. Meanwhile, you saw Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz conniving to buy a new couch, and manipulate their husbands to various ends.

At the same time, kids got smart alecky, (Remember Rusty in the Danny Thomas Show?) drawing laughs and attention for taking cuts at dad’s expense.

Ironically, even when dad was presented as a strong, wise figure, it had a vapid authenticity about it. Take Ward Cleaver. He’d draw reflectively on his pipe in his “study” (Oh yea, all those cracker box houses we grew up in had a study), then solve some trifling problem of the Beaver’s in quiet, near ceremonial tones.

And exactly what did Ward do for a living, anyway? Or Ozzie Nelson, for that matter, besides wear sweaters and make milkshakes for the boys? Occasionally there were vague mentions of the insurance business, etc.

Whatever the case, when my dad would come home dead tired and dirty from working at his gas station all day, I doubt that he identified with Ward in his expensive suits or Ozzie with his milkshake maker in the kitchen. I think we both felt a strange sense of inferiority in the face of this daily deluge of an American dream that we pretty much assumed must be happening in California someplace.

At the same time so many of our fathers who’d grown up in a pre-war agricultural America were very confused about how to father us. They’d grown up working with their fathers on a daily basis, sharing in important labor that decided the welfare of the entire family. And out of that, I think in most cases, was born the genuine respect that comes from learning and accomplishing something meaningful together. Maybe there weren’t many heart-to-heart talks, or any talk at all. But there was the silent bond and the long slow rite of passage called earning your father’s respect.

The 1950s are always painted as a mindless time that melts like candy cotton in the mouth of history. That’s because, honestly speaking, the media gets to re-write American social history for most of us. Especially our children. But what I saw going on was a generation of boys who had gone off to a long war, and come back men capable of the steeliest kind of dedication to making something better for their families. And they did it. They gave their families the highest lifestyle and the best educations any generation in human history ever had. They made a lot of mistakes. They had no models to guide them, and even their own fathers could not be much help in what had to get done.

I can image their horror when the 1960s came along and their children’s generation invalidated, through rejection, everything they had ever stood for. Most of our fathers could not see the gift they had given was called diversity, individuality, true social consciousness and empowerment to change things like never before.

Then in the 70s and 80s our parents got rocked and shattered by the spectre of their children’s divorces. New family models emerged, and are still emerging. But almost none of them work as well as the old nuclear family model, when it comes to raising healthy, stable children.

And while millions of sincere parents today struggle to build self-esteem in their children through all the newest techniques, I wonder.

I wonder if, all things considered, these efforts can ever be equal to the self-esteem that comes from a boy looking at his father while doing meaningful work, and thinking to himself: “I am as good and worthwhile as the best man I know, because the best man I know accepts my respect.”

Joe’s book on Congressman’s six best list

Joe Bageant is in good company this week as his book Deer Hunting with Jesus was chosen as one of six “Best books” by U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, D-Minn. The recognition was in THE WEEK, a weekly British news magazine which also publishes a US edition.

The other five books and their authors are:

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley.

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

Who Stole the American Dream? by Hedrick Smith.

Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

— Ken Smith

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The Panther in the Sycamore

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

It happens perhaps once or twice every August. A violent red Virginia sundown drapes the land, the kind that bathes the farmhouses and ponds in reflected blood. It is as if the heat absorbed during dog days will erupt from the earth to set all the fields afire. Distant cars raise threatening dust clouds on the horizon that settle on the backs of copperhead snakes in wait of the night's coolness and the hunt. Eternity flashes in the eyes of old farmers setting out salt blocks for white-faced cattle.

It is at exactly such a dusk in 1951 that Uncle Nelson and I saw the panther. In the meadow sycamore, a panther so black it is almost blue. Neither Nelson nor I have ever seen a panther. Never expected to in our lives. But there it is. Big as life. Nelson's face shows almost holy amazement in the red light. He takes his pipe away from his quivering lip. Not that fear was a part of it, only awe of this beast. The panther drops weightlessly to the ground and glides into the loblolly pines with all its lithe power. We let out our breath. We gesture at each other for a minute, then trot for home. By the time we reach the house twilight had settled.

"Maw," I blurt. "We seen a panther down by the big sycamore. Black as night. Long and black as night."

Maw turns away from the hand pump by the galvanized sink where she had been drawing dishwater. "Never been a panther in these parts I know of," she says. But the set of Nelson's wide dark face tells her this is a true thing. "Hear that Pap?" she asks. "The boys seen a panther. A panther is a sign of war and troubles of war."

My grandfather frowns, says nothing in reply. Then he raises up his lanky frame from the kitchen chair, picks up the kitchen slop bucket and heads for the hog pen.

What about the sign of war? I wanted to know. Silence from Maw. Well, if it was a sign, I figured, Maw would sure as hell know about it. Maw knew her signs. Maw knew what poultices cured chicken pox, how to plant and reap by the almanac.

"If talk was corn that old man couldn't buy grain," Maw grumbled at Pap's non-response.

And that was all I ever got in the way of answers about the panther and the sign of war. I would one day learn that panthers were among the first beasts killed off by the English and German settlers in our region, along with red wolves and the eastern woodland bison. And that black is just one of the color possibilities of panthers anywhere on the planet. But in that day and in our world on Shanghai Road along the drains of Sleepy Creek panthers inhabited their place alongside witches, wolf trees, milk drinking snakes and other such creatures as prowled the subconscious and gave explanation to the greater unknown.

Life for some last few of us was still animated on interior levels by the idea of such spirits. Things both tangible and impalpable lived alongside one another with equal importance and the panther, sign of the devil's favorite anvil, war, was an augury waiting to be fulfilled. Indeed, the Korean War was going on strong at the time, though I did not know it. Yet, much as some part of my heart still wants to find truthfulness in a sign divined by my long-dead grandmother, I cannot. Our family, which has been birthing hard-eyed and willing soldiers for every American war since Lord Braddock's fatal march on the French and Indians, was never touched by the conflict that scorched Korea from 1950 to 1953. So I am left with no meaning for the sign, just its awesome impression. And even that impression is slipping away to the faintly aching netherworld now that I'm old enough to know the true meaning of the word "past."

Whiskey, Snakes and Voltaire

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

I called the old man Grandpap. But most of my mother’s family called him a son of a bitch. Which never bothered me. I still liked him.

During the summers when I visited him in North Carolina I’d sit with the old man on the front porch of his cabin and plink away with a .22 rifle at whatever critters crawled out of the swamp. Sometimes if I got lucky it was a water moccasin snake. But more often it was a feral cat, a plain old housecat gone wild in the swamp — which the old man pronounced to rhyme with stamp. Swaaamp.

The swamp was a nearly supernatural place wherein the water turned a different color each morning. Some days it was blood red. Others it was electric green or cobalt blue because the nearby textile mill dumped it waste dyes upriver.

Grandpap Miles’ kids called him a son of a bitch because he ran off to live with the Seminole Indians after the ninth one, my mother, was born. Then at age 70 came back and bought a shack conveniently located between the swamp and the edge-of-town grocery/liquor store to sip cheap whiskey and read for the rest of his life.

Which is why I loved spending summers with him. The reading. I remember one summer when I was 13 he read much of Voltaire to me while I plinked away with that “cat rifle,” as he called it. Around dusk he’d wash up in a basin, put on his white cotton dress jacket and Panama hat and hobble down the gravel road to the store, where he’d mumble back and forth with the other old men who came there every evening for the same reason he did. An hour later return home with his bottle, plus a new box of .22 cartridges and we’d watch the sun go down together. After that he’d light the kerosene lanterns, cook some hominy and pork, then read silently until we both fell asleep.

Once he’d been an overseer on a big cotton plantation, owned a smart looking white Ford coupe and made a good living for his family, even during the Depression. He was fast and wild and knew how to turn a dollar when he bothered to. But after the drunken night he spit tobacco juice up against the woodstove and left for Florida, Grandmaw and all those kids had to move into a two-room pine board shack you could see daylight through.

Worse yet, they had to pick cotton, every able-bodied one of them, for a penny a pound. If you’ve never torn up your hands on the rough pod of a cotton bol under the unforgiving Dixie sun, you ain’t missed much, no matter how romantic it looks in the movies with all the black folks singing “Go Down Old Hannah.” It takes a damned lot of cotton to fill a 100-pound sack and when Old Hannah does go down behind the tight, flat line of the horizon, you’re ready to sing out of pure gratitude you didn’t drop dead in that cruel red dirt. So it’s no wonder my mama always said “Maybe I ain’t give my kids much, but by God they never picked cotton.”

You can see why they hated Grandpap Miles. Of course by the time the old man came back “just so we’d have to bury his sorry ass” as uncle Garland put it, there weren’t as many of his kids left to hate him. Two got killed in WW II’s South Pacific campaign, one froze to death in Korea and Uncle Frankie — who was as wild and fast as Grandaddy Miles — got his head snapped off as clean when he ran his Indian motorcycle under an oncoming truck in 1949. Once I asked Pappy Miles why he went to live with the Seminole Indians and left Grandmaw with all those kids. He said: “Folks left behind can only see a man running off. If they ain’t willing to run alongside they cain’t see what he’s running toward, which might be something finer than their tiny minds can imagine.”

This touched me somewhere inside because he always called me his “little running buddy.” I liked the old man even more after that. And I like his memory especially now, when I stop to consider that I stayed away from my family for more than ten years after leaving home at age 18. A couple of wives, thousands of books and a cotton sack full of troubles later, I suspect I got a little of his blood somewhere in the deal.

When Old Miles died he shook the ground. He got hit by a car on his dusky walk to the liquor store. I was 13. He was deader than a saw log. He was so mean he never even bled. But the whiskey ran from the broken bottle in the brown paper sack alongside the road. Cops came. Relatives came. Thankfully I was overlooked in the first few minutes of confusion. So I left with the newest box of .22 cartridges in my pocket.

Before he was even on the cooling board, folks were saying how shameful it was, the way he died. But as I sat on his porch and knocked that cottonmouth off a cypress limb with the cat rifle, his way of dying seemed fit enough to me.

And someday when I don’t have a boss riding my back and a woman riding my heart I’ll have time on my hands just like he did. Time to pour two slugs of whiskey. One for me and one for him. Then I’ll drink them both.

Maybe even read a little Voltaire.

Lonzy Barker Is Missing

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

Lonzy Barker is missing. Has been for several months now. Nobody noticed it until that smelly old hermit didn't show up here at Dalton Bayles' post office store for his sardines and rock candy. "He could be layin' over there in his pigpen dead or something," says Dalton. Did I tell you, dear reader, that Lonzy Barker lives in a pigpen? Always has. Anyway, after three months of Lonzy's government checks piling up in the pigeonhole, Dalton has decided Lonzy "just might be — I ain't saying he is and I ain't saying he ain't — missing.

"Dammit Dalton, if anybody in Virginia would know if Lonzy Barker is missing, it would be you, for Jesus' sake," I tell him. "Stopping in here for his check and his sardines is the only thing Lonzy does regular.

Nobody knows why that government check comes in for Lonzy every month. To hear Dalton tell it, "Lonzy got shell shocked in the war and that's why he gets that check." But Dalton's got no call whatever to say that. He just made it up because he can't admit when he doesn't know something. Lonzy's check is for sixty-nine dollars and Lonzy spends about thirteen of it. Always on the same things: sardines, crackers and cheese, tobacco and hard green rock candy. Lonzy never signs any kind of papers. So Dalton signs his checks for him. And lord forbid Lonzy should have a bank account like most people. He's likely got a fortune buried someplace around that pigpen.

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Queen of the Skies

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

As I drove through the decaying neighborhood in Winchester, Virginia the pain of growing up there came back — the stabbing kind that only lasts a second but makes you flinch as you remember some small but stupid and brutal moment of adolescence. I have never known if everyone has them, but I’ve always suspected they do. Now that old neighborhood slid by my rental car window looking like it was painted by Edward Hopper, then bleakly populated with gangstas, old men with forty-ounce malt liquor bottles, hard-working single moms and kids on cheap busted plastic tricycles.

Wedged between the old railroad station and the Confederate Cemetery, our neighborhood was and still is called the North End. It has gone mostly black now. But you can see some of its families going through the same struggle for modest respectability as in 1961 when it was the poorest edge of white Winchester — flower pots on porches, lawn edges cut crisply in the earth along sidewalks, as if the red clay pounded by the feet of neighborhood kids were going to produce enough grass to threaten the walkways — all those things the poorest white working people did back then to proclaim: We might be poor and close to Niggertown, but we ain’t niggers.

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Blood and Poppies

See the introduction to this series of posts: Writing on Things Southern and Past


By Joe Bageant

My family's ancestral home on Shanghai Road, a great sagging clapboard thing perched on a hill with its many filigreed balconies and porches like heisted antebellum petticoats, sat perched on a hill at the base of Sleepy Creek Mountain. Gnawed by the elements on the outside and woodsmoked by a thousand griddlecake mornings on the inside, where children ran the stairways and mice ran the cellars, my grandparent's house was stuffed and running over with life itself.

It was also a place where people died as well as lived. Died and were "laid out" in the parlor. My great-grandfather Old Jim was the last one to be laid out there. At the time I very young and was among the last in my family to see the embalmer dump the white enameled bucket of blood over the roots of the wavering red poppies that grew hard by the front yard. In those days and in those hollers the embalmer sometimes came to your house and laid out the body in the parlor. Low lamps burned all night and Old Jim was so still in that satin-lined box, like some ancient felled tree. Then that first realization of mortality struck, killing that innocence it kills in all of us. Maw leaned through the kerosene lantern glow and said, "Joey, be real still and you'll hear the angels sing." I did. No angels sang. Not a sound except the breathing of Old Jim's great black dog whose green eyes flashed from under the bier. I also remember a strange chemical smell. They say Old Jim had already picked out his burying suit years before and he smelled like mothballs when he went into the coffin.

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Writing on Things Southern and Past

When visiting Joe and his wife Barbara six years ago in Winchester, Virginia, I convinced Joe to show me some of his unpublished writing. He was reluctant, appearing almost embarrassed, and said the writing was not good and that was why it was never published. He gave me a file folder containing nine essays, typed with handwritten changes and corrections.

These essays were beautiful. Maybe essays is not the right word. Short stories might be better.

I wanted to start posting the essays on this website. Joe argued, of course. Several months later when Joe was visiting me in Mexico, I finally got his approval to post the nine essays — but he insisted that they not be displayed on the home page. His logic on this made no sense to me, but rather than belabor the point, I told him I would back-date the posts and make a separate category called "Things Southern". 

Then, Joe's agent negotiated a film/TV option with HBO and part of that agreement was that the Things Southern essays would be taken down. The HBO deal fizzled. So now, five years later, I have pulled the nine essays from my files and I will repost them over the next several weeks.

Below is Joe's introduction to Things Southern.

– Ken Smith, ken@kvsmith.com


Websites are a wonderful thing in that they can house a lifetime of work if need be. I'm not up for the world to see all I have written. So much of it, both published and unpublished is so bad. However, I do think some of it documents or speaks to an America that scarcely exists today, one that was kinder, more mysterious and certainly more connected with the earth and its verities. In this section, "Things Southern," rests a collection of essays, notes, remembrances and mental shards of a Southern boyhood in Virginia. Some are absolutely true, some shift back and forth between truth and fiction and some are outright lies. I will leave it to the reader to discern the difference. I certainly cannot.

– Joe Bageant 

Tim Leary and the Outer Space Connection

Not many people under 50, maybe 60, know about the impact that Timothy Leary had on American culture. Leary was a respected faculty member at Harvard when he conducted government-funded tests of LSD and psilocybin, which back then were perfectly legal. Leary believed LSD showed therapeutic potential in psychiatry. He popularized catch phrases such as “turn on, tune in, drop out” and “think for yourself and question authority.” His drug-related notoriety led to his dismissal from Harvard.

Leary became a media sensation and an affront to the establishment, which contributed to LSD being declared an illegal drug. He had a long series of arrests and long prison terms, too much to detail here, but mostly for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Facing prison, he fled the United States for Europe, North Africa and Central Asia. Leary was eventually caught and extradited, returned to the US where he faced additional charges for jumping bail.

During the 60s and 70s, Leary was arrested often enough to see the inside of 29 different prisons worldwide. President Richard M. Nixon once described Leary as “the most dangerous man in America” — even though Leary had never physically harmed anybody. The judge at his remand hearing said, “If he is allowed to travel freely, he will speak publicly and spread his ideas.”

Joe Bageant greatly respected the ideas and the person of Timothy Leary, so much so that Joe named his first son Timothy. Joe met and came to know many big names during his writing career, but he rarely talked about any celebrities or famous writers and musicians he had known. One exception to this was Leary. In his home, Joe had framed a hand-written note from Leary, on the stationary of a Tokyo hotel, praising Joe for his writing.

After Joe died two years ago, friends of his sent me copies of articles he had written in the 70s. I typed and posted one such article several months ago, followed by a second. The response was good, so here is another old article by Joe. This is based on conversations that Joe had with Leary during a two-day visit to Colorado in 1977, just several months after Leary had been released from a California prison.

The two previous old articles are “Tribute to a white trash saint” (Hank Williams) and  “In the footsteps of Neal Cassady’s ghost”.

– Ken Smith, ken@kvsmith.com


Rocky Mountain Musical Express, February 1977

By Joe Bageant

Leary160In natural accordance with the laws of God and airports, Stapleton was locked tight in the grip of a traffic jam the night Leary arrived. And since there was nothing to do but make the best of a bad situation, I got comfortable in the back seat, dug out a crumpled pack of smokes, and proffered some rather thin conversation toward other parties involved in this mission — three students from the Colorado University Program Council, Leary’s sponsor. But because I was ten years their senior, didn’t ski and never go to movies, silence gradually won out as memory took over … dredging up images a decade old.

Flashbacks of Leary on the cover of Life Magazine, Leary on the street of Haight, Leary the psychologist/acid-priest/revolutionary/fugitive whose name became the pop culture trademark for consciousness expansion and the LSD spiritual movement — a movement touching millions, many of which still look upon as the time of their awakening. Now he was back, released from prison on bail, and somehow it all felt like a rerun as he passed across 70 million TV screens flickering in slow motion to the flashbulb’s glare. This time though, he was baffling everyone with science fiction-like statements about radical new world visions, outer space migration, human mutation and superintended lifespans and a program called SMIILE (Space Migration Increased Intelligence Life Extension).

Finally, the sheer compression of the jam squeezed our rented car, inch by inch to the front of the terminal — where we disembarked to plow through hundreds of strangers under what felt like searchlights, mounted in the ceiling of the lobby. Porters, hippies, soldiers … pressed, pushed and jostled to the intercom’s monotone for a few buzzing minutes, then Leary appeared. There was no mistaking him.

* * *

Decked out East Coast style, in plaid pants and a polo shirt, he was all smiles as he padded forward on glowing white tennis shoes. Even under the harsh light, he didn’t look 56. After quick and polite intros all around, luggage clunked, car doors slammed and we were rolling. The car peeled back cold night air on its way to Denver’s KTLK radio station where an interview was scheduled to happen.

The clock at the radio station read 9:30 p.m. when Tim Leary breezed its spongy, carpeted corridors to the broadcast booth. A late 20s DJ and a longhaired program director were on hand to welcome their celebrated guest — who was radiating his famous smile (which seems to go Boiiinnnnnng!). Leary laughs readily and displays the charm of a born extrovert. No social exchange is too small for his attention. In fact, the lighter the rap, the more he appears to get off as he winks and cuts up, enjoying himself in a manner which struck me as sort of verbal ice skating. Visually, he is very kinetic and while he talks and moves about, it has a slight tinge of exaggeration, somewhat akin to the way TV actors move.

Showing a delight in the studio’s equipment which bordered on possession at times, his hands dart briefly once or twice as Tim Leary declares his belief that: “Radio stations are temples of the religious ritual of electronic communication, with the DJs as modern technology’s gurus who are responsible for getting out the signals; nocturnal shamans who bathe the earth in radio waves while the people sleep!” Tim is big on “signals” these days, and as he sees it: “It is one of my tasks to send out signals to that portion of the human race which is ready to mutate and migrate. It is the basis of my program … using signals to generate the collective energy of those developed to receive them.”

Came time for the interview, everyone got a surprise, since a standard question/answer shot was the farthest thing from his mind. Instead, he whips out a sheaf of typewritten scripts, distributing them among whomever happened to be present, announcing: “We’re going to do a live radio show. Everybody game?” Caught off guard, our young DJ stammers. “BBBut Mr. Leary, I have these questions for you to answer . . . ”

“What kind of questions?”

“Questions of burning social and spiritual sig . . .”

“Oh Dear God!” Tim grabs his chest jokingly, pretending to collapse under their weight. “Okay, okay,” he concedes, “but let’s do the show first, then I’ll give you all the time you want. A deal?”

“A deal” agrees our man of burning questions.

Next thing I know, we are all reading for the various parts in Leary’s production. And mine, to my astonishment, is the role of an amoeba! To be exact, an amoeba named Dr. Protozoa whose speech is being delivered from the bottom of the Pre-Cambrian oceans — concerning a dangerous new trend gaining popularity in the ranks of young amoeba, called “calcium tripping” (calcium being classified as a HARD drug, naturally). I gave it a try, but didn’t get very far.

“No no no,” interrupts doctor Tim. “You sound like you are READING it!”

“Well, uh, you’ve got to admit that it’s kind of unusual dialogue,” I offered lamely.

“We both know that’s not really what’s happening here, don’t we? What’s really happening here is that you aren’t in total control of your nervous system. Right?” (He was completely right, since I’d been awake for about 40 hours at that point.) “Can’t let it get away from you,” he chuckles, and goes back to cajoling the others, all of whom have developed a case of cold feet, excepting the two broadcasters.

“Now this show,” Leary begins, “is called ‘Broadcasts From Higher Intelligence’ and tonight we’re going to be rapping with Gautama Buddha, Homer the Greek street cat, some DNA molecules . . . ”

The final product was a half-hour commercial for higher intelligence and space migration — employing humor as a method of slipping a few new ideas over. Radio listeners that night must have wondered what inna hell was going on as their radios broke forth in authoritarian tones warning them to: “Stand by for a transmission from higher intelligence.”

* * *

So imperatively does Tim Leary view the SMIILE project that he uses the entire thrust of the media blitz, which began last year, to promote it. In an effort to present an approximate idea of the SMIILE concept, offered herein are some of his answer to questions gathered over a two-day period — concerning SMIILE and a few other topics.

BAGEANT: “How can you be sure human development is really at the point of implementing such a futuristic program as SMIILE?”

LEARY: “Outer space immigration has been part of the trajectory of human development from the very beginning. We’ve been headed in that direction ever since we crawled out of the slime … but now we are actually there, and have been ever since the astronauts made the first penetrations.”

BAGEANT: “Then we already have the inner biopsychological equipment to move on?”

LEARY: “Sure we do. We all have an extra-terrestrial aspect or side. Anyone who really had a true inner vision during the 60s knows it, has seen it . . . and touched it. It was always inevitable we should have to leave the planet, so why fight it? Let’s just lay back and dig it!”

BAGEANT: So many people in this country have just discovered the land, ecology, etc. Such a stark look upward might be a little scary for some.”

LEARY: “Space migration should not scare anyone, especially Americans. Every American is a descendant of immigrants who in turn were part of some larger migratory chain. The main difference is that we’ve come a long way from creaky little wooden ships.”

BAGEANT: “So far, most of the space projects have been the exclusive area of the government. How do they feel about SMIILE?”

LEARY: “Naturally they are against it. So is big business … which leaves it up to the private sector. But at least they aren’t conspiring against it — they aren’t hip enough to do that — since they are still hung up in ancient mammalian territorial monkey games which force them to fight rather than respect the limitations of the planet. They spend more money fighting over the old world than it takes to build new ones. Meanwhile, many of the 60s consciousness mutants have come out of their cocoons of internal travel and are pushing outwards toward external progress.  Let’s forget about astral travel and do some real traveling. Outer space is up for grabs.”

BAGEANT: “Any thoughts or observations on the way things have developed since your incarceration, or while you were ‘out’ so to speak? What about the system in general?”

LEARY: “Well, even though I have gone through prison at the hands of the system, I still feel that, as Americans, we are light-years ahead of the rest of the world — and have more REAL freedom than any place else on earth. Freedom is the capability to change things — more of it now than ever before. Spiritually, the country took a downer about the time of the Kennedy assassination, but now we’re getting our hope back, building up a new wave. The 60s mutants are everywhere. Right now there are two great forces at work on the face of this globe: mass centralization, as in China, which breeds insect suspicion, and the American self-realization movement towards individuality and self-improvement. What is at stake here is the future of the human race, so we are playing hard ball playing for keeps.”

BAGEANT: “What about the hippies who retreated back to the soil, or embraced Eastern doctrines?”

LEARY: “Too many of the 60s crowd seem to be just fossilizing or sitting around. They got hung up in the Eastern doctrines such as Hinduism, which are pre-scientific and incapable of producing the kinds of results we now need. ‘Lay back and be here and now’ type solutions not only don’t work, they are boring as hell. They were designed to placate people into waiting for Messiahs which never seem to come. We’ve got to do the job ourselves or it won’t get done.”

BAGEANT: “What do you think about the possible new life form they’ve found on the moon? The one that doesn’t move or breathe, but gives off excreta?”

LEARY: “Sounds like they have found Republicans to me.”

BAGEANT: “Speaking of politicians, any thoughts on Carter?”

LEARY: “With the election of Carter, we are seeing the blossoming of the 60s in the White House. I think he will be one of the greatest Presidents we’ve ever had, though I may be wrong and look like a fool five years from now. But he has every chance of it.”

BAGEANT: “You might not have to wait five years to look like a fool, considering the way some of the media portrays you.”

LEARY: “The media tells the middle class exactly what it wants to hear, so that they in turn will listen to the media. So actually, it only excommunicates a closed-off group of people who are plugged into a cycle which would never allow them to conceive of what I’m about anyway.”

BAGEANT: “Do you have anything to say in general to persons waiting for signals?”

LEARY: “Yeah. Change, change, change, change. Keep mutating, keep molting. Go faster, go higher, get better. Follow the genetic imperative to learn and go forward. We are the nation with the vision and the equipment. So, let’s go do it!”

***

Commonly held as the notion is, Timothy Leary is not burned out. At least not in the bombed-out brain cell sense of the word. Moreover, he is not even as crispy round the edges as your average rock star, and this new Leary seems more logical than the famous acid outlaw of years ago.

The difference in the two Learys (though this is not an entirely fair division) looks to be this: The old Leary sent back signals from deepest intercellular space, reached and perceived via acid, while the current one gathers his signals from the macrocosm, relying on the cold, clean accuracy of his own sort-system. Given that the general direction of his intelligence has always run along academic lines, it seems natural he should wind up depending upon his own intellectual machinery. True to the Leary form, he’s determined to reach the farthest limits it will take him, even to the point of fulfilling the Moody Blues musical claim that “He’s on the outside looking in.”

Considering the contemporary cultural legend Tim Leary represents, only the most naive would fail to see there is more to it than his early endorsements of acid, or the small quantity of weed which sent him into exile and later to prison. Others have done those same things without becoming famous or pulling as much time as Leary has. Leary’s legal crimes were just a technicality of the real crime.

What lies at the heart of the matter is the symbolic/conceptual crime he committed when he publicly violated middle-class taboos through the national media. Since the middle-class home is always ripe for a nice titillating, shocking infraction of their values, and since the news is always looking for someone to star in the 9 o’clock line up — Leary was a natural for the part. Along with other players whose crimes were entertaining enough to make them suitable for mass consumption: William Calley, Patty Hearst, Manson, Speck, Cleaver (usually through crimes more brutal than Leary’s).

What is fascinating and unique about Leary’s though is the fact that his crime was, and still is an ongoing process — instead of a one-time affair. His consciousness is still expanding far outside the realms of the national sensibilities. He won’t have to kill anybody or repeat a bank robbery or hawk the rights to his memoirs as quickly as possible, in order to retain future identity. Instead, he has chosen to claim the future as part of HIS identity. Now THAT’S an expanded consciousness.

Concerning the Leary/Stool Pigeon Charges:

Timothy Leary was released amid widespread rumors that he bought his way out of prison by turning in some of his former cohorts from the old acid days. Since the print media has already mined the subject thoroughly, without producing any hard evidence to support these allegations (or even the source of them in most cases), we have purposefully avoided generating more copy on the subject. Leary’s answer to the charge is a challenge to: “Produce one single person who has been indicted or convicted by anything I’ve told the government.” To date, no one has.

Tribute to a white trash saint

Note: Joe Bageant died in 2011 at age 64. I knew him only for the last eight years of his life. I launched and managed his website — still do. About six weeks ago, I posted an article Joe had written when he was a beginning writer in Colorado. A scan of that article, “In the footsteps of Neal Cassady’s ghost“, had been sent to me by an old friend of Joe’s.

I had no idea what the response might be to Joe’s take on Neal Cassady, but it was favorable and readers have asked for more. The article below is about Hank Williams. In the coming weeks, I will post more of Joe’s early writing — and keep doing it as long as there is interest.

– Ken Smith, ken@kvsmith.com


Tribute to a white trash saint

The Colorado Daily, Sept. 8, 1976.

By Joe Bageant

Hank180Hiram Hank Williams was his full name and he was born in Georgiana, Alabama on Sept. 17, 1923, the son of a railroad engineer and a very crude and dominant mother whose character had been permanently scarred by the harsh realities of a dirt-poor South.

Facts concerning his early musical development are hard to obtain from people who knew him in his youth.

Because of their great pride in his later fame, they all claim to have had a hand in it. It’s a fairly safe bet that he got his share of white gospel music as a child; even today it’s inescapable in this region of Alabama. But the only individual firmly established to have had a direct influence on Williams was an old black street minstrel named Tee-Tot, known to have given guitar lessons to the young Williams, who followed him about.

If one were to choose the single factor — other than native talent — which pushed Williams out of the foggy anonymity of a small southern town and onto the path of fame, it would undoubtedly be his early marriage to his first wife, Audrey. It came natural for this ‘Bama boy — who throughout his life carried the tragic flaw of the deep southern style of matriarchal family — to marry a woman as forceful and overbearing as his own, someone to take the responsibility for his life upon herself. Before long, Audrey had him performing at every county fair and candy show in the cotton belt.

By 1946 Williams found himself being pushed through the office doors of the largest recording and publishing outfit in Nashville, Acuff-Rose. And on that day, the still-primitive country-music industry connected with the gangly upping man who, shy hick that he was, would be the living embodiment of a style and form which would become the one all others would be judged against — and generate wealth of unbelievable proportions.

As Audrey prompted Williams from the background, he stood in the office and sang five songs, all destined to become great classics. Astounded at the young man’s ability, yet skeptical one man could have actually written all five, Fred Rose sent Williams into a back room with orders to “Write some kind of song right here on the spot as proof.” Fifteen minutes later he returned from the room with “Mansion on the Hill,” performed to this day by such people as John Denver and Michael Murphey.

Rose was something of a genius when it came to hillbilly music and had pioneered the field about as far as it could go until that time. In Williams he instantly knew he had the key to the hearts of rural America and ultimately a broader audience. Rose did well by Williams — making him a household word throughout the South and West, and a moderately wealthy man off the income from songs like “Move It On Over” and “When God comes to Gather His Jewels.”

True success didn’t arrive until Williams’ material caught on in the national pop field.

It was a full two years before the perfect break came their way, enabling them to crash the popular market. It came with the aid of one of the most unlikely persons imaginable, considering the Williams image.

That person was Tony Bennett. Bennett recorded “Cold, Cold Heart,” which sold millions and exposed the Alabama songwriter’s talents to the urban public.

I remember distinctly the impact he had on many of my relatives and neighbors in rural Virginia during the early 50s. Williams and what he represented was more important, held in higher esteem than even the President (of course the hill people of Appalachia never seem to be satisfied with anyone occupying the White House because of the fierce distrust inherited from their Scotch-Irish ancestors of anything that smells like authority).

Although everyone was very proud and a staunch Baptist or Methodist who believed in the virtues of God and hard work, most of them felt far removed from the America which generated movies, popular music or new and fashionable things. So when “Ole Hank” would sing “Why cain’t ah free your dutiful mind, and mayult yore cold, cold hart?” millions of them flashed: “Jesus Christ, I don’t believe it! He’s one of us!”

For a long time I thought this primitive level of identification was perhaps unique only to those people I knew, but since then I’ve met Alabamans, Mississippians, and Louisianians who’ve experienced the same thing. But this is a reaction from way back up in the sticks, and not necessarily the most typical.

While Williams embodied many of the touching and beautiful aspects of the South and Southeastern honkey culture, he also exposed nearly all of their bitterest faults and weaknesses. An alcoholic since his late teens, he came to be driven by a multitude of his own personal demons, becoming more self-destructive and withdrawn as the years passed. At the peak of his career he was failing miserably as a performer because of drunkenness, malnutrition and, towards the end, excessive use of pills. Countless thousands saw him stagger around mumbling, falling off stages or in a state of total helplessness. If he bothered to show up at all.

I’ve asked many people who saw him perform or knew him when he was in Nashville for their impressions. Most of them weren’t exactly pretty:

“Up to a point, liquor and pills just made him sing better and better. Then, all of a sudden, he’d just cave in. Sometimes he would get real mean. You never knew which way he was going to go.”

“I don’t think he was so much a hateful guy inside. It was more like he would be burned up . . . or burned out as they call it. Blind crazy drunk and nothing mattered.”

By the end of 1952 Williams had become the most pathetic figure in country music. Divorced, addicted, shunned by his fellow artists, he careened around getting in and out of trouble. During this time he began taking a series of “treatments” from a weird occult quack doctor, named Tobias Marshall, which contributed to the massive physical deterioration near the end.

September of ’52 found him getting married to an ignorant, 19-year-old girl named Billie Jean Jones on the stage of an auditorium before several thousand gawkers who’d each paid 50 cents to get in. But it would be one of the last acts in the tragicomedy of country music’s brightest star. At 29 he had only three months left.

On New Year’s Eve the reaper smiled, and Hank Williams died in the back seat of a Cadillac plowing through the hills of West Virginia. Too much booze, too many pills. Outside the car, the icy teeth of a blizzard snapped.

And on New Year’s Day, all over the nation Hank Williams’ fans cried in front of bulky old Philco radios  leaking eulogies onto the hooked rug.

That was also the same day Billie Jean Jones stood on the toilet to slap her mother-in-law across the face and claw her eyes in a knock-down drag-out fight over Hank’s car.

And Audrey, God bless her heart, was down at the funeral home removing the watch and rings from Hank’s body.

The whole damned affair was so damned beautifully honkey white trash that it hurts. Just like his music did.

* * *

A Boulder freelancer and frequent Daily contributor, Bageant has worked as a blues researcher for Columbia Records.