We’re Gonna Miss You Possum: George Jones 1931- 2013

George New

We’ve lost a national treasure — the unpredictable, rowdy, on and off the wagon, hard living and hard loving, one-time husband of the great Tammy Wynette — Country Music Hall of Fame member George “No Show” Jones, otherwise known as “Possum.”

Possum never tried to hide the sadness just below the often out of control, honky/tonk surface, but no matter how much he spoke or sang about his pain, you always had the feeling that if you dug a little deeper, you’d find  even more hurts and regrets.

And was he a sight! A sad guy with a sad face and heavy heart hiding even more sadness; a face on which the wrinkles seemed like an ongoing inventory, a regular spread-sheet, of each of the messes –many self-inflicted — that George (or often someone else)  had to clean up.

George Jones Old

What has always baffled me is how and why a weatherbeaten classic country singer — maybe the greatest of the classic country-style singers ever — spoke so directly to me.

It’s  pretty obvious that a liberal, NYC college professor born in the “Wonder Years” suburbs of Los Angeles lived a very different life. Post-war West Covina , California could not have been more different from George’s birthplace, Saratoga, Texas, where — in the middle of the depression — George first walked the streets as a kid, singing for spare change.

The feelings he shared in his music, though, were very familiar — the insecurities, the pain of unsuccessful relationships, the regrets over hurt feelings.  And he never seemed reluctant to open any and all wounds in some of the greatest country songs ever recorded — If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me, The Race is On, He Stopped Loving Her Today , and more.

Funny thing about George and some of the other great male singers of his day: Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, Webb Pierce, Ray Price. No group of guys were more macho on the surface and — at the same time — more willing to admit in their music a level of pain and tears that society rarely expects to hear from tough guys.

So much for the quiet, stoic cowboy bit: if George lost a love, we all heard about it in a voice that just seemed like it was born  to mourn.

And that may be it.

The great George Jones, volcanic temper and all,  was basically a guy looking for love and acceptance and forever struggling for peace of mind that he never seemed to find amidst all the lost weekends and half-empty whiskey bottles.

Late in his career he recorded a masterpiece of recollection and redemption, “Choices,” written by Mike Curtis, Billy Yates, and Rob Lyons and my choice for one of the greatest country songs ever written.

It was one of those “summing-up” songs,  and what I know now more than ever is that there was a time that a very un-country college professor heard Possum’s mournful voice singing  “the phrase ” If I had listened…. ” and felt just that much less alone.

This is  a live performance of George singing that song.

Rest well, Possum.

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First There Were 30 Bodies in a Pit; Then There Were None

I don’t like “gotcha” media criticism, especially the kind that attempts to elevate some completely human error – either intentional or not – into a mortal sin. Some sins – especially of the journalistic variety – do have serious consequences for the victim of the inaccuracy or typo, can mislead and confuse, and can plant seeds of fear and anxiety in communities already reeling from one trauma or another. Not good.

But I really need to see intentional malice or serious negligence to go from annoyance to indignation.

Yesterday afternoon, in quick succession, I received several news bulletins about 30 dismembered bodies that had been found buried outside Houston. The news bulletins, which I include here, came from serious news organizations, and were phrased with language implying enough certainty that I immediately forwarded the news to some colleagues at John Jay College’s Academy of Critical Incident Analysis, a research group in which I participate. Among other things, we are interested in the impact of sudden high profile catastrophic incidents on public attitudes, behavior and the larger social order.

Most of you already know how it ended. It was a completely inaccurate report that had originated with nothing more than a tip from a psychic. It should never have been elevated to the status of an urgent bulletin. Even worse, in this case, is that several of the bulletins were neither hesitant nor qualified. Bodies had been found.

The serious news organizations that made this bizarre leap will certainly examine how and why this happened and determine how to avoid it in the future. It was not a routine mistake. It was bad. Real bad. First there were bodies and then there were none.

But less than focusing on the mistake, I think we need to think carefully about a newsgathering environment that has elevated speed to such importance that time for contemplation and evaluation may have slowly slipped away. Speed, of course, has always been part of the highly competitive journalistic enterprise. The 20th century began with bloody battles between Hearst and Pulitzer over who could get the first and second and third extras to the newsstand first.

Since then, though, speed as a term has almost completely lost its power to describe the “speed of sound” global news environment. One piece of news, launched on the most appropriate channel, can be global in minutes. Rather than being something that can be pulled back or reconsidered, an inaccuracy is now launched into permanent orbit and circles and circles the globe even after it has been throroughly debunked. And sometimes the subsequent “debunking” gets infinitely less play that the initial nonsense.

So?

We are now in a world where caution isn’t simply important, it is absolutely required of anyone who reports anything, including each of us as we report things to each other.

Yesterday, lots of people in lots of places – fearing being slow in the age of the fast – skipped the caution. And the result is that there will be a pit of dismembered bodies outside Houston for a long, long time.

Even though it really isn’t there at all.

Whoopee! Criterion Collection Now Available for Viewing on Netflix.

 

Netflix has added much of the Criterion catalogue to the films they make available for instant viewing/streaming. This means that, if you are a Netflix member, much of the 20th century film canon (with an admittedly Western European bias)  is there for you to enjoy.

I would never argue that this is the best way to appreciate a great film. A DVD played on a decent sized monitor will almost always trump your laptop. (In an era when,sadly,  seeing a film on a large screen is almost too much to ask for!)  But if you’d like to check off some classics you somehow missed, this is worth checking out.

I just quickly glanced at the Netflix “instant-viewing” list and saw G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief,  Carol Reed’s The Third Man, Marcel Carne’s Les Enfants du Paradis, and an incredible treat that I first saw thanks to my colleague Mick Hurbis-Cherrier, Henri-George Clouzot’s Le Corbeau.

I almost forgot to mention that this collection includes Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, a haunting meditation on  rootlessness and loss with a beautiful, spare screenplay by playwright Sam Shepard.

And many more.

Enjoy.

No Escape from Grief: The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

Yesterday, I saw a film of such shattering emotional impact that it forced me to face just how much I have been missing lately by focusing more on artistic form than visceral emotion. In fact, I found being torn apart and rendered incapable of rational analysis to be nothing short of liberating.

But there I go again with the self-serving language that obscures rather than reveals emotion. I wasn’t “rendered incapable of rational analysis.”

I was crying and I couldn’t stop. On a bus. With people staring at me.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández (July 8th, 10 PM, PBS) tells the story of an 18 year-old American citizen – a son, a brother, a student, a friend – who was killed in 1997 near the Mexican border in Redford, Texas by US Marines watching for drug smugglers. While the rules of engagement did not call for deadly force, filmmaker Kieran Fitzgerald painstakingly details the series of events that led a U.S. Marine to shoot and kill Esequiel as he tended his family’s goats with a .22 rifle. Esequiel thus became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on American soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings.

So many of us respond to tragedy by playing an instinctive mental game. Surely, we tell ourselves, a tragic story will have one detail about a victim, one simple fact which will allow us to delude ourselves into thinking that we have found a reason for the unreasonable. Perhaps the victim was someplace he or she shouldn’t have been. Perhaps, even years before, the victim did or said something that even now allows us to temper our grief. It’s stunning how quickly we all, even unconsciously, resort to victim-blaming.

Some times we even say (or just think, if we are smart enough not to give voice to our least humane instincts) that “he got what was coming.” We think those words can provide a psychic antidote to the deeper horror that comes from pain that won’t go away. But that is when we must face the fact that good people like Esequiel Hernández, through no fault of their own, can sometimes die painful and tragic deaths simply by finding themselves in the cross-fire of powerful and violent institutions.

Esequiel dies because of an absolutely pointless and symbolic deployment of Marines as border guards in the “War on Drugs,” a mission for which they are scandalously unprepared. Before you know it — with the maniacal anti-immigrant rantings of media provocateurs like Bill O’Reilly playing in the background – a young man lies dead.

As I watched The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, I kept playing a mental game in a vain attempt to rid myself of pain: At least, I told myself, the evil of the killers will provide a different kind of relief. They can be hated and resented and serve as the vessels in which I will place my rage at a young life lost too soon.

But then “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” deals a second blow. Fitzgerald profiles the four Marines — although the one who actually fired the fatal shot chooses not to be interviewed — with such nuance and emotional depth that it becomes impossible to find the relief and resolution that would come from clearly evil killers.

They are human.

And then all I felt was despair, left with a difficult challenge we all face as we try to make sense of the world. Like it or not, we must accept that some tragedies are destined to remain open sores on our souls, forever unresolved, forever a source of grief.

In the end, though, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández” comes back to a young man and his grieving parents. He didn’t have to die, but he did, and even now — a day later — I can’t figure out a way to move from relentless grief to any thoughtful action. I can’t figure out where to direct my rage.

I can only cry for Esequiel. And his mother and father and brother.