Will Campbell was the Real Deal

I found this in the 12/13/90 addition of “Rolling Stone,” and it made me wonder why I’ve never heard of this guy.

In the Fifties and Sixties, the Reverend Will Campbell marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and helped desegregate the University of Mississippi. Then he took his ministry in a different direction.
“I had meant to time the closing of the door with a subtle emission of a fart,” my guru said as he pulled shut the door to his room at the Holiday Inn in Oxford, Mississippi. “Evidently my timing was off.”
He was being “Will Campbell” today. You could tell by his outfit – his cheap black preaching suit and the wide-brimmed Amish hat that capped a freckled dome and a rioutously unbarbered fringe of gray hair. On his feet were a pair of rather pricey alligator boots, which had been given to him by his closest friend, the country songwriter and singer Tom T. Hall. In one hand, Campbell carried his staff – a hand-carved cherrywood cane – and in the other a plastic glass to spit tobacco in. A maid in the parking lot gave him the sideways sizing up such a metaphorically mixed outfit demanded.
As a matter of fact, I was a little suspicious of him as well. Who was this fellow Will Campbell anyway? Some called him the conscience of the South, a kind of white Martin Luther King, Jr., and yet he was one of the most profane and wickedly funny men I’d ever known. Considered by many to be among the most original and radical thinkers in America, he is seen by others as little more than a whiskey-swilling gadfly and spiritual provacateur. A poor son of the Mississippi soil who studied theology at Yale, Campbell returned home to beome a legend in the civil-rights movement, then alienated many of his fervent admirers by turning his ministry toward the Ku Klux Klan. He ministers to the poor, the dispossesed and the unknown, but he is idolized by the rich, the powerful and the famous. His life and work are studied in colleges and seminaries across the country; he has been compared on occasion to Jeremiah or Hosea or even a modern-day Jesus, and yet Campbell himself admits that “in all these years, I can’t point out one thing I’ve acutally personally accomplished.” He is a preacher without a church, a Southern Baptist who is detested by the leaders of his own denomination. He is, in short, an assemblage of rude contradictions, a man not easily loved or understood and impossible to dismiss.
At this particular moment the Sage of the South had hold of a plastic dry-cleaning bag, about five feet long. He knocked on the door next to his and handed it to the man who answered — Campbell’s biographer, Tom Connelly, a distinguished Civil War historian from the University of South Carolina.
“Connelly, I want you to dispose of this for me,” Campbell said imperiously.
“What is it?” the white-haired professor inquired.
“What the hell do you think? It’s one of my condoms. I think it’s time we started practicing safe sex.”
I had followed Will Campbell to Oxford because for twenty years he had been an unresolved enigma in my life — since the day he had wandered into my office at the Race Relations Reporter, in Nashville, Tennessee. It was my first day on the job. Campbell announced that he needed a haircut. I had no idea that one of the most controversial figures in the civil-rights movement, which was supposed to be my beat, had just plopped himself into my office chair. Such was my confusion that I wasn’t certain whether cutting hair was a part of my job description. Of course, as soon as he took off his hat I could see that nature had already done most of the work.
Like many young writers in the South at the time, I idolized Campbell for having been right at a time when being right was dangerous. He had been the only white man at the creation of Martin Luther King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957; later that year, in Little Rock, Arkansas, he had walked hand in hand with the nine black children through the cordon of National Guardsmen and the raging mob in that first, failed attempt to desegregate Central High. Wherever the races came in conflict, Campbell was quietly there — counseling the demonstrators at the lunch-counter sit-ins, ministering to the Freedom Riders, consoling the mothers of the children murdered in the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombings — moving through the turbulent South with a small leather suitcase, a bottle of his sour-mash “medicine” and his old Gibson guitar slung over his shoulder.
“He was a walking nerve center,” says David Halberstam, who was a young reporter in Mississippi when he first noticed the slightly built white man always on the edge of events, at the shoulders of black leaders and white power brokers, whispering his message of radical change but also of the power of love, forgiveness and reconciliation. “He was enormously important but so deft and nimble that the reactionaries never caught on to him. His fingers were everywhere, but when you looked around — there were no fingerprints. He was the Invisible Man.”
Gradually, legends grew up around Campbell concerning his vast influence, his talent for being a dozen places at once and his unconventional, unchurched religious beliefs. The main plank in his theological platform was “We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway.” This single, radicalizing axiom would lead Campbell to begin his solitary and controversial ministry to the Ku Klux Klan.
“I have seen and known the resentment of the racist, his hostility, his frustration, his need for someone upon whom to lay blame and to punish,” Campbell wrote in his first book, Race and the Renewal of the Church. “With the same love that it is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist.” Therefore, in 1969, on the night before Bob Jones, the Grand Dragon of the North Carolina KKK, was shipped off to federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, for contempt of Congress, Campbell was there in the Dragon’s Den to celebrate communion with a bottle of bourbon. Later, Campbell talked with James Earl Ray, the man who had murdered Campbell’s friend Martin Luther King. When people asked if he really expected to save the souls of such men, Campbell allowed that that would be presumptuous: “They might, however, save mine.”
I did not know Campbell well during my brief tenure in Nashville, and after I left there in 1971, I saw him only once more, performing a wedding in Atlanta. Back then, I thought Campbell had the moral authority to become the spiritual voice of our time, but as the civil-rights movement faded from public consciousness (and from my own), Campbell’s legend faded as well. Through mutual friends, I kept up with his peregrinations through the still-seething South. I heard about his ongoing campaign against the death penalty. I also knew that he had been taken up by the country-music establishment in Nashville as a sort of unofficial chaplain. He made a literary splash in 1977 with the appearance of his extraordinary memoir, Brother to a Dragonfly, about his relationship with his doomed elder brother, which was nominated for the National Book Award. His subsequent books and novels received less attention. I assumed that whatever Campbell had meant to me twenty years before had been a part of an ancient reality. Perhaps he had just been a creature of a particular historical moment, and now his time had passed. When a mutual friend of ours, Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist for New York Newsday, appropriated the Campbell persona for a character named the Reverend Will B. Dunn in his cartoon strip Kudzu, it seemed to me that the culture had absorbed even this most indigestible morsel and rolled on.
_SC_CAMPBELL HAD RIDDEN INTO OXFORD ALONG WITH TOM _sc_ T. Hall, author Alex Haley and half a dozen other eminent writers, poets and scholars who constitute a Southern literary gang informally known as the Brotherhood. They all had come down from Nashville on Hall’s tour bus, which was graced with a portrait of Hall’s idol, General George Patton. This evening members of the Brotherhood were scheduled to read and perform at a benefit for the Mississippi branch of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Tom, we’re gonna run out to the campus before the show,” Campbell called out to Hall, who is a burly man with massive features and intelligent gray-blue eyes that seem about to pop out of their sockets from the stress of containing his tireless mental combustion.
“Suppose I come along,” said Hall.
“Well, come on, then.”
It was in Oxford that the Campbell myth had begun. “I came out here to be university chaplain in 1954, about three months after the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation in public education,” Campbell said as we swung onto the campus. “I thought at the time that I would spend the rest of my life in Oxford. I guess I lasted a little over two years.”
Here, in the white-hot center of resistance to integration, Campbell discovered himself as that most despised creature of the Southern racial landscape: the nigger lover. Because he was a preacher, Campbell may have been spared some of the physical punishment inflicted on white integrationists — although the message was delivered to him quite pointedly after he had been observed playing ping-pong with a black minister at the YMCA. Days later, Campbell found his lawn covered with ping-pong balls painted half white and half black. The dean of student personnel told him that he would have to consider where he was — and to “adjust” his thinking appropriately.
“And then, by God, we were having a reception for new students, right here on the back gallery,” Campbell said as he walked outside the antebellum building that had once housed his office. “The dean was present. One of the assistant chaplains pulled me aside and said, `Will, I think somebody put something in the punch.’ I went over and looked in the punch bowl, and sure enough, there were two human turds covered with what appeared to be powdered sugar. I said to the dean that I find it rather difficult to `adjust’ to fecal punch.”
Campbell was subdued on the ride back to the motel. This retracing of his early days had left him curiously empty. It was as if he had left some part of himself behind. When we got back to the Holiday Inn the other members of the Brotherhood were all gathered in a single room drinking whiskey and watching a basketball game. “Where’ve you guys been?” one of them hollered.
Tom T. poured a drink. “Aw, we went out to see where Will Campbell’s buried,” he said.
_SC_IT WAS SATURDAY NIGHT AT GASS’S STORE, A ROADSIDE _sc_ juke joint in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, where Campbell makes his home. The house band was playing some standard country tunes. Kitty Wells’s pretty granddaughter was on the drums. This is as close to being Campbell’s church as any place is likely to be. There is a powerful sense of tradition and community in this dark little nightery with its neon icons in the names of Miller and Bud. “Will married nearly half the people in this room,” his wife, Brenda, remarked as we sat down. “Some he had to marry several times.”
According to Campbell’s friends, Brenda is the one person in the world he’s truly afraid of. They have a charming, playful relationship that has survived forty-four years of marriage, the raising of three children and an endless stream of needy and troubled people at their door. Since the beginning of their relationship, Brenda has handled the family finances, doling out a meager allowance to her husband, who believes that money is “evil.” Brenda also mows the lawn, a fact that early in their marriage contributed to the charge that Campbell was henpecked. The preacher at the little church he grew up in held special prayers for their marriage. “I went from being henpecked to being a liberated husband in a single generation,” Campbell joked.
“I thought it was the love of money that was supposed to be evil, not money itself,” I said.
“I know that’s what the Bible says,” said Campbell. “But I do think that evil is a greater problem for wealthy people. Now, the opposite is not true — I don’t think the poor are virtuous. I know plenty of poor folks who’d blow your sweetbreads right through your ear lobes.”
Campbell calls himself a “bootleg preacher,” which in his lexicon means that he conducts his ministry outside the traditional church. For him, the church is a human institution, not a divine one, and such creations are inherently evil. “No institution can be trusted, including the institutional church,” says Campbell. “They are all after our souls — all of them.” What institutions actually institute, he contends, “is inhumanity, by advancing the illusion that form is substance, the means are the meaning, doing is being, procedure is redemption — and so they can only further dehumanize relations between those they were instituted to reconcile.”
Until the mid-Seventies, Campbell was supported by a highly informal organization called the Committee of Southern Churchmen. Since then he’s made his living from writing and farming and lecturing (he speaks frequently at universities and religious gatherings). And having turned sixty-five last year, he draws Social Security. Although he will not serve on juries, Campbell does vote and pay his taxes. So one could not say that he is entirely independent of the grip of institutions himself.
“Institutions are inevitable, I know that,” he says. “I work within them all the time — I don’t claim not to. What I’m saying is, let’s not worship the institution. They are all basically self-loving and self-perpetuating. They are trying to make you over into their own image — it doesn’t matter if it’s Yale or Bob Jones University. They all have a line. What I try to say is that I may be working within this particular institution, but I don’t trust you. Anyway, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”
He does not like to be called the Reverend Campbell because “it sounds condescending and a bit imperialistic.” “Some people call me a counselor,” Campbell says, “but it’s such an arrogant concept — like I can do something better for you than you can do for yourself. I’m not a reverend, and I’m not a counselor. I’m just a preacher.” Even the word ministry gives him trouble. “I don’t really have a ministry,” he insists. “I have a life.”
A few years ago, Campbell was invited to make a speech at New York’s prestigious Riverside Church on the subject of what the church could do to improve race relations in the city — a matter of profound interest at Riverside, which happens to be situated at the edge of Harlem. Campbell climbed into the nine-ton pulpit of sculpted limestone. He stood there dwarfed by the towering nave and the gleaming organ pipes. “I’ve been invited to enough of these affairs by now to know what you mean,” Campbell began in his twangy Tennessee drawl. “What you mean is `How can we improve race relations in New York City . . .’ ” — and at this point he paused significantly, casting his eye over the magnificent stained glass, the opulent icons, the velvet-padded mahogany pews, all paid for with Rockefeller millions — “ ` . . . and keep all this!’ ” His own modest solution was to hold a giant auction, give the proceeds to the poor and disperse the congregation to evangelize the world in the name of Jesus. “Surprisingly,” Campbell says, “they did not act on my proposal.”
Campbell left us at the table in Gass’s to greet some of his friends, trade some kind words with a waitress who’d had some recent sadness and share a drink and a couple of stories with some fellows in a booth. “Will just sort of ambles around, so sometimes you forget he’s at work,” Tom T. Hall had warned me. “I recall when a couple of students from a seminary came down and spent a whole day asking Will all sorts of questions. Then when they got ready to leave, one of them said, `By the way, Reverend Campbell, what do you do?’ `Oh, nothing,’ he said. But here he had been counseling them all day long, and it didn’t even dawn on them that this is what he did.”
When he is not on the road giving a speech or marrying or burying, Campbell spends his days on a forty-acre farm, planting hot peppers and tomatoes, or sitting in his log-cabin office behind his house, pecking out sermons and books and talking to people in need. “I never do anything big,” he says. “It’s a series of little things, like helping people to read, holding a man’s hand who’s dying, singing a few songs to a fellow who’s about to go to jail.” Each year hundreds of people seek him out. They may be famous singers fighting a drug problem, ex-cons just off the road gang, young couples trying to reconcile a failing marriage — somehow they all find their way to the little cabin behind the apple tree in the hollow of the Stones River valley where Campbell conducts his business of “just trying to survive as a human being and not as some technological robot.”
“You love one, you got to love ‘em all,” Campbell said.
“Bull,” said Brenda.
He cannot even pass a ringing public phone in an airport without answering it. “Because it might be someone in trouble?” I asked. “Oh, no!” Campbell replied. “Might be someone I want to talk to.”
Whom he does not want to talk to are the innumerable acolytes who show up on his doorstep with a copy of one of his books in hand, saying they want to sit at his knee. “Well, tough shit,” Campbell tells them. “I don’t want any disciples. I’m trying to be a disciple. I look back and see a bunch of people following me and I fall to pieces.”
“Which is,” Campbell told his biographer, Tom Connelly, “the distinction between being a guru or a cult figure and not being one of those things. The guru says: `Yes, come on down. We have this program, and we’ll put you to work.’ I’ve never done that. It’s dangerous. Soon you start believing that shit.”
Once a priest in New Jersey phoned Campbell and said he wanted to come down South and join Campbell’s ministry because he felt called to do something important with his life.
“Where are you now?” Campbell asked.
“I’m at a pay phone in Newark,” the priest replied.
“Is it one of those glass booths?”
“Yes, it is,” said the puzzled priest.
“Are there any people out there, or are the streets deserted?”
“There are lots of people.”
“Well, son,” said Campbell, “that’s your ministry. Go to it.”
Campbell never keeps correspondence or papers of the sort that biographers and university collections hunger for. His former secretary Andy Lipscomb once discovered a pile of Campbell’s sermons moldering in the compost heap. When he reproved his boss for destroying such valuable records, Campbell observed that “bullshit makes the cabbage grow.”
He will not be lionized. Sometimes he purposely subverts himself — as at Duke University, where he was appointed “theologian in residence” for part of a term. To many of the students and faculty there, Campbell was virtually a mythic hero, and yet when he gave his main address in Page Auditorium, he suddenly folded up his speech after two pages, said, “That’s it” and walked off the podium — leaving many of his supporters wondering why he had bothered to come. Doug Marlette had a similar experience when he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard and invited Campbell to speak to the other fellows. “They didn’t get him at all, and Will didn’t bother to explain himself,” says Marlette. “He was excruciatingly inappropriate.”
Other times Campbell will be so incendiary he almost invites people to loathe him. He has on more than one occasion told a university audience that “this institution right here” — meaning Ohio State or Georgia Tech or whatever school he happens to be visiting — “has contributed, wittingly or not, to incomparably more bloodshed and misery, done more to maim and murder, than the whole lot of poor old country boys in sheets holding cross burnings in rented cow pastures. Now then, the Klan may be more bigoted than the `children of the light.’ But they’re not more racist. Racism is in the structures, the system in which we are all bound up. We’re all basically of a Klan mentality when it comes to our own structures and our own institutions.”
He was a preacher and a devout believer, but Campbell claims he was not really a Christian until his friend Jonathan Daniel was murdered in 1966. Daniel was a young theology student from the Episcopal seminary in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who had gone down to Lowndes County, Alabama, to register blacks to vote. He had walked into a country store with a white priest and two black friends, and when he came outside with a Moon Pie and a soda pop, he was shotgunned into eternity by a sheriff’s deputy named Thomas Coleman.
Campbell got the news of Daniel’s death while he was visiting his friend P.D. East, the colorful and defiant editor of the Petal, Mississippi, newspaper called The Petal Paper. It was East, years before, who had badgered Campbell into giving him a definition of the Christian message in ten words or less. “ `We’re all bastards, but God loves us anyway,’ ” East recalled. “Let’s see if your definition of faith can stand the test. Was Jonathan a bastard?”
Campbell was still in shock and deeply grieving for his friend. Mainly to get East to shut up, Campbell admitted that Jonathan was a bastard.
“Was Thomas a bastard?” East asked.
It was easy enough to agree to that.
Then East pulled his chair around, put his bony hand on Campbell’s knee and, staring directly into Campbell’s glistening eyes, whispered, “Which one of these two bastards do you think God loves most?”
It was the turning point of Campbell’s life. “Suddenly everything became clear,” he recalls in Brother to a Dragonfly. “I walked across the room and opened the blind, staring directly into the glare of the street light. And I began to whimper. But the crying was interspersed with laughter.”
He was laughing at himself: “At twenty years of a ministry which had become, without my realizing it, a ministry of liberal sophistication. An attempted negation of Jesus, [a ministry] of human engineering, of riding the coattails of Caesar . . . of looking to government to make and verify and authenticate our morality, of worshipping at the shrine of enlightenment and academia, of making an idol of the Supreme Court, a theology of law and order and of denying not only the Faith I professed to hold but my history and my people — the Thomas Colemans.”
“What I like most about Will is that he does not divide the world into us versus them,” says the black scholar and writer Julius Lester, a longtime Campbell watcher. “It’s that quality that enables him to really startle people. His whole object is to affect the soul of the other, and he does that better and more directly than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
A hazardous example of that occurred during the Sixties at a radical student forum in Atlanta. Campbell simply announced: “My name is Will Campbell. I’m a Baptist preacher. I’m a native of Mississippi. And I’m pro-Klansman because I’m pro-human being. Now, that’s my speech. If anyone has any questions I will be glad to try to answer them.” Pandemonium followed. “I had intended to start a dialogue, maybe even a heated dialogue,” Campbell recalls. “I had not intended to start a riot.” He might have explained that pro-Klansman did not mean the same as pro-Klan in his vocabulary, the one having to do with the individual, the other with ideology. The blacks in the audience stormed out en masse, followed by half the whites. Those who remained were so abusive Campbell was afraid they were going to storm the stage and pluck his limbs from his torso. Half an hour later, when the crowd finally settled down enough for Campbell to speak again, he pointed out that just four words — “pro-Klansman Mississippi Baptist preacher” — coupled with his own whiteness, had turned the students into everything they thought the Klan to be — hostile, frustrated, angry, violent and irrational.
Why does he do this? Why will he deliberately puncture the esteem people feel for him and even court their hatred, rather than accept the love and admiration and even the idolatry that attends even the most ordinary preacher in the high-steepled church? It would have taken very little for Campbell to have become a kind of media saint or a TV evangelist on the order of Swaggart or Falwell — the “electronic soul molesters,” as Campbell calls them. He had tasted that power as a young man, still in his teens, at Louisiana College, a Baptist academy in Pineville, when he and his future wife, Brenda Fisher, would travel through the Catholic parishes in a rattletrap mission bus, stopping at every crossroads hamlet. Brenda would pump out “Bringing in the Sheaves” on the field organ while Campbell delivered his searing message of fundamentalist Christianity.
“Yeah, I used to be a street-corner preacher,” Campbell recalled as he returned to what was left of his now-cold Gass’s pizza, “with my Bible in one hand and a microphone in the other. There was a great sense of power. My voice would be booming out through four loudspeakers, and I’d be strutting around, swishing the microphone cord. One time the power went off and I just kept on preaching; I couldn’t stop — it was a form of homiletic masturbation.”
“Friends and neighbors, you all know Preacher Campbell,” I suddenly heard the heavy-lidded bandleader say to the crowd in the bar. “Let’s give him a hand and see if he’ll bless us with a song.”
Campbell popped eagerly onto the stage. The band struck up “Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” which has become a virtual anthem for Campbell whenever he’s at Gass’s. I had seen Campbell sing before, in his kitchen, hugging his old Gibson in his lap, or in a church when he had some theological point to make during a sermon and a song just seemed to say it better. On those occasions Campbell had had a sly and in some respects passive way of delivering his music. His baritone voice is true but thin and wavery. Here at Gass’s, however, standing under the spotlight, with the microphone in his hand, there was a surprising transformation. He let loose something raw and confident and exceedingly indulgent. “No, we don’t fit in with that white-collar crowd,” Campbell sang, as the crowd whooped with identification. “We’re a little too rowdy and a little too loud/But there’s no place that I’d rather be than right here/With my red neck, white socks and Blue Ribbon beer.”
At last, for about five minutes in this shadowy saloon in the middle of a Tennessee nowhere, on a Saturday night in the Church of Miller Lite, Zen Master Campbell was giving the people what they wanted to hear.
_SC_“SURE I WANTED TO BE A COUNTRY SINGER — LONG _sc_ before I decided to be a preacher,” Campbell says. “Country music is people music — honest, liberal and the only true American art form. It is also theologically sound.” The songs he chooses to sing speak of the hurt and hopelessness of a lonely woman becoming an alcoholic, or an anguished father waiting for his son to come home from the war in a box, or a murderous lover in jail. In Campbell’s view, each of them testifies to the message of 2 Corinthians, Chapter 5: “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, no longer holding men’s misdeeds against them and has committed to us this word of reconciliation.”
“Reconciliation!” Campbell will thunder whenever he quotes this passage. “Reconciliation to our own natures — it’s a hard idea to accept, and that’s why the gospel’s a whole lot more drastic than most folks have ever dreamed. Our trespasses are not held against us, we’re already forgiven. Don’t you see how that liberates us all? Black, white, Kluxer, preacher, banker, teamster, murderer, chairman of General Motors, head of the Ford Foundation — we are all bastards, but God loves us anyway.”
This message has had a special appeal for the “outlaw” element of country music — Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and particularly Waylon Jennings. “I’m really antipreacher,” says Jennings, who grew up in the Church of Christ and once aspired to be a preacher himself, “but Will Campbell is one of the few people in the world I believe to be completely sincere. If you want to talk about an outlaw, there’s the man. He doesn’t take what anybody says — he goes and finds out for himself. As best I can figure, Will Campbell is exactly what the Bible tells us to be.”
Jennings and his wife, the singer and songwriter Jessi Colter, met Campbell at the wedding of a mutual friend. It was the usual eccentric Campbell ceremony, held on this occasion in his office in Mount Juliet. In one corner was a wood-burning stove. There were a few books scattered on a shelf and an old Olympia typewriter on a butcher block that was supported by a large antique milk jug. “I was immediately taken by this place,” Colter recalls. “It was very humble, very authentic. There was a pot of beans on the kettle. Then this man appeared who looked like something out of the eighteenth century.”
The wedding began abruptly with Campbell’s having the couple sign the marriage license. “Now what we have just done has nothing to do with Christian marriage,” said Campbell. “It is no more than a legal contract between you and the state that gives you the right to sue one another if you should ever desire to do so.” Campbell then tossed the contract aside. “Now, Mr. Caesar,” he said in a contemptuous voice, “we have rendered unto you the things that are yours. At this point, the wedding begins.”
Campbell spoke quite personally about the two people, the problems they had had in the past, ones they would no doubt have to face in the future and the endless need for forgiveness such a relationship demands. At moments he was so intimate that Colter could feel herself flushing. “The words he said went deep inside me,” she recalls. “The whole experience bonded everybody together. And I was very much drawn to Will. I felt no pressure, no condemnation in his presence. He’s far more of a force than what you’d call a force of personality or charisma. Of course, I couldn’t have said any of this at the time. I was working in a far place, spiritually.”
Campbell became an object of fascination to Colter: “Each thing I learned about him seemed just another wonderful trait. Here in this world, going at the speed of light, was this man who worked his own land, raised his own food, ground his own meal. He would come by to see us on his way to visit someone on death row or perhaps he’d just come back from some community where they were handling snakes. The next thing I’d hear he’d be lecturing at Vanderbilt. He was a prince of the unexpected.”
Campbell would be teasing around Colter, but he always wore his best manners in her presence. He treated her with extravagant gentility, so that when others would talk about Campbell’s drinking or chewing or cussing, it would seem they were discussing someone she didn’t know. He kept those parts of himself hidden from her. She knew him for years before she learned, secondhand, that he was a singer and a picker himself and that the song he performed more often than any other was one of her own haunting compositions, which became, in Campbell’s hands, a kind of benediction: “Storms never last, do they baby?/Bad times all pass with the wind/Your hand in mine steals the thunder/Your love makes the sun want to shine.”
When Tom Connelly’s biography Will Campbell and the Soul of the South appeared, Colter read it eagerly, although she was a bit shocked by the profanity Connelly attributed to Campbell. “You don’t talk like that!” she complained to Campbell. “No, sugar, I don’t,” Campbell responded. “The man’s a goddamned liar.”
In the early Eighties, Campbell’s finances, always precarious, suffered from a drought of speaking fees and book advances, and he asked Waylon Jennings for a job. Jennings put him to work as a roadie. “After two days on the tour bus, unable to figure out exactly what job he had given me, I discovered that I was the one who turned the microwave oven on and off — I was the cook,” says Campbell. The crew took to calling him Hop Sing.
By then Colter had become a devout charismatic Christian. She and Campbell were having a kind of affair of the spirit. Jennings, on the other hand, had become remote and inscrutable, trapped in a narcotic inner circus that no one else could enter. Colter was frantic about the state of her husband’s soul. She asked Campbell to speak to him.
The story Campbell tells about what followed frankly puzzles me. I’m uncertain whether the point he makes is as significant as he seems to think it is — or if he inadvertently reveals a part of himself that is a bit star struck and vacuous. “About two o’clock in the morning on the way from Columbia, South Carolina, to Tampa, I decided to try it,” Campbell says in one of his sermons. “ `Waylon, what do you believe?’ I asked, almost tentatively. `Yeah,’ he said. Way down in his throat. Like he sings.
“Now, when you’re riding a stagecoach from Columbia to Tampa at two in the morning, conversations need not be rushed. There was a long pause. `Yeah?’ I finally muttered. `Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?’
“Apparently he saw no need to hurry the matter along either. As the bus rolled on down America’s highway, into the night, we sat in contemplative silence. Then he said, `Uh-huh.’
“Looking back, I suppose that was one of the most profound affirmations of faith I ever heard.”
_SC_IN 1976, JIMMY CARTER RECEIVED THE DEMOCRATIC _sc_ nomination for president, which occasioned a conversation between Jules Feiffer, the playwright and Village Voice cartoonist, and Mike Peters, who draws for the editorial page of the Dayton Daily News. The two decided that before they could decipher Carter, they first would have to understand the South, which was terra incognita for both of them. They arranged for Doug Marlette, who was at that time working for the Charlotte, North Carolina, “Observer,” to set up a tour.
“We were told our first stop would be at the farm of some saint called Will Campbell,” Feiffer says. “Doug described him as a white hero of the civil-rights revolution. So we drove out to Mount Juliet, but instead of a saint, we met this rather grumpy, quite unfriendly, truly unpleasant man.”
To Marlette’s alarm, Campbell couldn’t seem to get Feiffer’s name right. He kept called him Fizer. “Damn, it, Will, it’s Feiffer,” Marlette would say and cite Feiffer’s books and plays, which should have been familiar even to a backwoods bumpkin like Campbell. Campbell merely shrugged.
They were all sitting on the porch eating boiled peanuts when Feiffer asked Campbell if he was “born again” like Jimmy Carter. Campbell acknowledged that he was. “By the way, Mr. Fizer,” Campbell continued, apropos of nothing, “how’s Kate?”
Before Feiffer could ask how Campbell knew the name of his eldest daughter, Campbell was called away to the phone. When he returned, he offhandedly inquired how Susan was doing. “How the hell do you know the name of my girlfriend?” Feiffer asked in astonishment. “Here you can’t even get my name right, but you seem to have a complete dossier on my life.”
“That’s one of the features of being born again,” Campbell told him. “You know all about folks.”
It was late in the evening, after many songs and more than a little whiskey, before a thoroughly spooked Jules Feiffer realized that Campbell had followed his life and work avidly since his first book. “I had to pass the Campbell test of fire,” Feiffer says now. “He’s just not going to have people come down from New York and expect to cash in on their reputations. You have to prove yourself first.”
By then Campbell had seized control of their itinerary. “It was the Will Campbell Memorial Tour,” says Feiffer, “during which we learned nothing about the South and everything about Will.” They drove down to Oxford to see the site of the fecal-punch episode, then wandered into the Delta, visiting civil-rights leaders and good old boys and wealthy plantation owners and famous writers–Campbell seemed to know everybody, from Compsons to Snopeses, and those he hadn’t met he quickly folded into his vast network.
Naturally, the cartoonists were struck by the “Will Campbell” persona, a caricature that came and went depending on the whim of its master. “I found it unpleasant,” says Marlette, who is a Southerner himself and who had once been something of a Campbell acolyte. “It’s a great self-parody–this preacher who doesn’t like to be bothered, who doesn’t care for people, who dresses in this cartoon outfit. At the same time there’s this bizarre anti-intellectualism that is so Southern and so unattractive.”
Feiffer, on the other hand, was in love. “Here I am–a Judeo-atheist–buddying up to a Baptist anarchist,” he says delightedly. “When you’re alone with Will and he’s just being Will, you get into the most complicated, thrilling conversations. There’s a cool distance but also a great deal of sweetness there.” At the same time, Feiffer saw “Will Campbell” as being more like a character in a novel than a creature of real life. “He will oppose the image of a bourbon-swilling, expectorating-in-a-Coke-bottle character with the cane and the hat–but you don’t come by that stuff by accident,” says Feiffer. “I think he prefers the mythologizing because it keeps you from getting at the truth. The truth for him is too personal, and he’s too vulnerable. It’s almost as if he has to put on a persona in order to be real.”
Perhaps the mask has grown onto the face, so it’s no longer possible to see who the real Will Campbell is. He hides that part of himself even from those who are closest to him. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to separate him from the legend,” says Penny Campbell, a thirty-seven-year-old lesbian and political activist in Nashville who is the eldest of Campbell’s three children. “I wish he could let that persona down with his family, but a lot of times he doesn’t do that. He’s just not able to carry on an intimate conversation with his children. It’s painful sometimes.”
It’s painful for Campbell, too. The gulf he creates between himself and others is almost too great for him to bear. “When I went to first grade, my father stood outside the window the entire morning,” Penny says, “and when he took me to college, my mother said he cried the whole way home. But I never knew about this. I always saw him as someone who could stop a conversation with a single cutting sentence.”
Campbell has spent his life spiritually mothering others, and yet there is some immense unconsoled sadness inside him. It is as if healing the world were a way of healing himself. I had learned enough about him now to sense some of his sadness. His mother was an unapproachable, unhappy woman afflicted with imaginary illnesses, who sometimes ran off into the woods to hide from her family. His older brother and childhood hero, Joe, died of a heart attack brought on by years of drug abuse. He endured the loathing of people he grew up with and loved–because of who he was and what he believed.
I could see that behind the priest and the prophet and the religious clown–behind “Will Campbell”–was a hurting child, a small, sickly, almost unnoticed boy who had been made special only because he had been given to God. And what would be the greatest tragedy imaginable for such a person, what would cause him to erect this extraordinary public facade? “I think when you get to the bottom of Will Campbell,” says his friend Tom T. Hall, “what you’re going to find is a Jesus-loving agnostic.”
“I’m not very old, but I have seen a lot of changes,” said Will’s ninety-one-year-old father, Lee Campbell.
“Me too, Daddy.” Campbell was sitting on the screen porch of the white farmhouse he grew up in, staring at the passing pulpwood trucks on Highway 24. It would be one of Campbell’s final visits with his father, who died shortly thereafter.
In a little while we got up to go visit some of Campbell’s kinfolk and see the sites. This was sacred ground. There were ghosts all around. Here on the road to Aunt Dolly’s house was a place where trees don’t grow. There once was a schoolhouse there. That was where they found the body of Noon Wells–a black man who was murdered by two jealous husbands–in the schoolhouse door. Here was where the store used to be where Lee Campbell’s oldest brother, Uncle Jessie, was shot in the leg by a crazed storekeeper. The gangrene later killed him. Over there was where Mama and Aunt Dolly saw Lum Cleveland and his wife, Aunt Stump, get killed by their son-in-law, Allen Westbrook. “I saw Allen Westbrook hanged at the Liberty Courthouse,” Mr. Lee said. “I never want to see something like that again.”
Gradually nature is reclaiming the landmarks. We drove past abandoned homesteads with the martin gourds still hanging above the untended gardens. This part of Mississippi was once ruled by the Choctaws and the Chickasaws; now only the old folks stay, and many of the people Campbell grew up with are gone. There are still some Choctaws around, however, and lately Campbell has been studying their language.
This place has marked him. He carries Mississippi around with him, like the long pallid scar of the rat bite on his index finger. I realized as we drove through the second-growth pine trees that Campbell wanted me to understand this about him.
We crossed the East Fork of the Amite River–a negligible little stream that can be jumped over at nearly any spot. There was one sluggish, muddy swell under the beech trees where a couple of black men in overalls had stopped to fish. “The Glory Hole,” said Campbell. “I was baptized right here on a Sunday morning in June of 1931.” Across the creek was the East Fork Baptist Church, once a simple frame building constructed of longleaf yellow pine in 1887, which has since been rather handsomely bricked over. One of Campbell’s earliest memories is of the Ku Klux Klan marching into the middle of a service and presenting the pulpit with a new Bible. Later, when he preached his first sermon in that pulpit at the age of sixteen, he could feel the raised letters of the KKK embossed on the back of the cover.
Mr. Lee began to recount that first sermon and how Will had written it out and nailed it to a plow, then spent weeks delivering it to the rear end of a horse as he tilled the fields. The title of the sermon was “In the Beginning,” and it compared the opening chapters of the Bible to the new life that was facing the graduating seniors of the East Fork school. “After that,” Will said, “I was a full-fledged preacher, entitled to buy a Coca-Cola at a clergy discount.”
We drove up to the cemetery, which sits on the highest spot in the neighborhood. The plastic flowers on the headstones are shaded by giant oak. Campbell’s first job was tending this plot; he received fifteen dollars a month from the East Fork Cemetery Association for cutting the grass and weeding. At the end of the summer, when he had amassed the sum of forty-five dollars, he left Mississippi, and in many respects he has been trying to get home ever since.
Campbell’s people are buried here. I thought of a song Campbell wrote at three o’clock in the morning in the early Sixties, when he was riding back to Nashville from Mississippi, in exile from the people he loved and the place he came from, longing for the reconciliation he so often preaches. He called the song “Mississippi Magic.” It is a tale of his own death, when he will be loved and accepted again by the people who raised him. They will come from miles around to the old Hartman Funeral Home, in McComb City, to stand around his coffin and say, “Ole Will was a good old boy, he just had some crazy ideas….”
“Then that Mississippi madness, be Mississippi magic again/’Fore we was born we were all kin/When we dead we’ll be kinfolks again.”
“If this where you’re going to be buried?” I asked him.
“Yes.”
“Where exactly?”
“Well, I’m not going to show you that. You’re just gonna have to find it yourself someday.”
I realized I had gone as far as I could go with my guru. I had set out to see who he really was and whether I could accept his teachings. I had tried as much as possible to pry off his mask of authority and see the person inside–the flawed, insecure, fallible, often foolish person who was no better than I. And I had seen that person or at least caught a glimpse of him. He seemed to me like a deer I had once come upon in the woods, who had given me a brief, direct look, passing some piece of obscure intelligence between us, and then had fled into the cover. But I had seen him, nonetheless.
And somewhere in the process of seeing him, I had come to love him.
I couldn’t say that to him then. Instead I asked a question I knew for certain he couldn’t answer. I asked him what was the meaning of life.
He laughed. “How the hell do I know? Go ask God–he started it.”

THE EIGHTIES MORE OR LESS ENDED IN JANUARY OF 1989 when Ronald Reagan left office. The vicious presidential campaign of 1988 — in which the Republican party gleefully played on white racial fears, wrapped its candidate, the insipid George Bush, in the flag and used McCarthyite rhetoric to make even the most centrist views seem seditiously un-American — now seems like the last dying gasps of cynical Eighties values.
So far the Nineties seem as if they will be characterized by an eager sense of penitence driven by a secret fear that it really may be too late to turn things around. Suddenly, after a ten-year rape of the earth, everyone is an environmentalist, but reports on such issues as global warming, ozone depletion, waste disposal and the pollution of oceans and rivers are increasingly dispiriting. Suddenly, after eight years of simply outrageous tax breaks for the well-to-do, everyone wants the economy to be brought under control, but the size of the deficit and the cost of the savings-and-loan bailout grow ever higher and seem to defy comprehension, let alone remedy. Just when we were happily celebrating the death of communism, capitalism teeters precariously on the verge of recession or worse.
Everyone has grown more compassionate, but the staggering desperation and crushing numbers of the homeless and needy — to whom the largess of the Reagan administration somehow never trickled down — seem completely overwhelming. Once the hostages came home from Iran, it seemed convenient to forget about the Middle East — and American dependence on foreign oil. Now the Middle East is back on the front burner again, and burning hot. The threat of a war there is horrifyingly real.

This is from the November 15, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone, in a ’80s retrospective article written by Anthony DeCurtis.  Further proof that if you don’t learn from the past, you are doomed to repeat it. 

Those who don’t learn from the past…

My Life in the ’90s #2 – Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Me

This Groveshark playlist contains my favorite songs from February 1990.  You should listen to it while reading this.

 
Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em is the bestselling rap album of all time, and one of the least respected. It’s not hard to hear why; set it next to Mantronix’ “This Should Move Ya,” an all but forgotten rap album that came out at almost the same time, and it becomes pretty clear that MC Hammer has no business on the mic. But Hammer’s songs are catchy, even if they do rely too heavily on hooks from other songs (the biggest hit on the album, “U Can’t Touch This,” would be nothing without its sample from Ricky James’ funk classic “Super Freak.”  James actually sued Hammer for copyright infringement, and got a songwriting credit on “U Can’t Touch This” as a result.  But Hammer was all about the showmanship, the dance moves, and the cross-marketing.  The things that get you lots of 12 year old fans.

I vaguely remember hammer pants being in style in sixth grade.  I think my mom made me some, but I don’t think I ever wore them.  I don’t know if that’s because things my mom sewed never really came out right, or because I wasn’t bold enough to wear hammer pants to school. I also remember “Batman” being all the rage.  That movie – Tim Burton’s Batman, though in sixth grade none of us knew or cared who directed a film – came out in summer ’89.  I wasn’t allowed to watch it.  I saw it late one night at my grandparents’ house, probably over Christmas vacation, probably several years later.  They had cable.

Toad the Wet Sprocket‘s “Pale”  sounds like the ’90s to me, but not exactly in a good way.  Toad the Wet Sprocket weren’t famous yet, but the mood and tone of this album embody something I remember clearly.  The songs are soggy and whiny.  The singer sounds like he is so busy drowning in melancholy angst that he can barely muster the effort to sing about how everything he does is half right, and it’s so hard to tell right from wrong these days.  I can see him wearing his faded plaid flannel, his long unwashed hair, his stubble, his coffee cup and fingerless wool gloves.  Actually, that might be me I’m picturing, circa 1998.  So I guess that makes this album ahead of its time.  Maybe that’s why nobody was listening to it – yet.

Jon’s grandfather died around this time. Jon was his only grandson, and he spoiled him, like grandpas are supposed to do.  And more than once, I got to come along and get spoiled, too. I remember going to a hockey game with Jon and his grandpa, who treated us to snacks and candy and even bought me a hockey puck souvenir that I proudly took to show and tell the next day (and that dates the memory; that show and tell was in fifth grade, either ’88 or ’89.) This memory speaks to either how poor we were as a family or how stingy my parents were; I’m not sure which.  But going to a minor league hockey game was a major event for me.
Grandpa V (he let me call him Grandpa: my own grandpas lived too far away and so I never got to do anything with them) got terminal cancer and, after months of being confined to bed, shot himself in the head.  Of course my mom didn’t tell me that last part, I found out the way most 12 year olds find out about most “adult” things; I overheard adults talking about it.  I was upset when my mom told me he died; it’s the only time in my life I can remember literally bursting into tears.  I was horrified when I found out how he died, though looking back on it now it doesn’t seem so terrible.  It was the cancer that killed him, not the gun.  If it had been a few years later, there would have been a legal and much less dramatic way to end his life; we were in Oregon, after all.

A couple of things that last paragraph brings up:

1. I don’t think I overheard adults talking about Grandpa V’s suicide.  I think our pastor announced it from the front of the church.  He had a habit of saying things he probably shouldn’t; his motto was “better to ask forgiveness than permission.” But some things are hard to ask forgiveness for. How do you apologize to a 12 year old for telling him that a man he loved but barely knew had committed what seemed to me then like an unforgivable sin?

2. Why was going to a minor league hockey game such a big deal?  Because we never did things like that in my family.  I remember my dad took me to one Portland Trailblazers game, in the fifth grade.  They got slaughtered by the Milwaukee Bucks; it was a boring game.  My dad and I cheered for the Blazers regularly together, watching games on the TV.  Those were some good teams, those years, and I have lots of fond memories of watching basketball with my dad.  Why did we only go to one lousy game? Nosebleed tickets weren’t all that expensive, and it would have meant so much to me then.  Were we really that poor?

The Cramps – Stay Sick
I wonder if psychobilly ever made it out to the Oregon town I lived in.  Surely somewhere in that backwoods town were some weirdos cooking meth (wait – did people cook meth in backwoods shacks in 1990?  When did that become a thing?) and listening to “Bikini Girls With Machine Guns.”  I can remember one guy who might have been a candidate.  His name was Kevin, he was several years older than me and wore unlaced army boots and sleeveless t-shirts.  He might’ve been missing a tooth. He played tuba in the band; he was a pretty sweet-hearted guy (not lack the sullen and nasty guys who tormented me on the bus) and was an outcast in a totally different way than I would be.  I have no idea if he cooked meth or listened to the Cramps, but when I hear this album, I think of him with a smile.

The Fall is the kind of thing I’m always trying to like, even pretending like I like, but really, I don’t.  That’s one of the main reasons for this project. For most of my life, I have pretended to like things that other people – cooler people — liked.  Sometimes, I pretended to like things I had never heard of, let alone heard.  At this point, I’m not even sure what I like and what I’ve just pretended to like for so long that it just seems like I like it.  I’m done with this.  I don’t care what anyone else thinks.  I don’t like the Fall.

I do like the Cowboy Junkies.  “The Caution Horses” is kind of monotonous, one song sounding basically like the next, but it’s monotonous in a soothing, enjoyable kind of way.  There’s a later Junkies album (the Trinity Sessions) that I listened to a lot in high school, and it will figure more importantly into my high school years, but I’ll save that story for later.

My Life in the ’90s #1 – January 1990 – You’ll Never Vote For Me Again

(This link is a grooveshark playlist of songs from January 1990. You should listen to this while you read this post.)

I was elected class president in sixth grade. It was a huge deal for me. I got elected because I made promises I couldn’t keep; I promised a longer Christmas vacation and better school lunches. But don’t hate me; I wasn’t being cynical or playing the system. I didn’t know I couldn’t keep those promises, either. I had no idea what I would have the power to do (mostly choosing new playground equipment) and what would be completely out of my hands. I was in sixth grade. My understanding of authority structures and the politics of the public school system was very weak.

Listening to They Might Be Giants makes me think of Tiny Toon Adventures, because of one episode in 1991 where they made cartoon music videos for “Particle Man” and “Istanbul.” How weird was that, for a kid’s show to make their own music videos? I had no idea at the time that the songs were real songs by a real artist with a popular album — I just though they were part of Tiny Toons randomness. Now, 22 years later, I know better.

But let’s face it, “Flood” might be the only record released in 1990 that I actually would have listened to and liked in 1990. My sixth grade self would’ve loved its weird jokes and randomness, songs about night lights and changing the name of New York from New Amsterdam. They Might Be Giants is a nerdy band to like, so I guess that makes me a nerd from early on. The difference between nerds and geeks, I think, is in their sense of humor. Nerds like terrible, corny, random jokes, the kind of jokes TMBG traffic in. I love this album now, and I would have loved it in sixth grade, too.

I started to hate the words “smart” and “potential.” Teachers always wanted to talk about my potential, and it was never a good thing. It sounds like praise when someone says “you have so much potential” but really it just means they want you to work harder. I can remember an exercise Miss O would do during lunch where one student was put in front of the room and everyone else had to take turns saying something nice about that person. And everyone just said how smart I was, and I didn’t want to hear that. I wanted to be more than just smart. Or I wanted people to see me as more than just the smart kid in the class.

 The Sundays are all jangly guitars and dreamy vocals. It makes me think of people a few years older than me who seemed hopelessly more sophisticated than I was. But not really anyone in particular. Just older kids. It reminds me of the first Sixpence None the Richer album, which I wouldn’t listen to until college, and of the Cranberries, which I listened to a lot in high school.

I had a big crush on my teacher, Miss O. She was young and pretty and single and very, very nice. I can remember being depressed when she got married, but that was a few years later.

Joan Jett released an album of covers called “The Hit List.” There are a few decent songs on it – her cover of the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” isn’t bad, and shows us what the Pistols might’ve sounded like if they’d ever learned to play their instruments. I can’t escape the feeling, though, that this is what butch lesbians in high school were listening to in 1990. Especially if they drove convertibles. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know any butch lesbians who drove convertibles, but I was pretty young, and naive. I may not have recognized one if I’d seen them. But they would’ve been playing Joan Jett very loud behind the football stadium.

I collected a lot of baseball cards. I almost collected the entire 1990 Donruss baseball card set, one pack at a time. A pack of Donruss cards cost 45 cents. You could buy two packs for a buck and still have a dime left over for dubble bubble. You couldn’t buy them at the grocery store, you had to go to the next store over – a five and dime called Sprouse-Reitz.

My best friends were Jon and Andy. They collected baseball cards, too. I think Jon got me started collecting cards. He had more than I did, and I had more than Andy did. That was pretty much how everything went. Jon’s dad was a mechanic, so I don’t know where their money came from, but Andy’s dad was a pig farmer, and they never had much. Neither of them went to the same school I went to, and this will be a recurring theme of my life in the ’90s.  Almost all of my church friends (and those were my close friends) were homeschooled, and school was a pretty lonely place for me. But not so much in sixth grade.  I was class president.  Everyone liked me.  I was on top of the world.

Ricky Van Shelton has a nice voice, in the same neighborhood as Roy Orbison and the same zip code as Elvis. And his producer surrounds him with a very listenable, classic country sound that avoids a lot of the pitfalls of modern country music. But he apparently can’t write to save his life — only one track on RVS III is a Van Shelton original — and he’s not that great at picking songs to cover, either. “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” (originally recorded by Charlie Rich in 1969) was certainly better off left in the vault. This is the kind of music my dad would’ve listened to, if my dad cared about music.  I guess I should say this is the kind of thing that would make him stop fiddling with the radio tuner.

Yesterday I listened to a terrible prog-rock album by a guy named Fish that seemed to go on forever, then a critically acclaimed synth pop record by The Blue Nile. Frankly, I couldn’t tell the difference. On second listen, Fish is truly terrible and the Blue Nile is the kind of thing I try hard to like and mostly fail. I found one song I’d like to keep on the playlist — “Headlights on the Parade.” If someone were to tell me that “Hats” was their favorite album of 1990, I’d nod politely and say it was a very good album. If someone were to say that about Fish, I’d give them a funny look and try to get away before they started talking about Dungeons & Dragons.

Other albums released in January 1990: 

Luka Bloom is an Irish folkster who could really have used a producer and a maybe a backing band, which means it’s January 30, 1990. He has that cheap, tinny guitar sound of so many folksters who just plug into an amp and play. He’s not great, but not terrible, and he makes me think of so many artists I’ve listened to because I saw them live, or they were friends, and I wanted to be friends with somebody famous; somebody doing something interesting.

Tanita Tikaram was a weird low voice I can’t get used to, and don’t want to.

Earth, Wind & Fire, who were so hot in the ’70s, are trying to be relevant in the ’90s, and the musicianship is there, but it just feels like they’re trying so hard to “reach the kids these days.” There are some truly terrible hip hop tracks on “Heritage.”

Hank Williams Jr. is another of my dad’s favorites, and I can find a few songs to like. “Good Friends, Good Whiskey and Good Lovin’” sounds a lot like John Lee Hooker’s “One Bourbon, One Scotch and One Beer” reworked. I especially like “Man to Man,” where he asks St. Peter if he can talk to Hank Sr in heaven. Sounds hokey, but the song works for me.

I started 7th grade in 1990.  I graduated college in 2000.  The ’90s were a pretty formative decade in my life.

This blog is an attempt to sort through those years in my life, using music from the ’90s as an impetus and a trigger.  The music you listen to when you’re a teenager is generally what stays with you for the rest of your life.

This will be a gargantuan task, but I’m going to attempt to listen to every popular album that came out in the ’90s.  Of course I can’t possible listen to everything, but I’ll use Wikipedia’s charts like this one: (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1990_in_music#Albums_released) to guide me.

I’ll write about the music — what I thought about it then, what I think about it now – as well as about what I remember happening in my life when that music was fresh and new and in the air.

This is mostly a therapeutic exercise for me.  I have several reasons for diving into those years, but I don’t want to get into them yet – they should become more clear as the blog progresses.  I hope this is blog is enjoyable for people who don’t know me.

The First Rule of Lent…

…is you don’t talk about Lent.

Seriously folks, I’m tired of hearing about how you gave up soda/candy/sugar/caffeine/whatever for Lent.  If someone offers you something that would break your Lenten fast, just say “no thank you.”  You don’t need to sneakily highlight your own spirituality by informing that you’ve given up what they just offered you for Lent.

Guns, God and Liberty

A family member sent me a link to this video over email and asked for my response.  Below is what I wrote back.

—-

I know your mind’s pretty made up on this issue.  But since you sent this to me, it seems like the courteous thing to do is reply.

I would ask you to read this whole thing if you’re going to read any of it, and to read all of it before you respond.   I know it’s long, but I don’t operate very well in sound bytes. It takes me a while to say what I think.

I can’t speak for the politicians.  All I can do is explain my views on this political issue, and why I support certain gun control measures.

To the video:

1.  He says,  “I never, in 15+ years of doing this, arrested someone on a gun crime who had that gun LEGALLY.”  

Yes.  People who commit gun crimes often steal those guns from people who buy their guns legally.  This was the case with both the Sandy Hook shooter and the Batman shooter.   This is why I think it’s not going to be very effective to keep passing laws that make it harder for people to buy guns legally.

One solution to this would be to make it harder for people to steal guns.  So maybe we pass a law that requires anyone who wants to purchase a gun above a certain caliber or magazine capacity to also purchase or prove that they own a gun safe, and/or pass a law where, if your gun is stolen and it wasn’t in a safe, that carries a criminal penalty (like a fine or a restriction on your ability to buy guns in the future.)

Big picture, though, I think it’s about supply and demand.  Guns are easily stolen because guns are plentiful.  If we effectively passed laws that decreased the number of guns in the country, they would be harder for criminals to come by.  Would they still get them?  Yes, some of them would.  The really determined criminals will find a way to get their hands on a gun.  But I think a lot of them wouldn’t.  Consider the Sandy Hook killer.  He stole his guns from his mom’s closet.   If she didn’t have those guns where would he go?   Would he have the determination and wherewithal to seek out an arms dealer and purchase the guns he needed?  I doubt it.   We can’t stop everyone from getting guns.  But we can put up roadblocks, make it more difficult, and stop a lot of people from getting guns.

Looking elsewhere, I think there’s evidence to support this.  For instance, ownership of fully automatic weapons (M-16s for instance) is heavily restricted in America.  It’s not illegal to own one, but it’s really hard to come by a legal one.  As a result, there aren’t very many crimes committed with M-16s.  Can a determined person get one?  Sure, if he has the money and the contacts.  Is there demand?  Sure.  I’m pretty sure that if the Sandy Hook killer or the Batman killer were able to get their hands on a fully automatic weapon, they would have.  But they couldn’t, so they didn’t.

You’ve got to ask yourself: if the biggest, most powerful weapon the Sandy Hook killer had been able to steal from his mom’s closet had been a Glock, would as many people have died?  Would she have been any less safe from criminals?

2. He says, “I could have carried a gun, my entire time, anywhere in the United States, on planes, anywhere I chose.   I didn’t.  That was my choice!”  

Not exactly. That was his special privilege, afforded him by his job.  As a secret service agent, he has gone through intensive screening and special training to make sure a) he’s not a nutcase who’s going to hijack a plane and b) he knows how to use his gun responsibly, and when, as well as how to make sure it doesn’t get taken from him. Also, as noted above, the kind of gun he’s allowed to carry anywhere in American is limited by gun control laws.

He says “That was my choice!”  Like every American has the right to choose whether or not they want to take an AR-15 as their carry-on item when they travel.  Not only is that NOT the case, I’d be surprised if he really thought that SHOULD BE the case. Let me ask you: do you think every American should be able to bring an assault rifle with them on an airplane? 

This is what gets me every time in this debate: people who act like it’s all or nothing.  Like there’s only two positions in this debate:  PRO gun control or ANTI gun control.   The fact is, it’s a scale of deadly weapons, where “1″ is a pocket knife and “1000″ is a nuclear bomb.   If there were only two positions, than one side (the “liberty” side) would have to believe that nuclear bombs should be for sale at Wal-mart, and the other side (the “safety” side) would believe that possession of a pocket knife should be a felony offense.   I don’t think anybody believes pocket knives should be illegal or nuclear bombs should be for sale (well, you never know – maybe a handful of kooks out there.  There’s always a handful of kooks.)

Instead, we’re somewhere on the scale with our current laws – say, everything below “300″ is legal, and everything above “300″ isn’t.   And one side is arguing that everything above “295″ should be illegal, and the other side is acting like our essential liberty is defined by the guns between 295-300.   And next year, one side will be arguing that everything below “305″ should be legal, and the other side will be acting like keeping the guns between 300-305 illegal is all that separate us from absolute, apocalyptic chaos.

When the fact is, ALL of us (except for some kooks) believe in some degree of gun control, and ALL of us (except for some kooks) believe in some degree of liberty.  And all we’re really arguing about is whether or not we’re going to slide the laws 5 or 10 degrees to the left or right.

3. “It was my God given right to protect myself and my family.”

First off, I don’t think that’s a God-given right. At least not the Christian God. Jesus says love your enemies, turn the other cheek, go the extra mile, and then he demonstrates it by refusing to protect himself when he’s arrested and put on trial, as well as refusing to protect his family when John the Baptist (his cousin) is arrested and executed.  And if you say, “well, that’s Jesus, he was special, that’s not for us to presume to be like him,”  let me point out 2,000 years of martyrs who also refused to protect themselves and were willing to die rather than fight.

Secondly, he seems to imply that in order to protect his family, he needs to have a gun and be willing to kill someone with it.   I don’t agree with that at all.   There are nonviolent ways to protect your family.

I do believe we have a responsibility to protect our families, and the weak and innocent. But not at the expense of another person’s life.  I will lay my life down for my family; I will die before I let someone hurt them.   But if it becomes a choice between losing my life and taking someone else’s, I will lose my life, because my eternal destiny is secure.

These are my convictions; I hope that if they’re ever tested, I have the courage to stick to them.

Having said all that, I absolutely agree with him that our rights are not given to us (or taken away) by our government.  To quote the great anarchist and rabble rouser Utah Phillips,  “The state can’t give you freedom, and the state can’t take it away. You’re born with it, like your eyes, like your ears. Freedom is something you assume, then you wait for someone to try to take it away. The degree to which you resist is the degree to which you are free.”

4. He says: “We live in a society of wolves.  You do not fight back by creating more sheep!”

I don’t believe that we live in a society of wolves.  I believe that we live in a society of people.  Created in the image of God, loved by God enough that he would die for him. The worst, most depraved, most hardened and violent criminal in America is still loved by God and bears his image.  God gives life, and God takes away life.  If God decides that someone is too wicked to live, he can stop his heart in a second.  If I decide that someone that God, in his mercy, has let live, is too wicked to live, than I am standing in judgement over and against God on that person.   And Lord help me if I ever do that.

Maybe refusing to own a gun makes me a sheep.  Jesus said “I send you out like sheep among wolves,”  and he himself was led “like a lamb to the slaughter.”   If believing that there is another way to fight evil in our world – a better way, JESUS’ way, the way of the cross and of laying down our lives – if that makes me a sheep like Jesus, then I’ll be a sheep.

5. He says, “I’m just a guy who wants to live and let live… but ladies and gentlemen, to use your tax dollars to pay a government that slowly but surely every day whittling away more and more of your ability to live and let live is not what people who died and bled for meant this country to be.  That is not what [the flag] represents. That is not a piece of fabric, it’s not a tablecloth, that is an idea, an idea that’s unique to this place, right now right here!”  

This little part of his speech is wonderfully libertarian.  It’s not hard to hear Cheech and Chong shouting it in the ’70s.   It could be copied word for word by someone who wants to legalize gay marriage, legalize marijuana (or any other drug) or keep abortion legal.  Among a dozen other things.

Those are my thoughts.  I want to be respectful of the places where we disagree, and don’t intend to offend you or instigate/rile you up in any way.   If you want to respond back, I’m open.  If you don’t, if you just want to agree to disagree, that’s fine with me too.