Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference between Y & Z: The Shock

Edited for clarity, 5/31/08.

My initial efforts to research Sam Cooke’s life and death consisted of scouring newspaper reports that might shed some light on him, and what made him tick. Fortunately, I had the resources of the Lincoln Center Research Library and the Schomburg Center to help with those efforts.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much written about him during his life. There were some items written by him. Sam’s friend, journalist Dorothy Kilgallen, encouraged him to pen columns, which she published under her own byline. Since Kilgallen’s beat was the Hollywood gossip scene, one might have thought that she wanted Cooke to dish out juicy tidbits about his fellow rock stars. Instead, she gave Sam a forum in which he expressed his full support of the civil rights movement. In one such piece, he wrote:

I’ll never forget the day when I was unable to fulfill a one-night singing engagement in Georgia because I wouldn’t sit in a Jim Crow bus and because no white taxicab driver would take me from the airport to the city--and Negro cabdrivers were not permitted to bring their cabs into the airport...

I have always detested people of any color, religion or nationality who have lacked courage to stand up and be counted.
Other than concert or record reviews, the only time Cooke really got any sort of national press came from an incident in New Orleans. Someone had booked him and his wife at a Holiday Inn there. When they arrived the manager refused to rent them the room, because it was a whites only hotel. Tired from traveling a fair distance that night, Sam insisted upon staying there, prompting the manager to call police who then arrested the Cookes for disturbing the peace.

The New Orleans arrest would become the most covered event in Cooke’s personal life, as far as the mainstream press went. I could find nothing concerning his son Vincent’s death, for example.

Although nationwide the African American press had the story on page one, with extensive reporting from LA, Sam’s death received only a terse, three sentence paragraph issued by the Associated Press in such US dailies as the New York Times. The Times printed another one-paragraph AP follow-up after the coroner’s inquest.

As brief as those stories were, they were enough to shake me, for they reported that Cooke had been shot and bludgeoned to death by Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda, a seedy motor inn on the outskirts of Watts. Franklin claimed that she shot him in self-defense after he allegedly knocked down her door looking for a Eurasian woman named Elisa Boyer.

Figure 1. Bertha Franklin

Figure 2. Elisa Boyer

Figure 3. The Hacienda Motel

The similarity between my last Elisa dream and Sam’s demise struck me hard. Both happened at a seedy motel, and ended in bullets fired from shooters claiming justifiable homicide. Most importantly, the catalyst was a Eurasian woman named Elisa. I also found it difficult to dismiss the similarity between their last names, ‘Boyer’ and ‘Bozer.’

Freud would tell you that dreams represent a highly abstract language frequently using puns or other wordplay. In this case, the names vary by one letter. Hence, the meaning of my Elisa dreams could very well rest in the real difference between ‘y’ and ‘z.’ My Elisa came after the original.

As soon as I read the article, I focused my energies towards finding out more about Sam’s death. I started by attempting to reconstruct what happened that night.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference between Y & Z: In the Air Tonight

With opportunities dwindling within my department, besieged as it was by the university administration’s budget axe, I decided to chuck all of academia out the window and drive semis from coast-to-coast after the spring semester 1997.

Okay, so that didn’t work out. By the spring semester of 1998, I found myself back in the classroom. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get enough courses to teach. So, in order to pay the bills, I moonlighted as a limousine driver. I worked the graveyard shift, which, while not as lucrative as the day shift, allowed me time to read, grade papers, and listen to the radio.

While waiting for a passenger in Maplewood, NJ, I tuned the dial to WBAI-FM in New York. In the studio, a host interviewed several early-1960s rock and rollers, among them a former member of the Crystals. While I predicted that she would talk about such hits as “Da Doo Ron, Ron,” which she did at first, her thoughts turned to the traveling, multi-label road shows headed by Sam Cooke. She subsequently spent the bulk of her time gushing about how nice he was, how he had always looked out for her, how he once rescued her from the physical violence of a racist Southern mob, how he taught her at the tender age of thirteen to handle an audience. She spoke passionately about his sensitivity to the feelings and needs of his fellow artists. The tone of her voice radiated a profound love and respect for someone she considered her friend and mentor.

I don’t know what made me tune to WBAI just then. The most obvious explanation would be coincidence--the same kind of coincidence that would put Sam’s name on my comprehensive exam.

Wouldn’t you know, the late-night radio coincidences continued. Every night, for the next three months, I would wait in the car for my next pick-up, turn on a station, and hear a Sam Cooke tune--either the original, or a cover version.

When the song finished, I would change the channel, only to find another Cooke tune playing on another station. When that finished, I would press the scan button, and out would pop another Cooke song. Pressing the scan button again, I would either hear Sam singing “You Send Me,” or the Pretenders’ “Back On the Chain Gang,” which quotes the Sam Cooke song “Chain Gang.” According to lead-singer Chrissie Hynde, it is a homage to her idol, Jimi Hendrix, who initially replaced guitarist Cliff White in Cooke’s band.

The phenomenon unnerved me somewhat, especially since it occurred when I was sitting alone in a dark car, often in an isolated place. I chalked the whole thing up to dumb luck, even though the pattern had gotten quite predictable, and occurred virtually every night. Nevertheless, it did make me think of Sam. I thought about the bio I wrote for my comps, and realized something. While I knew just about all there was to know about his professional achievements, I knew next to nothing about his personal life, other than that he died under mysterious circumstances. I made a mental note to research Sam Cooke, and finally got around to it during the last few weeks of the Spring 1998 semester.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference Between Y & Z: The Real Danger

Again, the ‘She’ in this post refers to my ex-girlfriend, not our favorite canine blogger from Georgia.
You don’t have to be much of a shrink to figure out that the “Elisa dreams” represented my unconscious fears about ‘Her.’ In fact, I realized that at the time. Still, it’s next to useless trying to reason with a heart in love. I didn’t have it in me to stop seeing her. Yet, the dreams left me with this vague sense of danger whenever we were physically close. If she hugged me, or held my hand, warning buzzers blared in my mind, triggering this emergency override system that ejected me through the nearest point of egress: door, window, or if need be, brick wall.

I never told ‘Her’ about Elisa Bozer, but the defense mechanism she spawned infuriated my self-proclaimed girlfriend. Not one to give up easily, she began to goad me. For reasons too complicated to mention here, she didn’t have a home for a period of two weeks, so I would let her crash at my cramped studio whenever we had been out the night before. She insisted that I come to bed with her. Besides the fact that it was a twin bed, and that we’re both over six feet tall, making it uncomfortable for actual sleeping, I had made up my mind not to get that close to her for any prolonged period. I opted to make a bed out of my dirty clothes. She would then masturbate to the tune of her latest rape fantasy, intermittently asking me to hop in with her.

Every time we went out on our typical nights of carousing, she pointedly declared that there couldn’t be any “hanky panky.” These requests contained the essence of defining rape. The “no” had been clearly, and soberly issued. From both a legal and moral perspective, any aggressive movement on my part would have constituted brutality. Even if she had consented to sex sometime during the night, anyone could have rightfully pointed out that she had consumed vatfuls of beer before the offer, and could not, therefore, grant consent. As an adjunct professor teaching future criminologists, ‘She’ very well knew this.

Since, I had been drinking right along side her, my judgment wouldn’t win any medals either. ‘She’ took several opportunities to test my emergency override system, finding it slow in responding when I drank too much. Sometimes, the emergency override took its sweet time kicking in, but when it did, it spared us both from a potentially life-altering situation.

I can understand the concept of rape fantasy as much as any man can--or in other words, hardly at all. In any case, I fully realize that a woman who has one would strongly resist real-life sexual violence, or even the threat of it. It was still difficult to explain ‘Her’ actions. Possibilities played in my mind. I initially thought that she knew all along that I would never hurt her, so she got a thrill seeing how far she could push the envelope. Then I thought that despite her upcoming and subsequent marriage, perhaps she still wanted to enjoy other partners, and “rape” would absolve her from any responsibility. Then again, she might have simply been a vicious so-and-so who, like Elisa, sadistically enjoyed setting someone up for his or her own destruction.

I eventually found out, from someone who knew us both quite well, that ‘She’ secretly despised me. I guess if you bad-mouth someone behind their back long enough, the gossip is bound to catch up with them sooner or later. ‘Her’ professions of undying love made it difficult for me to accept all these well-intentioned warnings, even though they come from a friend who both loved and respected me. Nevertheless, I was in a really dangerous situation, and had to get out that relationship.

Yeah, I wound up breaking up with her. But it took three attempts.

To read earlier posts in this series, click here.

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Monday, May 26, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference between Y & Z: A Dangerous Liaison

I dreamt that I met a tall, bespectacled, Eurasian woman named Elisa Bozer, and fell in love with her. A prankster at heart, she played one practical joke after another on some poor, hapless soul. She would later comfort her victim, taking them by the hand, flashing her gummy smile and begging them for forgiveness. They always forgave her.

She then played a practical joke on me. She told me about this desire she had of having sex in a public place. We went to Central Park to fulfill the fantasy. We found a place, not too crowded, underneath a grove. Though we couldn’t be seen by anyone casually strolling through the park, if somebody came to retrieve a ball or a dog, or if somebody stared real hard in our direction, they’d have discovered us. That was the whole point, she insisted. To do it unnoticed, even though we could possibly get caught.

It took me some time to get comfortable. But as soon as I did, she screamed “RAPE! RAPE!” as loud as she could.

Parents covered their children’s eyes, little old ladies summoned mounted policemen, burly men charged me from three directions, hurling gallons of profanity mixed with racist epithets, while Elisa cackled to no end.

I awoke at that point, thankful to be rid of the nightmare. But the saga would continue. The next dream, Elisa apologized for the episode in the park, and swore that she would never do it again. She broke that oath several dreams later, and every dream after that. Each time, she would offer some excuse, or some convoluted explanation. One time, for instance, she claimed to be a spy on a mission, and for some reason needed police backup pronto. The false rape charge would assure they would get there ASAP. In the penultimate dream, Elisa and I discovered that she had an evil twin, and she, not Elisa, had made all the phony charges. Elisa called the police and we watched them take her off to jail.

In the last dream, however, Elisa would prove to be the evil twin. We were having sex (you’d think I would have learned by now?) at this seedy motel somewhere in the sticks when she screamed bloody rape. The next thing I knew, I was outside. Behind four or five black and white squad cars, police blasted their service revolvers at me. I could feel the bullets ripping my chest open, while Elisa doubled over laughing. Suddenly, I found myself standing over my own, breathless corpse; the police still blasting away, and Elisa still howling.

To read later posts in this series, click here.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference between Y & Z: Rape Me, My Friend

The ‘She’/’Her’ referred to here is not our friend from Georgia, but rather my last girlfriend.

Two months after the comprehensive exam, I kept a promise that was two-and-a-half years overdue.

I met ‘Her’ at the Sociology Department Christmas party in 1988. She was, quite simply, the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen by that time. She pulled up a chair and introduced herself. We chatted for a while. She left, but not without giving me her telephone number. She made me promise to call her.

After leaving me with her number, both men and women flocked around 'Her,' competing for her attention. I reasoned that the gesture represented a folksy, or professional action. I couldn’t really think of why she might have wanted a phone call from me. I had made the promise without the nerve to back it up. It took me until the summer of 1991 to gain the courage. By that time, she had moved into my building.

Long story short, we became friends. Several months later, I realized my own feelings about her, and hoped to find some way of expressing them, especially since she had just broken up with her boyfriend. On the very day I planned to broach the subject, she beat me to the punch, announcing her engagement to an old acquaintance of hers from North Carolina. I quickly accepted my role as “faithful friend,” kicking myself for thinking that she might have wanted something else from me.

As it turned out, she did.

The relationship grew more and more intense as the calendar counted down the days to the wedding. We had gotten into the habit of spending all the free time we had in common together, usually at Dave’s, a watering hole off of Times Square. While in the past we talked about movies, music, people, et cetera--never about anything academic--she began focusing more and more on the subject of sex. She began by telling me of a past love. Then, she told me of another, and another and another. Before long, she had gone into detail about various exploits and conquests: from the first woman she ever seduced, to taking on an entire basketball team.

It was tough losing my shimmering heart’s desire to marriage. Nevertheless, I weathered the storm. I even had the emotional maturity to handle the blow-by-blow descriptions (so to speak) of lovers one through fifty. But as her list of paramours expanded into Wilt Chamberlain numbers, I grew increasingly jealous. Of course, as a friend, I had no right to be jealous. I certainly didn’t have the right to complain.

I did, however, reserve the right to snipe. After regaling me with the tale of her “really good fuck” in London, I shot back, “Gee, I must be the only person in the Western world who’s never had sex with you.”

“Well, why don’t you?” she asked.

“Oh great. You’re getting married in three months, and you haven’t stopped talking about it. That, and ‘oh I’m so sick of these guys hitting on me.’ If you’ve said it once, you’ve said it a hundred times: no sex between us. What do you want me to do? Rape you?”

“Well that’s a thought.”

Sarcasm can really backfire if the person you’re sniping takes you even a little seriously. From then on, the word ‘rape’ crept to the fore of her vocabulary. ‘She’ would occasionally ask, “So, when are you gonna rape me?” as if she were getting impatient with my honor as a gentleman. She stopped talking about her past loves, preferring instead to fantasize about our first sexual contact. Out of all the scenarios she came up with, the vast majority dealt with me forcing her to have sex against her will.

In the middle of all this rape talk, something new entered my life: a recurrent dream. Actually, it was more of a dream series, as no two were alike. And the dreams in toto yielded a non-linear narrative not unlike a soap opera, complete with plot twists and cliffhanger endings.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference Between Y and Z: A Test of Redemption

While time doesn’t exactly heal all wounds, as the adage would have us believe, it does mellow things out. By adolescence, I had gotten to the point where I didn’t automatically turn off the radio when I heard a Sam Cooke song. When I became old enough to see the movie Animal House at the theater all by myself, it didn’t bother me that one of the most memorable scenes occurred when John Belushi caused massive mayhem in a cafeteria as Sam’s “Wonderful World” played in the background. While I no longer believed in heroes, I didn’t believe in absolute villains either.

Years later, I set out to earn a doctoral degree in music theory. I would have studied musicology, but my area of interest leaned more towards popular music, and musicologists tended (at the time) to treat rock and roll as the bastard stepchild that someone left on the porch. But, as luck would have it, they managed to get one of the world’s leading ethnomusicologists to teach there my first year. Instead of forcing me into a life of Pergolesi and Palestrina, he encouraged me to do theoretical work on popular song structure. With his guidance, I switched majors and became an ethnomusicologist--a term that I’ve always hated for several reasons--specializing in rock.

Two years of coursework flew by. After many semesters of teaching at the university, copious research and a few published articles, I developed a rather encyclopedic knowledge of all things rock & roll. Yet, the acid test of my musical ken, the place where it really mattered, was the comprehensive exam, the grueling twenty-seven hour test that separated doctoral students from doctoral candidates.

One section of the exam required me to write short (about one page – the instructions required that I “be pithy”) biographies on fourteen individuals involved in the record industry. After scribing thirteen bios, I then went to the top of the alphabetical list and finished the last one: Sam Cooke.

What could I say about Sam then? Well, I could be as clinical as the next scholar at a time like that. I simply wrote that he started with a gospel group called the Soul Stirrers, that recorded under Art Rupe’s Specialty Records. He then split for Keen Records, and recorded a number of solo rock & roll hits, among them “You Send Me,” “We’re Having a Party,” and “Twisting the Night Away.” He went on to found two labels of his own, SAR and Darby Records, as well as a publishing firm (Kags) while (get this) a recording artist for RCA Records. He was rather unusual for a rock star of his day. A tough negotiator, he demanded control over content and licenses, and took a hands on approach to business matters.

The biography part of the test occurred on the first day. I had two more nine-hour days ahead of me. When I finished the last section, which consisted mostly of transcriptions and theoretical analysis, I replayed the entire exam in my mind, trying to assess my performance. I eventually recalled the Sam Cooke bio I had written. It then occurred to me that I put down “Twisting the Night Away” as one of his songs. Back in the days when I idolized Sam, listening to the music on Grandpa X’s German hi-fi, I mistakenly referred to the tune as “Twisting the Hide Away.” I laughed thinking that my younger self might have been more accurate. You twist long enough, it’ll certainly diminish your hide.

I finished the post-mortem, and realized that I would pass. Not only that, but Sam was there in some sort of ethereal way, playing a material role in my success. And for the time it takes to chuckle at oneself, I became a toddler again, dancing with Grandma X, while Grandpa X spun the platters as our personal DJ.

It took two minutes and thirty-three seconds for Sam to fall from my graces. It took him twenty-seven years to climb back into them. While no longer a worshiper, I was, from that moment on, a fan. Celebrating my recent victory, I made a b-line for the tavern next door to my apartment, put a couple of dollars into the jukebox, and played all the favorite Sam Cooke songs I didn’t listen to for years, starting with “Bring It On Home to Me,” a boozy duet with Lou Rawls.

Were I given to fancy, I might have thought that Sam went to bat for me in that examination room. I might have thought that he guided me, or helped me to do the best I could just by his presence on the test itself.

Of course, that’s if I were given to fancy. But if that were the case, it would seem that Sam hadn’t quite finished with me yet. The more critical assistance had not yet come.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference Between Y and Z: Were you there?

From the dawn of my memory to that fateful day in December 1964, my favorite record, hands down, was a gospel rendition of an old spiritual, “Were You There,” arranged by S.R. Crain and recorded by a group of five vocalists known collectively as The Soul Stirrers.

Grandpa X picked up a copy of it years before I existed. Every time I visited him and Grandma X, he would play it for me--if I was a good boy. Mind you, only Grandpa could put it on the spindle. The record player was part of a very expensive console, imported from Germany, and he wouldn’t let anyone so much as look at it for too long. He even dusted it himself, so that Grandma would have no reason to touch it.

I never bothered to learn the names of four of the Soul Stirrers until 1998. Before that, I focused only on my idol, lead singer Sam Cooke. Yet, for all of my fantasies of being like him, or of he adopting me, or something, Grandma X had always been a much more intense fan. True, all of his songs, sacred and secular, were cool; and his trademark yodel captivating. But for her, I’m sure the attraction was good old-fashioned sex appeal, more than anything else. I don’t know what my grandfather thought about all those times I exhorted him to play the Soul Stirrers, or my grandmother’s latest Sam Cooke record knowing how she felt about him. I would guess that it kinda ticked him off.

One day at the grandparents’, hours passed without my grandfather offering to play me a record. Unable to stand the quiet any longer, I finally asked him, “Play Sam Cooke.” I saw him look at Grandma X, but I didn’t see her reply. She must have given the go-ahead, for Grandpa got up and went to the console.

As “Were You There” made what would be its final appearance on that turntable, Grandma, standing three feet off my left shoulder said, almost whispered, “They killed him.”

I spun around and looked up at her. I felt that there had to be some sort of mistake. “Sam Cooke?” I asked, hoping that she meant somebody else.

“Sam Cooke,” she sighed. “They done killed him. Shot him in a hotel foolin’ around with some woman.”

“She shot him?”

“Nobody really knows what went on,” interjected my grandfather, in his deep, calm, rustic Alabama drawl. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

At the age of two, I lived in a very black-and-white world where things were definitely right, or definitely wrong. People were either good, or bad. While I obviously didn’t know enough about sex to fill a gnat’s left nostril, I knew that “foolin’ around with some woman” had to be wrong. If it were wrong, it must have meant that Sam was a bad man. That he could sing so beautifully about God and Christ made him an even worse man. That kind was the most dangerous of villains, those who lie about not being evil, and pretend to be good. I knew then, he would go to Hell.

The song ended. Grandpa X yanked off the album, put it in its jacket and turned off the record player. “Were You There” had played, but I didn’t even listen to it. For the first time in my life, it brought no joy, only anger. Funny that a man so beloved could become so despised over the course of a two-minute and thirty-three second song.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

The Soul-Stirring Difference Between Y and Z

We interrupt your normally scheduled blog to bring you this series dedicated to Grandma X.

Charles Barkley openly resisted media pressures to be a role model, and he’s right to do so. After all, he’s got a life to lead, as do we all. The last thing anyone needs is to live up to expectations that no one in their right mind would impose upon themselves.

Worst of all, celebrity worship never did the fan much good. Every single human being is fallible, and every little child who has looked up to a star athlete or movie actor has had their feelings crushed when they found the proverbial truth: all heroes have feet of clay.

As for me, I was spared from that kind of insipid idolatry for most of my life. I only gave that kind of adulation to one distant celebrity, and did he so ruthlessly break my heart. I was only two when his death revealed the luridness of his existence. I felt so betrayed upon hearing the news that I have never fawned over another celebrity since. Maybe I should thank him for that. As it turns out, I should probably thank him for something else while I’m at it.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

From the Grave Humor Dept.: Epitaphs I’d Like to See

Updated 5/18/08: contributions from you, the readers.

They say you shouldn't make fun of the dead. Okay. Let’s make fun of the living, since they’re going to die sooner or later--even the rich and famous. I’m thinking, why wait until they’re gone to compose an epitaph? Start now, and avoid the rush, I say.

So, for a few celebrated persons, I composed epitaphs that I think are appropriate. If any of the celebrities named wish to use them for their actual headstones, be my guest.

Dante Alighieri: "What would the Middle Ages have done without me?" (by Enemy of the Republic)

Rowan Atkinson: “Has Bean.”

The Bubonic Plague: "Ehem, but I own the Middle Ages" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Carol Burnett: “I’m so glad we had this time together.”

George W. Bush: "I finally found the axis of evil" (by CrushedbyIngsoc), or "I finally found the axis of evil--and it is me" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Cher: "I believe in life after love" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Vice President Dick Cheney: "Mean motherfucker and proud of it" (by Enemy of the Republic).

L. Madonna Ciccone: "I'm not dead; I'm just frozen" (by Enemy of the Republic).

John Cleese: “He’s passed on. This man is no more. He has ceased to be. He’s expired and gone to meet his maker. He’s a stiff, bereft of life. He rests in peace. If you hadn’t interred him above ground, he’d be pushing up the daisies. His metabolic processes are now history. He’s off the twig. He’s kicked the bucket. He’s shuffled off this mortal coil, run down the curtain, and joined the bleeding choir invisible. THIS IS AN EX-PYTHON!”

Senator Hillary Clinton: "A working class hero is something to be" (by Enemy of the Republic), or "Killed Bill" (by Foam).

Tom Cruise: “He now jumps on Satan’s couch—and it’s Satan’s fault, too.’”

The Crusaders: "You infidels! We do in the holy name of Christ" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Darth Maul: "I don't care if Obi Wan beat me--I'm still the Sith badass" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Darth Vader: "I never did like the Emporer," or "Fuck you, Darth Maul" (both by Enemy of the Republic).

Rev. Ted Haggard: "All right, it's true. I did have sex with that man" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Paris Hilton: “Checked out.”

Samuel L. Jackson: “I’ve had it with this motherfucking life, on this motherfucking Earth.”

Elton John: "I'm no longer standing" (by Malcolm).

David Letterman: "The late Late Show host" (by Malcolm).

Monica Lewinsky: “Good to the last drop.”

St. Mary Magdelene: "And you all thought I was a prostitute--you read too much St. Paul" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Charles Manson: “A family man going down to meet his maker.”

Marilyn Manson: “He looks exactly the same as you remember him.”

Sir J. Paul McCartney: “I’m not really dead.”

Michael Moore: “He was Sicko.”

Omarosa Manigault-Stallworth: “Fired from life.”

Leonard Nimoy: "Lived long and prospered" (from Foam).

Michael Palin: “He’s not dead. He’s stunned. Englishmen stun easily, you know.”

Michelle Phillips: “Last of the red-hot Mamas & Papas.”

Lou Reed: "I am New York" (by Enemy of the Republic), or "Too many walks on the wild side."

Keith Richards: “The first man to embalm himself.”

Nicole Richie: “The simple death.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger: "I'll be back" (by Crushed by Ingsoc).

William Shatner: “One to beam up.”

Britney Spears: "Leave me alone!" (by Enemy of the Republic).

Meryl Streep: "Death becomes her" (by Malcolm).

Pete Townshend:
People tried to put me down
Just because I hung around.
Tho’ now I’m lying still and cold,
I failed to die before I got old.
John Travolta: "Here I come, Mr. Kotter" (by Charles Gramlich)

Sen. David Vitter: “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, diapers to diapers.”

Hank Williams, Jr.: “Our rowdy friend has settled down.”

Stevie Wonder: “Everything is all right. He’s upright, out of sight.”

X. Dell: "It's a conspiracy!!!" (by Enemy of the Republic).

So, do any of you have any epitaphs you’d like to see? Share them with us in the comments section.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Another Watergate Scandal

Historically, one of [CIA asset Ed] Wilson's Agency jobs was to subvert members of both houses [of Congress] by any means necessary…. Certain people could be easily coerced by living out their sexual fantasies in the flesh…. A remembrance of these occasions [was] permanently recorded via selected cameras…. The technicians in charge of filming… were TSD [Technical Services Division of the CIA]. The unwitting porno stars advanced in their political careers, some of [whom] may still be in office

--Former CIA Case Officer Frank Terpil, quoted by former Nebraska state Legislator John DeCamp.

I obviously didn’t plan on posting this, but I had no idea that Deborah Palfrey (left), who gained notoriety last year as the D.C. Madam, would be found dead by her mother on May 1 of this year. Her demise coincided with the previous series, which focused on another DC call-girl operation allegedly run by Heidi Rikan.

The official ruling, of course, is suicide, a case augmented by two handwritten suicide notes made out to Palfrey’s mom and her kid sister. Yet, so many oddities remain about this case, I would be remiss in not commenting on a few things.

(1) In a piece published last year in Paranoia, Paul Collins interviewed former NYPD Detective James Rothstein, who himself had investigated DC prostitution rings. Rothstein strongly felt that a high-profile call-girl ring could only operate and thrive under the protective wing of the Intelligence community:

I [Collins] asked Rothstein if Deborah Jeane Palfrey (a.k.a. the D.C. Madam) and her Pamela Martin and Associates could be considered a sex ring connected to the power elite and the intelligence community meant to compromise important political figures. James Rothstein not only answered yes, but also made it clear that the D.C. Madam’s outfit could not exist in Washington, D.C. unless it was a tool of elites and dark factions in the intelligence community.
(2) Palfrey hinted (but did not state) that her arrest had something to do with the corruption scandal (and subsequent conviction) of US Representative Randall “Duke” Cunningham, which began in the summer of 2005. Cunningham’s seduction into shading favoring of some defense contractors over others allegedly took place at all-night poker parties at the Westin and Watergate Hotels in DC.

They apparently called them ‘poker parties’ for more reasons than one. Scuttlebutt has it that in addition to receiving copious quantities of liquor and food, the legislators invited to these affairs were also supplied with high-priced call-girls, prostitutes that Palfrey certainly had the wherewithal to provide. On top of this, Cunningham, and presumably others, got more perks as more contracts rolled their way.

The man allegedly behind these parties, ADCS owner Brent Wilkes, had a close, intimate relationship with CIA Executive Director Kyle Foggo. When authorities named Wilkes a co-conspirator in the Cunningham bribery case, Foggo resigned.

(3) Palfrey remained silent on the identity of certain clients, but allowed ABC’s 20/20 to look through some of her records. The ensuing scandal led to the resignations of Ambassador Randall Tobias, Harlan Ullman (the military strategist who gave you “shock and awe”), and Senator David Vitter. As a discreet madam, however, one could expect that she kept the contact numbers and identities of the most exclusive clientele in her head, as she claimed to have done. She also planned on naming them, if forced, in order to stay out of jail or pressure her way into a lighter sentence.

(4) I haven’t studied the suicide notes in depth, but a few things about them strike me as curious. The first is this passage:

However, I cannot live the next 6-8 years behind bars for what both you and I have come to regard as “this modern day lynching.” Only to come out of prison in my late 50’s a broken penniless & very much alone woman….who will be nothing but a mere shell of her former self.

What gets me about this passage is its use of the third-person, and its melodrama. It comes across as almost describing someone else. Obviously, I only know of Palfrey though her interviews, but in them she has no trouble in presenting herself and her plight in the first person.

Prison Planet contributor Paul Watson also found this passage curious, but for another reason. Palfrey had earlier told host Alex Jones on his radio show that she expected to serve two-three years, and wouldn’t be much older than she is now upon her release. Secondly, past madams Sidney Biddle Barrows and Xaviera Hollander managed to parlay their arrests and notoriety into lucrative book and movie deals. In other words, Palfrey had no reason to see herself as penniless in the future.

The second thing is her instruction, “Do not feed.” Apparently, this would refer to a possible scenario in which she was taken down alive, but not before permanent brain damage had occurred, a situation that would require feeding her through an IV or stomach tube. First off, a doctor wouldn’t honor this request, seeing that most people who attempt suicide change their minds after some point. And even if she hadn't changed her mind, a doctor wouldn’t have any legal justification to assist her suicide. More important, however, one would have to wonder why she thought that deeply about a possible revival, or even if she could plan ahead that far. On the other hand, if she were murdered, and someone could revive her, she could possibly be in a position to finger the culprit were doctors to take steps in preserving her life.

(5) Journalist Dan Moldea, who had considered writing Palfrey’s sure-to-be bestselling tell-all, said she was suicidal. Nevertheless, Palfrey insisted privately to friends, and publicly, in many different forums, that she would not kill herself. If nothing else, she had motive for revenge. She told those closest to her that she feared for her personal safety.

The press has primarily trumpted previous threats of suicide stemming from Palfrey's 1990 arrest on pimping charges. Back then, she vowed that she would die before she went to prison. She went to prison, but managed to come out quite unsuicided. One might easily suspect that she intended the suicide threat to play on the sympathies of the judge in order to get a lighter sentence.

Furthermore, I have not yet found a press report disclosing Palfrey's history of previous suicide attempts, something you would expect to find in a suicide victim.

(6) Women rarely commit suicide by hanging. Of course rarely doesn’t mean ‘never.’ What’s odd here is that last year one of Palfrey’s former prostitutes, Dr. Brandy Britton (Asst. Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland Baltimore Campus--left) also committed suicide by hanging after her arrest on four counts of a simple prostitution charge, a misdemeanor which probably would have netted her no jail time at all.

Dr. Britton’s career and arrest are both of interest to me. Her potential as a young academic star led her to manage a million-dollar research project funded by the National Institute of Health, part of which involved a study of prostitutes. She was fired under suspicious circumstances from her position after filing a sexual discrimination suit against the university, and effectively given the cold shoulder by colleagues, who countered with the (never proven) charges that she had falsified data in her study.

The police raid was audacious and massive for the petty offense they would charge her with. At the same time, police seemed to know (at least reporters did) that Dr. Britton was more than a mere prostitute selling her body on the Internet. Like Palfrey, she also ran a call-girl service. Yet, she was never charged for that crime.

Also, like Palfrey, Dr. Britton would have been in a position to supply high-priced call-girls to Wilkes or anyone else in Washington power circles. Unlike Palfrey, however, Britton had a history of depression, according to her mother. Perhaps this is why no one questioned her death at the time.

These numbered points give only weak evidence of foul play in both Palfrey and Britton's death, and thus do not substantially detract from the official story. I do believe, however, that they are odd enough to keep an eye on for future development.

Thanks to Gary Buell for leading me to the above clip.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

The Other Watergate Scandal: The Betting Favorite

Scenario 3—The CIA orchestrated the Watergate fiasco in order to achieve two objectives: (1) control of individual Democratic Party members through blackmail; and (2) ousting Richard Nixon from the Presidency of the United States by implicating him in the break-ins.

Argument for: Over the years, we have learned from a number of sources, among them H.R. Haldeman, that Nixon had good reason not to trust the CIA. Likewise, the Agency had much to fear from him. Nixon felt that the company might have been spying on him.

While popular portrayals of this President marginalize his fear as psychotic paranoia, he actually faced a number of leaks and betrayals from his staff. One of the strengths of Gettlin and Colodny’s Silent Coup is that it extensively delved into the history of one such spy, Navy Yeoman Charles Radford, pretty much using his own words. US Representatives Robert Kasten and Ron Dellums, members of the House committee investigating the CIA, found that the Company had in fact placed spies among various cabinet departments, according to a 1975 Time magazine article.

In his 1978 autobiography The Ends of Power, Haldeman related how he was among one of the last people to discover that the phrase ‘Bay of Pigs’ had a special meaning to Nixon and other staff members. After putting together what both he and CBS newsman Daniel Schorr knew about the White House, he came to a startling realization:
Schorr later sent me his fascinating book Clearing the Air. In it I was interested to find that evidence he had gleaned while investigating the C.I.A. finally cleared up for me the mystery of the Bay of Pigs connection in those dealings between Nixon and [CIA Director Richard] Helms. 'It's intriguing when I put Schorr's facts together with mine. It seems that in all of those Nixon references to the Bay of Pigs, he was actually referring to the [John F.] Kennedy assassination.
In 1964 Nixon claimed that he wasn't in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and learned about the assassination of JFK during a taxi ride in New York later that evening. But news reports interviewing him immediately after his arrival to New York noted that his plane left from Dallas, and that he had already known about the assassination.

Figure 1. Nixon talking to reporters at Idlewild Airport (now JFK International) about the assassination.

In 1973, Nixon admitted that he had been in Dallas on the morning of November 22, 1963 representing his main client, Pepsi Cola, but left shortly before noon. According to Pepsi executive Harvey Russell and his son, however, Nixon found out about the assassination at the company’s convention minutes after it happened. This led some to suspect that Nixon had been meeting with other Dallas clients earlier that day, specifically oil barons who had given him foreknowledge of the assassination.

If this were the case, Haldeman’s account of the blood feud between Nixon and Helms seems inevitable. Over the years, Nixon could have received political protection from his benefactor, Howard Hughes, who himself had many documented ties to the Agency--from purchasing the land used for attacks against Cuba, to the Glomar Expedition, to Robert Maheu (Hughes’ right-hand man and CIA asset). Thus, the President would have had something serious on Helms.

In fact, Nixon, through his aides, enlisted Helms’ assistance in the Watergate cover up, asking the DCI to call off an FBI investigation on the grounds of ‘national security’ for fear of bringing up “the whole Bay of Pigs thing.” The normally unflappable Helms went ballistic, for he recognized it as a strong-arm tactic, threatening to expose his possible role in the JFK assassination were he not to cooperate.

Of course, Helms might have long suspected that Nixon would someday use his knowledge of the assassination against him were he careless enough not to take preventative steps. If the President had leverage against him, then perhaps he could gain leverage on the President. And if he could compromise prominent Democrats at the same time, that would be all the better.

The prime evidence of CIA manipulation behind the scenes of Watergate comes in the form of the personnel itself. E. Howard Hunt’s involvement with the CIA couldn’t be denied. Furthermore, he joined Nixon’s staff from Mullen and Company, which itself had numerous CIA ties, and appears to have been an Agency front staffed with a number of former-CIA people. James McCord's former job as head of the CIA’s physical security at Langley made him perfect for a wiretap job. And the other four burglars had served as CIA assets in the actual Bay of Pigs Invasion.

The break-in consisted of “a third-rate burglary,” as the conspirators themselves referred to it. They had reservations about the caper from the beginning. But with pressure to pursue political intelligence coming from the President, they hired out two people who had actually done intelligence work, namely Liddy and Hunt. Despite his grandiose plans, Liddy’s experience in espionage was really limited to black bag jobs, and not much more. Most likely he took advice from Hunt, who actually commanded the Watergate mission.

It’s clear that the Watergate burglars made no effort at all to conduct surveillance against Chairman Larry O’Brien, as the CREEP conspirators intended them to do. Dean, Mitchell and company naively trusted people who represented an organization hostile to the President to do the President’s dirty work. Once exposed, the crime would ultimately lead back to Nixon, and ruin him. And since Nixon and his staff had their fingerprints over the entire affair, Howard Hughes could do nothing to protect him. And that’s assuming the reclusive billionaire’s inner-circle hadn’t taken complete control of him by that time. Furthermore, because of Hughes’ ill health, perhaps Helms felt safe in letting Howard’s pet politician hang himself on the rope he provided.

What’s clear is that the evidence shows that on the Watergate operation itself, the ranking members of CREEP were little more than anxious onlookers, who took no active role in the caper. Those actively participating in the break-in were all CIA, and with the exception of Liddy, all of those who planned the mission were CIA.

To repeat, CIA personnel planned the break-ins. They executed the break-ins. They deliberately targeted Ida Wells, not Larry O’Brien. If they got caught, the CIA people could rid their Agency of one of its most powerful enemies by claiming (with good evidence) to be working for him. If not, they could still compromise the President through his chief counsel, John Dean, because of his girlfriend's vulnerability to exposure and possible arrest should the call-girl scandal link back to them. Furthermore, they could wield some leverage against those Democrats who comprised the bulk of the johns. This would become especially important a few years later when Democratic-led investigations in both the US House and Senate would attempt to expose all CIA and FBI crimes. Either way, this was a win-win scenario for the Agency.

Argument against: This scenario is the most tenuous of the three. Based on third-party testimony, it supposes that Nixon could blackmail the CIA with knowledge of the JFK assassination. Though Nixon later changed his story, he still never admitted to what he did in Dallas before Kennedy's murder. While the hostility between Helms and Nixon is well documented (after all, Nixon sorta fired him by giving him a lateral promotion), Helms actually cooperated with the cover up. For all we know, he did it to protect Hunt and the other CIA personnel, especially if a tangential investigation decided to look into Hunt’s earlier activities with the Agency. Lastly, while McCord was an expert on surreptitious entry, Bernard Barker, Virgilio Gonzalez, Eugenio Martinez and Frank Sturgis were guerilla warriors, not cat burglars. Their presence thus bolsters the argument that the political spies were simply bunglers, as the official story records.

Betting odds: This third scenario, which comes largely from the research of Jim Hougan, might be tenuous in some of its details, but is in large part supported by evidence provided by the police investigation and given by the conspirators themselves. It doesn’t really matter if Nixon and Helms got into a pissing match over the JFK assassination, or if they came to loggerheads over some other matter. The fact remains that the two men had a mutual animosity toward each other. In a criminal trial, prosecutors attempt to lay out motive, means and opportunity. The political animosity is convincing motive. The burglars had at least enough expertise to do their own dirty work, and a generous budget ($250K) with which to work. They also had the opportunity to compromise both Democrats and the Nixon White House once inside the DNC office. Out of the three scenarios, this one is far more thorough in its explanation, and the only one consistent with all of the evidence of Watergate. For these reasons, I list the probability of it being true in its entirety at 4-1.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

The Other Watergate Scandal: Playing the Odds

Taking into account the evidence of the Watergate break-in--statements by the participants and witnesses, the police report, the circumstances and the layout of the Watergate building--three possible scenarios emerge. All of these versions, including the official one, involve a conspiracy explanation. Despite their differences, each one contains a number of provable facts and is obviously true in part.

Scenario 1--President Richard Nixon, in an attempt to gain intelligence on his Democratic opponent in his 1972 re-election bid, attempted to insulate himself from scandal by leaving any potentially dirty business to his campaign committee (CREEP). Because of bungling, the President never received any information from O’Brien. Worse yet, the burglars were caught and traced to the White House. Nixon therefore covered up the incident to save himself from political embarrassment during an election year.

Argument for: A mountain of evidence indicates that Nixon wanted intelligence on O’Brien, and that he trusted CREEP to get it for him. We have memos and the admissions of the conspirators themselves. We also have eyewitness accounts from Carl Shoffler and the other arresting officers, who caught the burglars red-handed. We have links to Nixon’s staff, specifically to E. Howard Hunt, whose unlisted White House telephone number was found on one of the burglars. We also have links to his re-election committee’s staff, namely, James McCord, Watergate burglar and CREEP’s chief security consultant. Because the principal conspirators were tried and convicted of these crimes, this scenario serves as the official explanation.

Argument against: This scenario isn’t sufficiently explanatory. While Nixon and CREEP might have wanted to gain intelligence on O’Brien and his relationship to Howard Hughes, the steps taken did not contribute to this purpose. In fact, they indicate that someone else in the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate Complex in Washington, DC, Ida Wells, was the primary target of surveillance.

Nothing that the burglars did would gain any information about O’Brien, who was mostly in Miami, FL at the time. Even if O’Brien were in the office, the conspirators wouldn’t have gained any information from him because the intruders set up the eavesdropping equipment away from his desk and telephone. If forced to place the bugs anywhere else because of the limitations they had with their line-of-sight bugs, the burglars didn’t see fit to correct their hardware problem during the second break-in. They would have had to have known for many different reasons that the office was neither O’Brien’s nor close to it because of earlier infiltrations during business hours. And on the second attempt, their efforts did not include getting any closer to O’Brien, but instead on getting more intense surveillance on Ida Wells, as evidenced by the possession of the key Eugenio Martinez had on him at the time of their arrests.

Betting odds: At best, one could say that in attempting to intensify their recon of Wells, the burglars were simply indifferent to carrying out their assignments and sloppy. But because of the prostitution catalogue Ida Wells’ bottom drawer allegedly contained, they could have satisfied CREEP’s desire to dig up dirt on the Democrats, while surreptitiously compromising John Dean, whose girlfriend was one of the alleged prostitutes. While the official story is likely valid in terms of the actions and motivations of CREEP and White House officials, it does not explain the burglaries themselves. Thus, I’m listing the odds of this story being completely true at 15-1.

Scenario 2—In their book Silent Coup, Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin assert that White House counsel John Dean panicked when his precious source of political intelligence, namely his girlfriend and soon-to-be wife Maureen Biner, became compromised by other circumstances.

Biner moonlighted as a high-priced call-girl working for a Beltway madam named Erika/Heidi Rikan, alias Cathy Dieter, a former stripper who happened to be romantically linked to an organized crime boss specializing in vice rackets. Dieter’s business partner, Phil Bailey, who expanded the business by embedding it within his contacts inside the Democratic Party, was arrested on a violation of the Mann Act. Fearing the federal investigation against Bailey might link him to Rikan, Biner, and ultimately him, John Dean ordered the first break-in order to see if someone in the DNC, FBI or the federal prosecutor’s office had found out about Biner’s relationship with Rikan.

When police seized Bailey’s records, Dean called over US Attorney John Rudy to request possession of the only documents that could tie Biner to Rikan’s call-girl ring. When Rudy said no, Dean then photocopied the names in Bailey’s address book. Finding both her initials and alias, Dean ordered the second break-in days later to seize the prostitution catalogue that Bailey presumably kept in Wells’ bottom desk drawer. And if the burglars could photograph the other women in the catalogue, the Committee to Re-Elect the President would have had tremendous leverage in the upcoming election.

Argument for: The break-ins provide the most compelling evidence. Both times the burglary team came ill prepared to monitor O’Brien, but quite well-prepared to monitor Ida Wells. Their equipment would have been useless against O’Brien, who was but a ghost in that complex anyway. And after casing the place twice, the burglars had no delusions that they were targeting her office and not O’Brien’s.

The ties between Maureen Kane Biner Dean and Heidi Rikan are firmly established by a number of sources. Dean admitted to Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes that he knew her, something he would be hard pressed to deny since his wife wrote about her relationship to Rikan in her autobiography. Furthermore, contemporary press accounts link the two together, although not in any stories dealing with prostitution.

According to Jim Hougan, there were many witnesses to the call-girl ring, and its connection to the DNC Watergate office of Phil Bailey’s old friend Spencer Oliver.

Argument against: The most problematic aspect of Colodny and Gettlin’s hypothesis is that it heavily depends upon John Dean as the mastermind behind the break-ins. Since the statements of the Watergate conspirators mostly match (they are, after all, free of consequence, since they have already served their sentences), and because of their independent agreement on the actions of each principle, I find it difficult to believe that Dean had either the wherewithal or the inclination to order the break-ins as a massive blackmail attempt, while at the same time protecting his bride-to-be. After all, G. Gordon Liddy turned on Dean as soon as Silent Coup connected the latter to a call-girl scandal. Yet, Liddy was really out of the loop as a foot-soldier/spy-wannabe. If the others truly believed that they had gone to prison after being kept in the dark about the real motivation, they would have every reason to go after Dean too. Yet, they didn’t.

We also have to look at who orchestrated what. E. Howard Hunt and Liddy didn’t receive their orders from John Dean, but rather from Jeb Stuart Magruder. Magruder was not Dean’s underling on the Committee to Re-Elect the President. So if anything, one could suspect that Magruder actually okayed the break-ins on Wells’ desk to spite Dean. Problem with that theory, though, is that (1) neither Dean nor Magruder had the authority to order the break-in, and (2) they both agree that Mitchell authorized it after getting pressure from Chuck Colson.

What’s more, in his autobiography, Blind Ambition, Dean admitted that he could never figure out why Liddy wanted to bug the Watergate. He recalled a conversation with Colson after their conviction:

Chuck, why do you figure Liddy bugged the DNC instead of the Democratic candidates? It doesn't make much sense. I sat in [John] Mitchell's office when Liddy gave us his show, and he only mentioned Larry O'Brien in passing as a target…'It looks suspicious to me….[it’s] incredible. Millions of dollars have been spent investigating Watergate. A President has been forced out of office. Dozens of lives have been ruined. We're sitting in the can. And still nobody can explain why they bugged the place to begin with.
The only suspicious action that we know Dean actually undertook (aside from his admitted role in the conspiracy) was calling John Rudy over for a meeting and asking him for material evidence that tied his fianceé to the call-girl ring. That’s understandable from both a personal and political perspective. While there is a lot of innuendo afoot, because of the obvious links between Dean, his wife, and their “dear friend” Heidi Rikan, there isn’t really good evidence that Dean’s control of the Watergate caper was anything like that Colodny and Gettlin described, assuming he had much control at all.

Betting odds: Colodny and Gettlin offer good evidence that the target of the Watergate break-in was Ida Wells, and offer sufficient explanation as to why the burglars acted as they did. But I feel that they jumped the gun in assigning blame to John Dean, a very easy target who had a passive role in the real shenanigans. So I’ll set the odds of this story being completely true at 10-1.

Stay tuned. In the next, and last installment, I’ll present the betting favorite.

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