Friday, July 18, 2008

Psychodramas and Traumas

The decades-old debate over the meaning of The Association’s first big hit, “Along Comes Mary,” is due to the basic slipperiness of its lyrics. Who, or what, is “Mary”? A standard interpretation is that “Mary” is short for “Mary Jane,” a coded reference to marijuana. If so, there’s nothing regarding that particular drug, lyrically speaking, that makes it the least bit desirable or attractive (“does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains/She left the night before”). Indeed, if Mary were a female character in a movie, she’d be a femme fatale. I reproduce below what I believe to be the accurate set of lyrics:

Every time I think that I’m the only one who’s lonely
Someone calls on me
nd every now and then I spend my time in rhyme and verse
And curse those faults in me

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to give me kicks and be my steady chick
And give me pick of memories
Or maybe rather gather tales of all the trials and tribulations
No one ever sees

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

When vague desire is the fire in the eyes of chicks
Whose sickness is the games they play
And when the masquerade is played and neighbor folks make jokes
As who is most to blame today

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to set them free and let them see reality
From where she got her name
And will they struggle much when told that such a tender touch as hers
Will make them not the same

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

And when the morning of the warning’s passed, the gassed
And flaccid kids are flung across the stars
The psychodramas and the traumas gone
The songs are left unsung and hung upon the scars

And then along comes Mary
And does she want to see the stains the dead remains of all the pains
She left the night before
Or will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them
Realize their urgent cry for sight no more

When we met I was sure out to lunch
Now my empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch

While “Along Comes Mary” is more redolent of meaning than it is explicitly meaningful, I think the proper noun “Mary” functions as an empty signifier, a placeholder in the phrase, “And then along comes ________, meaning the next “craze,” the next fad, the next “Big Thing"--the latest way to get your "kicks." As a signifier, it substitutes for any popular social or cultural practice that promises individuals a transcendent experience (“And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”), but one that is ultimately empty and without value ("Will their waking eyes reflect the lies and make them/Realize their urgent cry for sight no more"). In this sense, “Mary” may not be necessarily short for “Mary Jane” (although perhaps intended to invoke it), but might represent the drug culture’s endorsement of LSD as the preferred drug of choice: “sweet as the punch” is perhaps an oblique reference to LSD-laced sugar cubes or Kool-Aid. “My empty cup tastes as sweet as the punch” strikes me as another way of saying, “I’ve got plenty of nothing" (if the line said, "My cup tastes as sweet as the punch" it would mean something else entirely. The fact that the cup is empty makes all the difference.) The irony is that the song is often perceived as advocating drug use (at least marijuana use), but in fact it would seem to be doing just the opposite, a song that was reactionary in nature, one that, at the time, would now be called an “anti-drug” song. “And does she want to set them free and let them see reality/ From where she got her name”: one wonders whether there might be a subtle joke embedded in this lyric. Is "her name" . . . dope?

Thanks to fred for his welcome correction to my original set of lyrics (see comment).

Thursday, July 17, 2008


Bent Sørensen of Aalberg University (Denmark) left a comment in connection with my blog entry yesterday on Susan Atkins. I encourage everyone to read the complete text of his post, but I must say I was struck by his speculation, “One wonders whether she [Atkins] does not continue after all these years to be a victim, first of Manson’s manipulations, now of the continued hatred and fear of this dark American icon.” Actually, the same thought had occurred to me as one of the reasons why a virtually helpless woman would not be released from prison simply in order to die, but I chose not to include it in yesterday’s blog, so I thank Bent for giving expression to the idea. As familiar an icon in American popular culture as Darth Vader and Nazi SS troopers, Charles Manson (whose stylized icon is pictured) has become a conventional symbol of evil (perhaps as well-known as the image of the Devil with horns and tail), even by those who know next to nothing about him or the crimes for which he is infamous. (If you don't think so, click the link to the Los Angeles Times news article I made available on yesterday's blog and look closely at the nature of the responses and comments to Susan Atkins' petition for compassionate release.)

I encourage those interested to read Bent's fascinating discussion of Charles Manson as an icon of transgression, which is available on his lectures page at his university website. I've also included a link on the list on the right to Bent's Rarerarefind blogspot.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Quality of Mercy

Those who follow my blog will remember that this past May, in a series of entries, I followed the forensic excavation that took place at the Barker Ranch in Death Valley, California, where Charles Manson and his followers purportedly buried up to three murder victims in 1968 or 1969 (no bodies were found). The latest development in the ongoing Manson saga occurred yesterday, in Sacramento, where the parole board heard the plea for compassionate release for terminally ill former Manson family member Susan Atkins. The 12-member California Board of Parole voted unanimously to deny her request for compassionate release, which would have allowed her to die outside of prison. With the petition denied, the process that would have allowed her to do that is over, meaning that she will surely die behind bars, in what doctors say will be the next few months.

Surely it is well known that Atkins (now 60) played a central role in the Tate-LaBianca murders in a violent two-night rampage in the Los Angeles area in August 1969. Convicted of murder, she has served 37 years in prison. Now ill with brain cancer, with one leg amputated and the other paralyzed, doctors report Atkins has only a few months to live. According to an article posted on the Los Angeles Times website yesterday,

The initial request for release consideration was made by doctors and prison officials after it was determined that Atkins had less than six months to live. Officials at her prison in Chino approved her release, as did officials at corrections headquarters in Sacramento. “She can't care for herself, she can’t feed herself or even sit up in bed by herself,” said her attorney, Eric P. Lampel. In addition to the cancer, Atkins had her leg amputated. “The reality is, even if she gets this compassionate release, she won’t leave her hospital room.”

The reports indicate that Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi (and author of Helter Skelter) supported Atkins' release largely because of her failing health. According to yesterday’s report,

In an e-mail to Atkins’ attorney in support of her release, he [Bugliosi] wrote that the notion that “just because Susan Atkins showed no mercy to her victims, we therefore are duty-bound to follow her inhumanity and show no mercy to her” was wrong, Bugliosi said.

I strongly agree with Bugliosi: mercy is an essential part of our very humanity. (Perhaps Bugliosi had in mind Nietzsche's insight, that if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.) Vengeance is sweet, but it is not justice. Justice is not the issue here. Justice, in the sense of punishment, already has been enacted by the State. Atkins' petition should ask us not simply to rehearse the heinousness of her crimes: they have been endlessly reiterated in sensation-mongering documentaries and true crime books, so there's little need for me to review them yet again. Rather, her situation requires us to listen to what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature." If vengeance is sweet, mercy is sweeter, as Portia said in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain’d [constrained=forced]
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice . . . .
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

As Shakespeare reminds us, when we ourselves ask for mercy, we hope and pray to receive it. Why is it so easy to withhold it from another? Are there those among us so accursed that they are beyond the act of mercy? Is there no shred of humanity in them? To paraphrase Bugliosi: Just because she showed no mercy doesn't require or demand us to act likewise. Moreover, I think Shakespeare anticipates an insight that Dostoevsky made in Crime and Punishment, and one we are well to remember: there is no justice in this world ("in the course of justice, none of us/Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy"). If we all got what we deserved--if we all got what's really coming to us--none of us would be saved. Most certainly this understanding is essential to the Christian message: Christ tempers justice with mercy, and if you don't hold to that, then you're not a Christian. Make no mistake, dear reader: all our sins shall be remembered--yours as well as mine.

Soon, in so many days, she shall be no more. And perhaps you shall imagine, then, that justice has been done. But if you hold any sort of religious belief, then she shall be judged--in a method and manner that you and I cannot conceive: the wind bloweth where it listeth. The act of grace is beyond you and me. But mercy is not, and that's the real issue: these events reflect on you, the disposition of your own self, not on one who has already inherited the accursed share.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Soul Stealer

Cover illustration courtesy of Michael Easton and Christopher Shy

Yesterday I had the pleasure of reading Michael Easton’s and Christopher Shy’s wonderful new graphic novel, Soul Stealer (DMF Comics). Dark, original, and sophisticated, Soul Stealer is just simply a beautiful, marvelous book, one whose imaginative depth enchanted me in a way that I haven’t been for years. I love the vivid quality of its storytelling and its deft, seemingly effortless synthesis of world mythologies—Egyptian, Greek, Celtic—into an highly unusual syncretism that allows for unpredictable plot swerves and unexpected linkages of characters. A recent news update at Christopher Shy's Studio Ronin website indicates that Soul Stealer has exceeded half its print run during its first week of sales, suggesting that I'm not alone in my assessment of the book's value.

The story’s protagonist, Kalan, is a young, Etruscan warrior once cut to pieces by a brutal, hulking savage named Apis Bull, part man, part ox. Like the Frankenstein monster—whose remorseless loneliness and parentless lineage Kalan shares—Kalan is less a man than an assemblage (“there were days I wasn’t even sure who was calling the shots inside”), re-membered and restored to life by a magician named Strabo, the father of his lost beloved, Oxania. Motivated by his profound, eternal love for Oxania—taken from him by the capricious Gods—he can do nothing but wander for all eternity through time and space, searching for a sign, some way that he might re-unite with her. His undying love is both a blessing and a curse.

Kalan has been cursed, but has also been compensated with a special gift. The quest for Oxania may form the continuing narrative, but Kalan’s gift forms the story’s special intrigue. The God Osiris has given him the ability to traverse between worlds: he is able to enter hell, find an individual soul, and deliver it to the land of the living—hence the title of the series, Soul Stealer, of which this initial codex forms the first book, titled “The Beaten and the Damned.” The novel’s fluid narrative consists of interludes of a blissful, lyrical quality (composed largely of Kalan's memories of his time with his beloved) that punctuate explosions of action, all augmented by Christopher Shy’s beautiful artwork, distinctive for its masterful control of light, poised between functional representation and evocative (non-representational) expressionism.

I could go on and on about Soul Stealer, just simply a great imaginative accomplishment. Happily, it promises to be the first by Michael Easton, who has co-written yet another in a different (forthcoming) series, The Green Woman, with author Peter Straub—the latter having provided an excellent Introduction to Soul Stealer, incidentally. As Straub rightly notes, Soul Stealer “rings with . . . the voice of a true storyteller, big and capacious and truthful.” He goes on to say, "Michael Easton and Christopher Shy have made a wondrous book," and I heartily agree. I look forward to reading the subsequent books in the series, and, of course, the pleasures of returning to Soul Stealer once I've emerged from my recent euphoria.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


Having my abscessed wisdom tooth pulled a couple of days ago has to be one of the most miserably painful experiences of my life despite the use of so-called "painkillers," the reason, at least in part, why I haven't been the most diligent blogger the past few days. However, today I pulled myself up by the proverbial bootstraps in order to compose this blog, prompted by this being--so I learned this morning--Roger McGuinn's 66th birthday. The daily paper carries a column, “Today in History,” followed by a short column listing "Today’s Birthdays" (meaning the birthdays of celebrities). While perusing the paper this morning, between occasional sips of my Slim Fast (when I shall eat solid food again I have no idea), I read that Roger McGuinn turned a mere 66 years old today. I say "mere" because, for some reason, I thought he should be older in age, making me realize that all those great Byrds albums were made when he was a young man in his 20s. To put things in perspective, he’d barely turned twenty-six years old when the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo was released in July 1968, forty years ago this month. Roger McGuinn (born James Joseph McGuinn III in Chicago in 1942) was always the understood leader of the Byrds, the band whose debut single, “Mr. Tambourine Man,” was recorded in January 1965, when McGuinn was a mere twenty-two years old. Former Byrds member David Crosby is on record as calling Roger McGuinn a “genius,” and perhaps he is. Most certainly he is an individual possessing an indomitable spirit, a deeply resilient and persistent individual, with great musical instincts, which is why the Byrds lasted as a band as long as it did.

Perhaps because of my age at the time, the Byrds’ earliest hits—“Mr. Tambourine Man” “All I Really Want To Do,” "Turn Turn Turn"—while undeniably powerful, influential songs, now seem to me to be the most dated, the most “stuck in time.” Recorded late in the folk era and after the Beatles’ annus mirabilis of 1964, they are folk songs played as the Beatles might have played them, distinguished by their marvelous harmonies (the lingering influence of folk harmonies) and McGuinn’s uniquely amplified Rickenbacker guitar. For me personally, the Byrds really took flight with Fifth Dimension (1966); with all due respect to their earlier hit singles, I think “Eight Miles High” is more sonically interesting than these earlier tunes, a song that in retrospect reveals the band’s willingness to experiment, to push themselves and at the same time push musical boundaries, and not to continue on with more of the same. I cannot say with certainty that Fifth Dimension is my favorite Byrds album, nor can I say it is their “best,” but then nothing about the band or its distinguished career compels me to make such claims. Put on any album from Fifth Dimension onward and there’s nothing at all dull or uninteresting happening musically; each one is unique in itself, a thoroughly engaging musical soundscape that makes listening to their albums one after the other a grand and fascinating musical adventure—a claim that, no doubt, is made by fans of the the most adventuresome bands—The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and so on. Make no mistake, the Byrds do not pale beside these legendary bands, but stand side-by-side with them as a peer.

I must be one of those few fans and admirers of the Byrds who don’t think they missed a proverbial beat between Younger Than Yesterday (released February 1967) and The Notorious Byrd Brothers (released early January 1968 but recorded for the most part in August and November 1967), the latter album being the one made during the departure first of David Crosby and then Michael Clarke, both original members of the band (Gene Clark had left earlier, in the spring of 1966). I agree with David Fricke, who wrote about The Notorious Byrd Brothers, “Falling apart as a rock band, they became an art project, a brilliant, intrepid studio entity abetted by a fine complement of hired hands (guitarist and soon-to-be Byrd Clarence White, electronic music pioneer Paul Beaver, steel guitarist Red Rhodes, future Eric Clapton drummer Jim Gordon) and a sympathetic and imaginative young producer . . . named Gary Usher” (liner notes to the 1997 Columbia/Legacy Super Bit CD reissue). I think Fricke is exactly right: in Gary Usher the Byrds could not have found a more sympathetic producer, and the result, issued the first week of 1968 but recorded primarily in August and November 1967, is a record of great beauty and originality, if entirely a product of the studio.

I hardly need mention the record that followed, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (released 40 years ago this month) is now considered one of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by Rolling Stone. Previously consuming the Byrds through confiscation of singles purchased by my older sister, and borrowing LPs from friends, I’m proud to say that the first Byrds album I ever purchased with my very own stack of quarters was Dr. Byrds and Mr. Hyde (1969) which—this again according to David Fricke—“has the humiliating distinction of being the lowest-charting album in the group’s original studio catalog.” I’m delighted to know that at the time, unbeknownst to me, of course, I helped out the album’s meager sales by +1. To this day I think the musically schizoid “King Apathy III” is one of McGuinn’s best avant-garde compositions, and “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man,” co-written by McGuinn and Gram Parsons, a classic, a satire of the sort matched only by Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee.” The album also has the distinction of including both “Candy” and “Child of the Universe,” both written for the utterly byzantine (and now "cult") film Candy (1968), although only the latter song was included on the soundtrack, the former having been rejected by the producers. Indeed, I bought every Byrds album subsequently released, all made with the line-up of McGuinn, Clarence White, Skip Battin, and Gene Parsons: Ballad of Easy Rider (1969); Untitled (1970), which, as everyone knows, contains one of McGuinn’s greatest compositions, "Chestnut Mare"; Byrdmaniax (1971)—the death masks qualifying it as one of the great LP covers of all time--and Farther Along (1971), the band’s warm and serene final album (before, ironically, the 1973 over-hyped reunion album made by the original line-up, which bombed). I still possess all these vinyl LPs, and know them as well as old friends.

Thanks to CD technology, recordings from the late 60s period of the Byrds have emerged, such as Live at the Fillmore—February 1969, issued on CD in 2000, recorded—putatively—at the band’s commercial nadir, and more recently, Live at Royal Albert Hall 1971, featuring the McGuinn-White-Battin-Parsons lineup—just simply a great live band—issued by Sundazed about six weeks ago. One can hope that more such releases shall be made in the future. Outside of the Byrds albums themselves, I recommend, for those interested, McGuinn's Live From Mars (Hollywood Records, 1996) as an excellent place to start, as it serves as a sort of musical autobiography, as McGuinn takes the listener on a musical journey, discussing and playing his own music, its sources and inspirations, as well as the music which influenced him, beginning with Elvis's rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel."

And so, as of today, Roger McGuinn is 66 years of age and--who knows?--a member of the AARP. Perhaps so, but I hope not. I think not. Occasionally I have met a person in my life whose attitude and behavior makes me wonder if that person were ever really young, "young" as in youthful, having experienced the excitement and newness of the world through young eyes. (I must be thinking of "youth" because the experience of the past few days has made me feel, physically at least, old.) This meaning of "young" is the meaning of the word that Dylan sings about when he urges one to be "forever young." Perhaps it is only appropriate, therefore, that at 66, one should offer Roger McGuinn the birthday wish of being "forever young," or perhaps, phrased another way--to remain younger than yesterday.