Superdope #5 – 1993

superdope-5-coverFor those just joining the SUPERDOPE saga – a set of rocknroll fanzines I’ve been posting on my blog this past year – Superdope was a music fanzine that I personally published from 1991-1998. 7 of the 8 issues came out in a three-year period, ’91-’94, with one last one completing the set in 1998. I wasn’t trying to build any sort of empire, further a writing career or even make money, and as life would have it, none of these happened in any case.

Yet it was a pretty consuming part of my life during that time. I got especially serious with this issue and its follow-up later in 1993. Both were well-distributed, and if any of the issues still make their way around the fanzine-trading sphere anymore, it’s these.

A few notes on SUPERDOPE #5, which was written during the Fall and early winter of 1992, and came out at the very start of 1993:

First, apologies for the scan coming out a little “dirty”-looking in spots. I had some help from a pal who wishes to remain nameless, but neither he nor I ever got a perfect scan of this one.

  • I don’t believe there were too many interviews with the NIGHT KINGS and the THOMAS JEFFERSON SLAVE APARTMENTS in their day. This was back when I was still doing interviews by mail. Mail! I’d send a list of questions and a blank cassette to the bands, and they’d usually record their answers after a practice. They’d then put the blank cassette in the mail, and I’d transcribe the whole thing. Most would usually send along some flyers and photos as well, and that’s what usually ended up in the magazine. There were no (accessible) scanners, nothing digital at all – I’d copy them at Kinko’s and then carefully send them back to the bands. Part of the narcissism involved in the struggle making a ‘zine back then was the payoff in finally seeing your finished product, the one cobbled with scissors and glue and sheets of white paper surreptitiously printed at work. I’d get in the car and start immediately driving it over to friends’ houses and to San Francisco record stores to be sold while the ink was still smudging.
  • FLY ASHTRAY were a NYC band I’d gotten really into from their first two 45s. They didn’t want to send me any real photos of themselves (faces made for radio?), so they instead sent along a bunch of strange, clipped art and photos that I passed off as legitimate pictures of the band. I got more than one comment about the “band photo” that shows 4 stupefied zombies, two of whom are African-American, as being “surprising” since the readers didn’t quite expect the band to “look like that”.
  • I had some very strong contributors this issue – Tom Lax, who was running Siltbreeze Records in full swing at that time (he got a great back cover ad for free for his efforts); Doug Pearson, the designated “hippie rock” record reviewer (reissues of 70s private-press records were really big at the time and Doug had them all); Glen Galloway, who besides fronting the band TRUMAN’S WATER had his own fanzine “Zero Gravity”; and Grady Runyan, who submitted this weird and not altogether flattering piece on what was then my #2 favorite band in the universe, the THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282, which I published “under my breath”, as it were.
  • Then there were two excellent photographers – Nicole Penegor and Sherri Scott (my roommate!) – who contributed a ton of original photographs that I very much wish I could have represented better than with cheapo 10-cent photocopies from Kinko’s.
  • Finally, I find way more to cringe about in this issue than even in the earlier ones. I was getting cocky, with a fanzine that (a few dozen) people actually liked, and started writing a little over my head. I was just 25 years old, but should have known far better than to start cracking so many BANANAFISH-like dumbass in-jokes that I don’t even understand to this day. My credo at the time appeared to be, “If this line will make my friend Brett (or Doug, or Steve, or Grady, or Mitch, or whomever) laugh, then I’ll put it in there”. Other fanzines seemed to employ this trick, and perhaps at the time I thought it helped cultivate an air of mystery – like something I might want to get in on – but there are things in this one that would have made me just put the thing down and call the editor an insufferable bore. But it was a blast at the time, and perhaps you’ll like it better than I do.

I believe SUPERDOPE sort of returned to form later that year with Issue #6, and I’ll work on getting that scanned for you next. You can download this one – it’s a big PDF – as well as all the other ones right now.

Download SUPERDOPE #5

Previous issues you can download and print:
SUPERDOPE #1 – Spring 1991
SUPERDOPE #2 – Summer 1991
SUPERDOPE #3 – Spring 1992
SUPERDOPE #4 – Summer 1992

Superdope #4 – 1992

superdope-4-coverOf the 8 issues of SUPERDOPE fanzine that I self-published in the 1990s, this fourth issue from Summer 1992 probably had the lowest print run and is the most “rare” (which is not to be confused with “desirable”). If anyone’s been waiting to read it, and has been bidding up the price of any copies that make it to eBay (this truly happens with some of Superdope’s back issues, which was once amazing to me, but given the interest in fanzines in general thanks to this guy, understandable), well, here you go. It’s so rare that I only have one beat-up copy myself.
This came out only about 4-5 months after SUPERDOPE #3, which you can download here. Like that one, it was a small-format ‘zine I pumped out very quickly, run off at some long-gone printer on Fillmore Street and distributed mainly at Tower Records stores, local San Francisco record stores, and See/Hear in New York. I got more serious (again) with the subsequent issue, but I’m getting ahead of myself and will post that one presently.

A few thoughts about this one:

• The contributors this time were Doug Pearson – a local pal who, at one point, was front & center at every single rocknroll show I went to – and Tom Lax, then as now the proprietor of SILTBREEZE records. I wrote the rest. I knew of Lax as a writer first, before he started the label. His stuff was funny, deeply knowledgeable and intensely aware of every sub-movement and sub-sub-movement in every forgotten crawlspace of underground rock, in every nook & cranny of the globe. When he still writes for Bull Tongue Review and elsewhere, which is unfortunately too infrequent for my tastes, it’s essential reading. I thought it was a “pretty big coup” that he felt Superdope good enough to lend his name to.

• Nicole Penegor was the staff photographer. She was great. I’d buy her ticket into a show, she’d spend the entire time taking photos, then she’d develop them “by hand”, in a darkroom, like they did in the olden days. Then we’d see each other 5 days a week at Monster Cable, where we both worked. Now she’s a lawyer, mom and rocker in Wisconsin.

• Though THE BRAINBOMBS interview was the first attention they ever really got in the US or elsewhere (I had been blown away by that “Jack The Ripper Lover” single), I’m not all that happy that I furthered their legacy, such that it is. I’ve come to see this hate/kill/blood music as stunted children’s music. It’s something that underdeveloped twentysomethings appreciate, but like Freddy Kreuger and Che Guevara, also something that is easy,and relatively painless, to “age out of”. When the otherwise right-on Z-GUN magazine, put out by intelligent thirtysomethings/fortysomethings who should have known better, once did a frothing, multiple-contributor “Brainbombs tribute” in an issue, it struck me as totally preposterous. Smart people, with highly-developed BS detectors, praising a band who sings about mutilation, child rape and torture, like it was somehow bold, daring and shocking. What’s shocking is that anyone could be intellectually stunted enough to still get a thrill off these mental pygmies. Mea culpa. I made a mistake giving these guys any press beyond a record review or two, despite the musical thud of their early 45s.

• 1992 was obviously a very good vintage for raw and exciting underground rock. Looking at the then-new records we covered in this one – Night Kings, Claw Hammer, Sun City Girls, Cheater Slicks, Thinking Fellers, Venom P. Stinger – I’d have to mark this particular year as my “peak” for intense music & record adulation. The stuff we covered was better than in previous issues, and the records we praised are more lasting (“The Woggles” – wha? – notwithstanding).

Download and read SUPERDOPE #4 here.

Get the older ones too – Superdope #1, Superdope #2 and Superdope #3.

Superdope #3 – 1992

superdope-3-coverThis 1992 issue of my self-published music fanzine is the first in the 8-issue series I can legitimately say that I’m more or less proud of.

SUPERDOPE #3 came out about six months after I’d “threatened to quit” publishing (oooh!) for reasons I don’t really remember. I even went so far as to send back promo records on my own dime to certain labels I respected who’d sent me freebies, because I was embarrassed to keep them if I wasn’t going to, you know, review them. I remember meeting Mac from Merge Records the next year in Chapel Hill, and he was just bemusedly shaking his head that I’d even bothered to do that. Rest assured, I gave up those ethical qualms later on.

So after making a big to-do about being “too tired” to publish or whatever, I just said aw fuggedaboutit and put out this tiny, digest-sized, 22-page minizine.

SUPERDOPE #3 captures a bit of the (un)popular rise of the great garage punk bands of the 1990s, with the piece de resistance being this interview with THE GORIES. Though I had no idea at the time, the band would soon break up, and gave few other interviews during their career. I simply mailed them a list of dopey questions and let them record their answers on a cassette tape; as it turns out, it was my favorite interview I “did” for this publication outside of the DON HOWLAND one that made it into issue #6. That I never got to see the band play live at the time always stuck in my craw, a situation that has been rectified multiple times in the 21st century now that they’re on the reunion circuit.

A few other thoughts on this issue:

  • I wrote and edited this one completely solo, though having just recently seen “Beyond The Valley of the Dolls” for the first time, I uncleverly appropriated the name “Lance Rock” for several items. This doesn’t wear as well in 2016, I concede.
  • My list of over-the-counter stimulants in my “Top 10” was nothing but bluster. It stemmed from an incident that same year where I’d taken two (very much legal!) Ephedrine – the ingredient in No-Doz – pills to keep myself awake at a Thinking Fellers Union show, mixed it with a couple of pints of beer, and proceeded to suffer through one of the weirdest, malarial, hallucinatory nights of pseudo-sleep I’d ever had. Not sure I ever used one again – but it sure was fun pretendin’.
  • It is indeed true that the first CD I ever bought was MONSTER MAGNET’s horrific “Spine of God” – I proudly waived my “no bad reviews” policy especially for that one.
  • The faux back issues of “SCRUT HUNT” magazine are in-jokes embedded within in-jokes, some of which I honestly don’t even understand myself anymore. “Scrut” was a term of endearment that my freshman-year college roommate gave to particularly attractive females. Thus a night on the town for him could very well turn into a “scrut hunt”. (That night also could, and most often did, end in failure). Stupid, right? Anyway, in case it’s not obvious, this magazine never actually existed.
  • The “Late Reviews” consist of clipped reviews from other magazines like Maximum RocknRoll and Your Flesh, married to records that weren’t actually being reviewed (and in the case of “Ska Derr & The Rejectones” and “Cognitive Drought”, bands that didn’t ever form). I thought the Barbara Manning one was pretty funny; I’m pretty sure it was for the first LIQUOR BALL LP.

Download SUPERDOPE #3 here.

Superdope #2 – Summer 1991

superdope-2I’m re-posting each of the eight issues of my 1990s music fanzine, SUPERDOPE. They’d previously been hosted at a site called DivShare, and when they went out of business, all of my hosted files went down with the ship as well. I posted Issue #1 here yesterday.

I put out 7 issues from 1991-1994 before calling it quits, then ultimately resurfaced with an 8th and final issue in 1998. I’m now doing a music fanzine called Dynamite Hemorrhage. There are some people who believe this magazine – Superdope – to be one of the less-awful ones plumbing the depths of loud underground music to surface during the era, and sometimes I even agree – though perhaps mostly not on the evidence of these first two issues.

I feel when looking through this mid-1991 issue that there was a great deal of needless in-jokism, and a lot of wasted effort put toward praising musical mediocrity. My world was a bit too heavily dominated by my love of buying obscure records, going to live shows 2-4 times per week, and incessantly joking about all manner of music-related topics with my friends. Not that I regret it, of course.

SUPERDOPE #2 was the last issue that relied so heavily on the contributions of others. As with #1, which had big contributions from Steve Watson, Kim Cooper and Grady Runyan, this too devotes a huge chunk of its pages to interviews conducted by Kim Cooper, with other excellent (unpaid) contributions from Mr. Runyan and Doug Pearson (Rubin Fiberglass assisted with the BOYS FROM NOWHERE interview as well – I’d tried to heavily recruit that guy for some time into becoming a “staff writer”, but it never quite worked out).

After #2 came out in the late summer months of 1991 I petulantly took my ball and went home, quite literally, and published the next three almost totally by myself – save for all the fantastic photos taken by Nicole Penegor, who was our “staff photographer” during the six years she & I worked together at Monster Cable in South San Francisco.

Here are a few thoughts on the making of this issue, informed by a June 2010 perusal of it as I was scanning this the first time I posted it. I’ve updated some of the stuff I wrote then below:

  • Kim – who went on to found the long-lived SCRAM magazine and now leads all sorts of tours of the seedy side of Los Angeles – got to do both of the main interviews because she knew some underground “rock stars” personally, and because she and I were friends. She was pals with Deniz Tek from RADIO BIRDMAN, a band I really dug at the time and whom I thought it was a real coup to do such a long interview with. Ironically, I can’t even listen to the Radio Birdman stuff anymore and find them to be fairly moronic bar-punk with cringe-worthy vocals. That’s what getting old(er) will do to you.
  • The large section of live reviews should give you a pretty good idea of where my head was at in 1991 and where my time was being spent, most of it in the company of my ne’er-do-well friends and large quantities of beer. A girlfriend during this year would likely have helped reduce the size of this section a bit. One ultimately arrived in due time. It was pretty fun going out all the time on my exceptionally small salary – and Superdope eventually even helped in that effort quite a bit, allowing me “pest list” status from time to time, since the magazine was sold in every record store in town.
  • I wasn’t really a fan of RUDOLPH GREY‘s solo stuff, either – but Grady sure was, and he did a terrific interview that really holds up today. I should have let him write more, and more often.
  • And man did I start getting a ton of packages full of 45s and LPs after this time – in 1991, going to the mailbox was the second best part of every day, right after walking home from it with my arms full of records I now no longer own.
  • I can’t even begin to scare up a memory of what some of the records I reviewed with gusto sounded like – Juan Carlos? 27 Devils Joking? Rake? Brief Weeds? Are you kidding me? At least I helped catapult Pavement to stardom.
  • 1991 might be said to have been a fairly dry one for underground rock culture; I can see from what I was personally choosing to focus on that we were in the midst of a transition from Amphetamine Reptile-style noise/panic bands into the great and belatedly-heralded fourth wave of garage-based punk rock. The awesome Penegor photo of The Mummies is an early clue; the following year, as represented by the #3-#4 issues of Superdope, were much more garage punk-centered than this one, which seems to scrape the surface of pretty much anything that might have been marginally entertaining that year.
  • I still feel bad about my critical evisceration of a LAZY COWGIRLS record in this issue; I know that the band saw it, and their singer Pat Todd gave me a stern “talking-to” the next time I saw them play. I had pretty much followed that band around California in the late 80s whenever they played. Not that I think I was wrong in any way, but I just don’t like hurting good folks’ feelings. I more or less decided to focus on good records after this issue, and stopped expending energy on bad or mediocre ones.
  • Lest I be too hard on myself, I will say that I printed over 2,000 issues of this issue, and thanks to widespread demand from all over the globe, I had to print it in two batches. Tower Records sold the bulk of them, including in their London and Tokyo stores, and as a result I got some incredible letters from those countries, South Africa and elsewhere. The other big distributors were See/Hear in New York, Subterranean in San Francisco, and a couple others who are most definitely not with us any longer.

Download and read SUPERDOPE #2 in its entirety here.

Superdope #1 – Spring 1991

superdope-1-coverHere’s a full and complete scan of the first fanzine I ever put out, SUPERDOPE #1. It was written over 25 years ago, and released to the people in Spring 1991.

Obviously a project like this created in the bloom of one’s youth (I was 23) engenders a strange mix of pride and revulsion. Pride – well, I put this together completely by hand over several months, using scissors and glue and 3-cent photocopies at a local place that gave me a discount. I used to lug home a gigantic beige Mac from my workplace which was running Windows 2.0 (or whatever was five years before Windows 95) and some rudimentary version of Word, and I’d peck this magazine out at home in the evenings, before returning it back to the “shared workstation” at Monster Cable the next day.

Revulsion? Just the normal embarrassment over meaningless in-jokes that I don’t understand myself anymore, appalling syntax and sentence structure, and reverence for ludicrous rock and roll bands that I forgot about mere months after I wrote about how amazing their records or live shows were. To say nothing about the layout, or lack thereof.

At this point in my life, I was going to see live music 3-4 nights per week, spending all my free money on records, and basing the great majority of my friendships and people-judgments based upon the kind of music they were most enthusiastic about. Besides that stuff, I’m glad to be sharing it again – I had it up on my old Hedonist Jive blog, but the file disappeared along with its host, DivShare.

The magazine itself was out of print the year after it came out, and I was shocked to find that I only had 1 copy left myself. So this is truly digital self-preservation. I only made about 500 of these and I’d assume that at least 300 were at the recycling center within a decade after its release.

A few notes on the first issue of SUPERDOPE:

• The magazine’s name, which I was never truly comfortable with, yet came to peace with eventually, was given to me by my co-worker Bernice Reilly. Neicy, are you are there anywhere?? She had a habit of calling me her “superdope homeboy”, after the MC Hammer song so popular that year. I thought it was funny; I needed a name; and hadn’t started stealing names from Flesh Eaters songs yet.

• I was fortunate enough to have 4 excellent contributors – Kim Cooper (who later went on to start SCRAM magazine); Grady Runyan (guitarist for Liquor Ball and Monoshock); photographer Nicole Penegor; and Steve Watson, whose SONIC’S RENDEZVOUS BAND piece was actually cut off and sent to the printer before either of us noticed. Read it – it’s got a somewhat clunky ending. We talked about getting a Part 2 in my second issue, and I guess we both just sorta forgot that too. Steve, whom I was concurrently playing in Helevator with, unfortunately passed away a few years ago.

• Re-reading this the other night, I realized how in thrall I was to certain people that year; in particular, Brandan Kearney, the guitarist of World of Pooh and proprietor of Nuf Sed records. I thought his whole rejection of the “music scene” and sardonic personality to be a breath of fresh air, plus I totally dug his band and some of the records on his label. I just wish I hadn’t kissed his ass so hard.

• After this came out I got a personal letter from Byron Coley, who was only my favorite rocknroll writer on the planet. It wasn’t mocking me, nor was there any cease-and-desist notification attached to it. Seems that Kearney had actually encouraged him to buy a copy when Coley was visiting San Francisco, and he actually enjoyed it. I mentally coasted on that one for a few months until the next issue – the jumbo SUPERDOPE #2, which I’ll post in this space shortly.

Download and read SUPERDOPE #1 in its entirety here.

Running For Cover – The Ken DeFeudis Story

Ken DefeudisAs any connoisseur of outsider, kitsch & oddball ephemera already knows, the 25 years of culture that pre-dated consumer world wide web adoption (1969-1994) was knee-high in ridiculous, homespun, privately-pressed LPs and tapes. There were an untold number of weird, untalented and often strangely compelling hustlers out to make it in “the biz”, without having the slightest idea how to proceed, yet still having enough wherewithal to get into a recording studio, or to roll the tapes at home. Think Harvey Sid Fisher. Think Shaggs. Think the entire song-poem brigade, and countless other lesser lights.

In the early 1990s, some pals of mine became very smitten with a modern troubadour named KEN DEFEUDIS and his one-song 1990 cassette single “Run For Cover Lover”. You need to listen to it, even for just a minute, before you proceed further.

This song was a staple of certain San Francisco/Oakland house parties I attended, usually well after an exceptional number of drinks had been consumed. I hadn’t thought about it, nor DeFeudis, much for decades until it sprang back to mind last week and I decided to “Google” it. It turns out it wasn’t just my ne’er do well friends who were obsessing over this guy and his ear-grater of a song. Amazingly, the guy’s even in the “Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music” book.

I remembered a few conversations from back then with Grady Runyan, who was the prime mover in my memory among the DeFeudis ultra-faithful, and I recollected that he’d actually gone so far as to call the guy and talk with him, even getting additional tapes mailed to him as one point with new DeFeudis songs (!).

Grady’s now the founder/owner/manager of Grady’s Record Refuge in Ventura, CA; you may also know him from his stints in bands such as Monoshock, Liquor Ball, the Bad Trips, Cardinal Sin, Sternklang, the Umbilical Chords and others. I figured he’d be able to add to the DeFeudis lore that’s already collecting on the internet, and therefore sat him down for the quick email Q&A that follows.

How did Ken DeFeudis’ music come into your life? What made your attraction to it so instant?

I received my RFCL cassingle from Rubin Fiberglass, who was working at a music distributor in SoCal at the time….there were a handful of promos circulating in his warehouse, and he figured I’d dig it.  He was right. I played it for my roommate Christopher Junker and a certain fascination developed, which was further fueled by other’s dismay at our relentless wee-hour plays. Christopher and I were also doing these inebriated sound collages in the living room at the time, with record players, tape decks, TVs, etc. and KDF was always an ingredient in those. There was definitely a WTF factor. The music plus the cover picture plus the notes on the back…..was it a put-on or not?  I’m usually attracted to things like that, for whatever reason.  Part of me did not want to know more.  The other part me decided to call him one night (his number was printed on the cassette).

You drunkenly called the guy one night, and actually got him to talk to you, right? What was that like? Did you correspond further after that?

I called him but got his answering machine. Kinda forgot about it after that.  Amazingly he did return my call some weeks (months?) later.  There was a party at my house and Cardinal Sin was playing in the living room. Christopher answered the phone and started yelling “it’s DeFeudis, it’s Defeudis!!”  So the set was interrupted as I took the call.  First thing he did was apologize for calling so late, but explained he kept “musicians hours”.  It was well past midnight where he was calling from.  We probably talked for 15 minutes or so but the details are pretty fuzzy now.  I remember him being very serious abut his music and thanking me for my interest.

I remember you saying that after you’d made contact with DeFeudis, he sent you some more gems, including his follow-up, “Rookie Lover”. What were those recordings like?

I don’t remember this at all.  Have to check my tapes. (editor’s note: I know I’m not making this up. Anyone have a “Rookie Lover” tape they can MegaUpload for us all?)

What involvement did you have in birthing the late 90s Oakland band The Run For Cover Lovers, who took their name from DeFeudis’ hit?

That was my roommate Darryl Pretto’s band.  I wasn’t involved, other than having exposed him to the song many years before……going back a bit, when Blackjack out out the Cardinal Sin LP “Doggyhead”, they printed the band name on the spine as “The Run For Cover Lovers” without the band’s knowledge.  I think Darryl may taken the name from that prank as much as the original song.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Christopher had a friend named Brian Blesser, who was an artist in Berkeley.  Brian came over on occasion and was exposed to our fascination with KDF.  When Amoeba Berkeley opened, Brian was hired to paint the collage/mural above the entrance to the store.  He got Ken’s face in there, centrally located.  I think only handful of us knew, or cared.  It remained for many years and might still be there…..
(Grady subsequently emailed this picture. Yes, there he is, top right, with his hair touching the pink streak)
amoeba-record-store 2
Thanks very much to Rubin Fiberglass for the initial find; to Grady Runyan and Chris Junker for the small-batch popularization of DeFeudis’ music; and to Grady again for taking the time to help add some perspective to a pretty timeless piece of music.

20th Century Dumb Government vs. 21st Century Smart Government

capitol hill

I overly flattered myself for many years by calling my political views “libertarian”, starting in the early 90s. I was careful to use the “small-l” libertarian, as opposed to the large-L Libertarian Party, mainly because of my lifelong antipathy toward guns and desire to ban virtually all of them. Yet I’ve always admired the masthead tagline that Reason Magazine still uses, “Free Minds and Free Markets”, and I’ve used it as a convenient, if often inaccurate, shorthand for how I like to think about things.

Free Minds effectively means, in my world, that the scope of my personal freedoms ends where yours begin, and vice-versa. This notion protects free speech, free assembly, the freedom to love & marry whom one wishes to, freedom of reproductive choice, and so on. Most of these major battles have been won in the US, or are currently in the process of being won.

Free Markets means, in my world, that government sets the basic ground rules for commerce, competition and trade, and a legal structure to govern them, and then gets out of the way. First-world economies from the United States to the Nordics to, at varying levels, Japan, Germany, France, Singapore, Canada and others underpin their societies with this core principle, with varying (though high) degrees of success.

Yet neither of those catchphrases says with certainty what the overarching purpose of government toward its people is, nor ought to be. I think free minds and free markets can easily be compatible with several definitions, and not always the most obvious 20th century mantra of “big government bad, small government good”. Dumb government is bad, and that’s what we often live under today in the United States, on many levels. This has some pretty scary repercussions that are playing themselves out in the news as we speak.

My unwillingness to further align myself with libertarians comes from a dawning realization of just how badly American government is failing Americans. This is not merely because of libertarian/conservative complaints of government’s size and scope (a scope which I believe to be too bloated in some areas, and far too callous and hands-off in others), but because the United States government is stuck in a 20th century paradigm of “what works”, and it’s flat-out not working. It needs to be fixed, not further abandoned.

The American Dream is sadly in the rear-view mirror for a growing number of Americans, and it’s our fault for perpetuating a status quo. Our 240-year experiment is in danger, and we’re letting it happen by not reinventing how government should work in our modern era – not the era we moved out of at the turn of the century.

We in the US have a very dumb government in 2016 that has created and perpetuated the seeds of its own demise. Authoritarian/know-nothing and left-wing populist presidential candidates, plus the likely dissolution of one of the country’s two long-lasting political parties are early (and ugly) harbingers. More will follow. To remain competitive in the world economy, the US needs to make urgent and necessary changes to its basic structures.

When liberal icon Franklin Roosevelt died in 1945, his legacy was followed 35 years later by the first stirrings of conservative icon Ronald Reagan’s own legacy in 1980. Each man was, I believe, a necessary corrective for his time. 35 years after that, (36 to be precise) we’re now in need of a new narrative, one that’s neither traditionally liberal nor traditionally conservative nor even “centrist”. It is clear to me that we continue down our current narrative paths at great risk.

I don’t think my ideas for what constitutes smart government – which obviously aren’t all my ideas, and which are cobbled from years of observation, reading and listening – are necessarily Left, Right nor Center. Others may disagree. But just try to imagine a realistic path out of our current problems that don’t involve adoption of at least some combination of the following:

20th Century DUMB government

21st Century SMART government

Create and maintain a complex, convoluted federal tax code with thousands of exemptions, varying rates, targeted credits, countless loopholes – as well as the ability to easily “offshore” revenues to pay less taxes. Make the tax code so arcane that most citizens have to hire professionals to do their taxes.

Create a simple flat tax for both income and capital gains, which increases marginally by income level. No exemptions, tax credits nor loopholes. Taxes can be filled out on a postcard each year. Establish one flat tax for all businesses, regardless of size. Congress votes to raise or lower each upcoming year’s flat rates, based on projected domestic needs.

Allow citizens of the richest nation in history  to be bankrupted by their own healthcare needs, or to have to take a job they don’t want, merely to get health insurance for their families. Pretend this is nonetheless the system that works best for its citizens, because sometimes “wait times to see a doctor are shorter than in other countries”.

Sever the link between private employers and healthcare. Provide everyone with guaranteed, high-quality healthcare, regardless of income or personal situation. Make it a fundamental right for US citizens. Make payments to health professionals uniform, simple and predicable.

Staple on well-meaning and expensive health care reforms onto an existing Frankenstein’s Monster of a private employer/private insurer/public healthcare system, endangering the whole thing.

See above. Establish high-quality public healthcare with limited private supplements, as the successful economies of the UK, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Japan and countless others have done.

Let elected lawmakers draw up their own bizarre congressional districts, or let them appoint cronies who’ll do their bidding for them to preserve the status quo.

Turn existing county lines into voting districts, and let the population of those counties be represented proportionally in votes for Congress and other State offices

Pay public school teachers a barely liveable salary, thereby discouraging our best & brightest from teaching as a career, and driving them to private careers instead

Mandate a high ($70,000+) yearly starting wage for public school teachers, paid for by State and Federal taxes, with the same ability  for star achievers to get the same outsized raises they would in the private sector

Let teaching standards slip so low, whether out of need for new teachers, well-intentioned diversity requirements or otherwise, that thousands of ill-prepared, ultimately mediocre teachers are placed in front of American children every year

Require that American teachers graduate from tough, dedicated, academically challenging universities with high-threshold exit exam scores before being allowed to teach. Ensure that they’re placed in well-paid apprenticeships for at least 2 years before getting their own classrooms.

Make payment for their kids’ college something that families start saving for 18 years in advance (or don’t at all, because they don’t have the money), or that students themselves spend 20-30 years paying off once they’ve left college. Make college a wealth game, played by the wealthy, with scholarship scraps handed to the poor

Reengineer our already world-class universities & university faculties to create a system of free or low-cost, high-quality public universities, paid for by Federal and State taxes, just as most other industrialized, first-world nations do.  

Set up a system in which a traditional college education is virtually the only way to guarantee a healthy income over time, even when not everyone is cut out for it. Watch and wring our hands as students flounder, and/or enter low-wage, dead-end jobs out of high school, with few prospects for advancement – and then leave them to their fates

Create a national system of public vocational schools that run in parallel to the universities mentioned above. Allow students to choose their path – vocational school or traditional university – after high school. Fund this via Federal and State taxes.

Force new mothers (and/or fathers) with existing jobs to return to work within weeks of giving birth; to give up their careers entirely in order to care for their children, or to stick them in unregulated, low-quality day care while hoping for the best

Create a national system of subsidized paid parental leave and high-quality child care, based on successful (and beloved) models in the Nordic countries. Paid child care starts at Age 1, at which point both parents must return to work

Allow the mentally ill, drug-addicted and incapacitated to fend for themselves on our streets, whether because we’re “too humane” to tell them what to do, or because we don’t have the resources to help. Hide our heads in shame because we don’t know what to do

Establish a publicly-funded network of national treatment facilities for the mentally ill and drug-addicted, with humane care and recovery as the system’s desired outcome. Attendance is mandatory, at the discretion of trained health professionals, not police

Play favorites with private companies – allowing subsidies or tax credits for some but not for others – then cry foul when lobbyists run amok on Capitol Hill trying to buy votes

Write a new constitutional amendment that severs all links between government and private enterprise – except for procurement (i.e. when the government buys things to support military, domestic healthcare etc.). This includes farms, carmakers, textiles; cosmetology licensing – everything. Make penalties for lawmakers who violate this explicit and strong. Subsidies become a thing of the past.

Politics being “the art of the possible”, and democracy being messy, it’s clear that most of these proposals need to be taken on incrementally, with only a few being eligible for one-fell-swoop implementation. I’m hoping we start on them soon, and that we have most of these in place during the rest of my lifetime. Obviously, there are many others I’d recommend as well, but these are where I’d start, and where the reform needs are greatest and would be most impactful.

I think that these moves toward smarter government would do much to shore up American competitiveness and stave off American decline. It will increase the attractiveness of the country to outsiders, while also providing multiple levers for every American citizen to have a fair and honest chance to be autonomous, as well as give them the opportunity to be more free – not less – than they are today.

I would gladly trade a few extra % points of my own tax rate for a chance to smash inequality, create an un-shreddable safety net, virtually eliminate the IRS, create world-class public schools that are the envy of the world, elevate teaching to its rightful place in society, take government out of private enterprise, help society’s sickest members get their dignity back, restore democratic voting principles, and ensure that demagogues and populists don’t rear their heads in my country again for a long, long time.

I’d love to hear if you think otherwise in the comments.

My Rock and Roll Bank Robber

Shane WilliamsI recently read Tesco Vee’s piece in Bull Tongue Review #5 on his interactions with Shane Williams, the fabled “rock and roll bank robber” with whom he used to collaborate on Touch n Go fanzine, and – more germane to the piece – whose bank robbing, drug-abusing shenanigans led to death threats & police harassment of Mr. Vee. It’s a pretty wild and scary tale, one stoked by Vee’s naive 1980s encouragement of and frequent correspondence with Shane Williams. What’s more punk than associating with a known gun-toting criminal, one who served multiple stints in jail and who happened to be a fiendish fan of the same anti-social music that you are? I actually found myself forced to ponder this question myself, with regard to the same person, not long after Tesco Vee was.

Williams was locked up at the Federal Correctional Institute in Lompoc, California around 1987 when I first started receiving weekly letters from him. Bank robbery – and not for the first time. The only college radio station with a signal in that area happened to be the one I was a late-teenage DJ at, KCSB-FM in Santa Barbara, where I went to school. Williams was quite hep to the sounds I was spinning on my weekly Wednesday night show, being a fan of the Stoogoid/MC5 arts and especially of LA’s Lazy Cowgirls, whom I obsessively played each week and whom I also saw play live in Hollywood & around the LA area with ridiculous regularity. I didn’t know anything about the guy nor his reputation until he told me about himself in these letters, which I showed with chagrin to friends who happened to be very aware of the legend of Shane Williams, and who had read his various rocknroll scribblings in Flipside, Touch n Go and elsewhere.

While he was locked up, I could afford to be flattered and reciprotive. I wrote him back semi-regularly; we exchanged tips on wild new longhaired and shorthaired punk bands; he’d ask me if the female DJs he also listened to at KCSB were hot; I’d write back to him cryptically and non-committally. He told me about his heroin abuse; about how he could get any drug he wanted to in prison (and did); and about how he was effectively able to do everything on the inside that he could outside the walls of Lompoc – and that, in most ways, it was far better for him personally to be in jail, save for not being able to see bands (which was torture).

Then he dropped the bombshell – he was getting out of prison. This month. Would we perchance like to meet up? At my Santa Barbara apartment, maybe? (NO) Or perhaps down in LA at a Lazy Cowgirls show (uh, sure, okay – whew)

Lest one think I was somehow “less than hardcore”, well – you’re totally right. I was a 19-year-old middle-class kid who loved my parents, didn’t take drugs, had never met a prisoner nor former prisoner, and whose transgressions pretty much amounted to frequent underage drinking of horrible cheap 1980s beer, like every other college student. That’s about it. That I loved aggressive, raw music from the underground certainly meant that I’d get thrown together at parties or shows with certain unsavory types from time to time, though that was truly no problem. Beer and music salved all distance, and if I felt like someone was in any way a danger to me or my friends, I just walked away. I can count those instances on less than one hand.

I wasn’t scared to meet the guy, nor, once we finally convened at the Anti-Club on Melrose at a Cowgirls gig did I have any reason to be. Shane Williams was loquacious, opinionated, mildly funny and moderately uncouth. I can’t say at all that we were instant pals, but through 1988-89, he kept showing up at the same gigs I did, and we’d “rap” for decent stretches of time. It was one of those things where I didn’t really want to run into him, but it was no big deal when I did.

One time we were standing around chatting up the Lazy Cowgirls guys, and Shane just threw his arm around my shoulder, grasped me tight, and barked out to everyone assembled, “This guy saved my ass when I was in the joint!”. Hey, at least I made someone happy.

Williams couldn’t listen to my show any longer, due to KCSB’s lack of signal strength, and perhaps to make up for it & bond some more about bands in person, one night he invited me and my cousin to come party with him before a show at his abode somewhere in Los Angeles. We tactfully declined, likely preferring to pre-party in the classy manner that we always did, which was to furtively drink cans of Miller or Stroh’s in poorly-lit parking lots in the seedy gang-infested area near the Anti-Club.

When we arrived at the club, I walked up to find Shane sitting on the stage before the bands had started, and it was the first time in my young and fragile-flower life that I’d ever seen a heroin abuser in full, nodding-off bloom. I said hello, and as he looked up at me with red eyes just dripping, with a neck that could no longer support his head, it was clear that his managing a reciprocal greeting was going to be just too much effort – so he went back to falling asleep. The way I remember it, it was the last time I saw him in person, which may or may not be true.

I’m not sure if it was mere months or a year or two later, but Williams landed back in jail rather quickly, this time for a bank robbery so brazenly incompetent I was certain it was deliberately so. He wrote me a few more times in the early 90s from Calipatria State Prison, in the sun-baked Imperial County desert of California, and we more or less lost touch. I saw his “ShaneShit” column in Flipside a few times back then, which clearly marked that he was bouncing in and out of prison – either whooping it up in live clubs, or stuck in the pokey wishing that he was. I’m fairly certain that we may have had one e-mail interaction once e-mail became a thing, but no greater than one.

The poor guy was killed in a car accident in 2011 as a passenger, and good, respectable people lined up to sing his praises, give thanks for the memories, and gleefully extol his bad-boy “rock and roll lifestyle”. I can’t say that I was bummed, deadened nor relieved (for him) in any manner – just a little chagrined that he’d made it even that far.

With hindsight, I guess what stands out for me is my own immense distance from his world, despite that microscopic degree of musical overlap we shared for an exceptionally brief period of time. It would be disingenuous of me to bemoan my lack of enthusiasm for his lifestyle, because I’m incredibly thankful to have been a million miles from it in terms of temperament and circumstance.

Interactions like mine with Williams are quite uneventful on the whole, but for me, they illuminate the strange force of fortune and the fickle finger of fate. But for one angry belt-wielding father, one genetic turn of the screw, or one or two stupid decisions made as a teenager, and key elements of his life could have been key elements of mine. There will be much more entertaining and far more animated stories to tell about his life, no question, but I’m quite willing to accept the trade-off.