Posted by: gdevi | January 5, 2010

Two new biographies–everything remains the same apparently

Two new biographies this new year. NYTBR reviewers are lukewarm about both. Read review of the new Led Zeppelin biography here. Apparently it is not the song that has remained the same but everyone’s prurient curiosity about the lives of the band members. You know once I saw this interview with Robert Plant somewhere and someone asked him again about throwing the shark out of the hotel–do we really remember Robert Plant for throwing a shark out of a hotel window? I don’t. –and it was an incredible moment–Robert Plant said clearly, “yes we did throw a shark out of the window. We had a lot of girls around too. I have nothing more to say about any of those things.” I always feel bad when people say these unkind things about “groupies” —  girls who went to these musicians–because that is what it is really–there might be all these other attractions–popularity, celebrity status, money, fame, reputation, whatever–but at heart it is one of those inexplicable phenomenon about music–and I think all musicians know that–Robert Plant certainly did during the interview, it was clear–the girls are seduced primarily by the music–and it is one of those lifestyles where as Dostoevsky said, anything is possible, everything is permitted.  The musicians feed off of the energy of these girls as much as the girls freak out over them. You could tell watching the Robert Plant interview that he really understood all these things which are on the one hand, very simple, and on the other hand, quite complex, when you really think about it. (So many things are unique to the life of a musician when you think of it; it is funny but our friend R who plays guitar extremely well and sings extremely well but who is also an engineer by profession and training–I always remember this about him–he would often go to downtown Dallas or Deep Ellum and play on the streets — and he used to get extremely annoyed if people stopped by and listened to his music and walked away. Don’t walk away people, he would say. If you enjoyed my playing for you, give me something. It is not that he was busking like many struggling musicians do; he was an engineer who earned a good salary in Dallas. But it was the principle of it. Music is the most unmediated form of art and it is very easy to exploit musicians and music–“songs are like tattoos.”)  It is terrible that someone would write another book about Led Zeppelin only to say that they all had sex with a lot of women.  Why? I don’t get it at all.  I am skipping this one.

A new biography of Molly Ivins here. Another lukewarm review. I absolutely love Molly Ivins and I have tremendous respect for her journalistic work. Apparently no real enquiry about any of this. Here is the obituary I wrote for Ivins for the local newspaper, back in 2007.

The Conscience of a Liberal: Remembering Molly Ivins

Molly Ivins, the intrepid journalist from Texas who nicknamed the sitting president “shrub” died on January 31st in Austin, Texas of a “scorching case of cancer,” as she once put it.  Ivins was 62.  Born in California but raised and domiciled in Texas till her death, with brief sojourns in New York and Colorado, Ivins was a “hell-raiser” like many of the people she respected and introduced to us in her nationally syndicated columns.  “Hell-raiser” is Texan for the southern liberal of the Bible belt, the populist political animal who cares about the black folks and the brown folks, a liker of people, but with a solid nose to sniff out the phonies with their horsepucky, every single time. The function of journalism, Ivins observed, was to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

That “horsepucky” above is pure Molly Ivins. Before New York Times carried her away in 1976 to write for them, Ivins covered Texas politics for the Texas Observer where she brought a colorful regionalism to the characterless reporter’s lingo, worried as they were to get the facts straight, nuance be damned. Ivins was all for nuance. “Every desk has someone on it who is convinced that both whispered and screamed mean the same thing as said,” she once noted. Ivins believed in reporting it the way it is; the sanitized news was not her style as the New York Times soon discovered when she was sent to cover a community chicken-killing festival in New Mexico which she described as a “gang pluck.” Times fired her when she refused to excise the phrase from her report, which the Times management insisted was overly sexually suggestive.

In her columns on Texas legislature or “the Austin fun house” as she called it, Ivins not only told us what bill was made into what law, but she also told us about the characters who drafted them; the representative who wanted felons to submit twenty-four hour advance notice of crimes they intended to commit; the legislator who demanded from a lobbyist: “Get me two sweathogs for tonight,” the unanimous vote for a $400, 000 moss-cutter for Lake Caddo with nothing for bilingual education. Here is Ivins reporting on the Texas “lege” (legislature, that is): “Texas legislators are practical. A House member from San Antonio to a reporter during a debate on whether state should garnish the wages of fathers delinquent in child-support payments: “There’s only one solution for Those People. Clip ‘em and spade ‘em. Clip the men and spade the women.””  Ivins showed us our “pols” up close and personal.

Like all great satirists, Ivins too was a crusader at heart for fairness and justice, especially for those that do not make the cut for top stories of the day. I remember vividly the excitement and knowledge with which, as a young graduate student, I read her reporting on Beulah Mae Donald, the struggling African American mother from Mobile, Alabama whose nineteen-year old son Michael Donald was lynched by members of the Ku Klux Klan on a cold August morning in 1981. The Michael Donald trial went on throughout the nineties, when we had our first Gulf war with Iraq to defend the freedom of the Kuwaitis. Ivins’s reporting of the trial of the Klan members involved was an exhilarating glimpse into a modest, local, social movement for justice and fairness to the least likely of plaintiffs—a poor, black woman in rural Alabama who sued the Klan and won a landmark legal victory. The emotional heart of Ivins’s report lay with Beulah Mae Donald who “sat at the plaintiff’s table throughout the long trial; she never testified, but rocked back and forth when the testimony brought her too much pain.” Ivins’s vigorous reporting brought to life the hard road traveled by the lawyers of the Southern Poverty Law Center to indict the United Klans of America for their role in aiding and abetting the killing of Michael Donald.

It has become second nature to me now to search for the Molly Ivins column before anything else in any of the magazines that she writes for—The Texas Observer, The Nation, The Progressive, Ms., Mother Jones. I shall mourn her passing with a personal sorrow. Ivins talked to common people like you and I. She sought out the soldier over the general, the factory-hand over the CEO. She never identified with her source in vain egotism like so many celebrity journalists do these days. The result was stories that walked alone, or stories that walked with “the people.” In recent years, Ivins echoed the desperation that some of us felt at the direction that the country is taking—the irrational war, the violence, the rising death toll both in Iraq and in our military, the collective amnesia about the origins of this war, the tax cuts, the erosion of federal funding for social programs and the list goes on.

Her last column (February 2007) for the The Progressive hits close to home. It is an homage to the students and parents of Pennsatucky, PA who took the Dover Board of Education to court over the teaching of Intelligent Design and won another landmark legal victory.  Ivin’s column salutes “Jessica Kitzmiller’s mama, Barrie and Fred Callahan, Casey and Jeff Brown and other parents and taxpayers living in the hardscrabble little town of Dover” for making sure that our Bill of Rights is “more than just dead words on old parchment.” It is particularly fitting that a great populist’s last salute would be to the Bill of Rights. Rest in peace, Molly Ivins.

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