The Harper Valley PTA

When I was very, very young, I actually kind of liked this song, even though it was country, and obviously a little cheesy.

The Harper Valley PTA sends a note home with a little girl. It’s addressed to her mother. The Harper Valley PTA has decided to take it upon itself to correct Mrs. Johnson’s approach to parenting. Mrs. Johnson, it seems, has been going around with men, drinking, and just generally “going wild”. She wears her dresses “way too high”.

The PTA just happens to be meeting that afternoon and Mrs. Johnson struts right over to the meeting and walks up to the front and lays it on the line for the Harper Valley PTA:

Well, there’s Bobby Taylor sittin’ there and seven times he’s asked me for a date
Mrs. Taylor sure seems to use a lot of ice whenever he’s away
And Mr. Baker, can you tell us why your secretary had to leave this town?
And shouldn’t widow Jones be told to keep her window shades all pulled completely down?

Well, well. I really do like the wrap-up:

And you have the nerve to tell me that you think that as a mother I’m not fit.
Well this is just a little Peyton Place and you’re all Harper Valley Hypocrites.

I liked that “as a mother, I’m not fit”– punchy and thunky. Wow. You almost feel sorry for this mythical institution, the Harper Valley PTA. I liked the song. Everybody did– it was a huge cross-over hit. I dare say I thought, there, that will be the end of hypocrisy in the world. Now that we’ve all agreed about how contemptible it is.

The funny thing, you just know that the thousands of Harper Valley PTA’s across the country all loved the song too. They all probably sang along, snapping their fingers, and shaking their heads at those hypocrites.

It calls to mind Jon Stewart’s joke at the Oscars in 2008: listing the films that dealt with important social issues, he closes with “and none of those issues was ever a problem again.”

Or fat, pant-suited, middle-aged women in Las Vegas joyfully singing along as Kenny Rogers contemplates putting Ruby “in the ground”.

There was a brief flurry of songs about hypocrisy in the early 1970’s and Joe South– improbably– won a Grammy with “Games People Play” in 1968.   There was “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band and “Indian Reservation” by the Raiders.  There was “Billy Don’t be a Hero”.   and “One Tin Soldier”.

It was a veritable orgy of righteousness and purity.

It was real trend!

Don’t forget– this is the year the “Little Green Apples” beat “Hey Jude” as “Song of the Year”.

The New Seekers had a worldwide hit with a Coke jingle (“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”). How sad is that? Wow. Makes me wish I could go back in time just so I could hate that song even more than I did.

There is a War: Necessary Evils

“Perhaps,” he added, “they should clarify it. We were in the middle of a war, and there was no teaching on that. But the church only gives general moral guidance, and people of good faith have to interpret that guidance.”

Reverend Brian W. Harrison, Catholic Apologist for Torture, NY Times, February 26, 2010.

That’s lie number 1. Reverend Harrison, defending a Catholic defender of water-boarding, rather glibly qualifies his stance: we were in a war. In a war, torture is allowed. In a war, water-boarding is not torture. In a war, human dignity doesn’t count. In a war, all the things we live for, all the things of the greatest spiritual and moral significance, don’t matter.

No, it’s just torture. Torture is torture is torture. Torture is the act of a savage, a barbarian, of a people so utterly bereft of morality and spirituality and ethics, that they should be sponged off the face of the earth. I say “sponged”– not killed or beaten or abused or– heaven forbid– tortured. Sponged– sucked out of government and institutions; squeezed out of positions of authority and influence. Torture is what we, in that remarkable compact called “society” and “culture” and “democracy”, cannot abide, and the right to be treated with dignity at all times– no matter what the suspicion or crime or act– cannot be abridged.

It’s too late to undo much of the damage now. When America’s enemies capture a soldier or a scientist or journalist– why not torture? Reverend Brian W. Harrison, defending the American government, has declared that torture is morally acceptable, as long as it is necessary, and by God, when America attacks us, whether we are Muslims or communists or negroes, it is necessary.

Perhaps the most amazing facet of Reverend Brian Harrison’s remarkable hubris is the astonishing arrogance of it: I have the authority to proclaim that God himself approves of one of us violating the most sacred right of another of us, to deprive him of dignity, to extract whatever information he will give, to enact a sadism, an indignity, a violence, a cruelty beyond imagination for most of us.

Ye humble sinners: cower before Brian Harrison and quake with tremulous awed appreciation! Then go forth and torture, because it is something, according to Harrison, that Jesus would do, if necessary, and if Jesus were here today, he would find it necessary.

Reverend Harrison, like most apologists for torture, falls back on the canard that lives can be saved through torture. He proposes that a terrorist exists who knows where a bomb is located and when it will go off and he is caught and interrogated and refuses to hand over the information voluntarily and we will know when he hands over accurate information after we beat or cut or electrocute or nearly drown him. All we have to do is beat, or cut, or electrocute or almost drown him. God will forgive us because we will have saved lives. End of movie.

There is the argument that this actual scenario is extremely unlikely. How often do we find out a bomb has been planted and then catch one of the people who planted it? How likely is that? 

It’s possible. Just not at all very likely, except in the TV program “24”, a homage to the art of torture.

I suppose it’s possible. It’s one of those nice little moral arguments that college students like to play with, just to see how far the logic applies. What if you had to abort the baby to save the life of the mother?

It strikes me that Harrison might not like the argument that without an abortion, a vulnerable young woman might commit suicide, or physically abuse her child. Not really very likely, right? Not a good basis upon which to decide whether or not abortion should be legal. No, it’s not, is it?

Are we in a war, which justifies the use of torture, according to Harrison and many other torture apologists? Only if you define “war” as something that we are perpetually in. And if we are always in a war, than torture is approved– said the Mad Hatter.

We are not in a war. There will always be criminals out there willing to commit criminal acts. That is completely different from an organized, national government committing the resources and manpower at their disposal to an attack on another sovereign state. 9/11 was no different than dozens of other criminal attacks that have occurred over the past 25 years, other than the remarkable profile it gained through sheer spectacle.

The Crime Rate and Stephen Harper

The crime rate in Canada has been declining for about 10 years.

So whatever it is we do now is actually working.

That won’t stop Stephen Harper from introducing his mean-spirited “tough on crime” legislation, because it’s a sop to the party base.  If the crime rate continues to go down: it worked!  But, best of all, if the crime rate actually goes up after his new anti-crime measures, he will simply say that that proves we need even more of them!

(Conrad Black- of all things– after his personal experience of prison– is opposed to Harper’s plans.)

2010 Winter Olympics

The great baseball writer, Bill James, pointed out that the difference in ability between the most famous and successful ball players in the major leagues and the top tier of potential replacement players in the minor leagues is really not all that great. We think the difference is monumental– because the media give obsessive, monomaniacal attention to the players at the top level. We think, what will the Yankees do without Derek Jeter– they’ll never win another World Series! But the reality is that Jeter is only a bit better than his top potential replacement, and that difference is just a small portion of the abilities of the New York Yankees as a whole. In other words, the Yankees will generally do just about as well without Jeter as with him.

Want proof? Check out the stats of any team that trades away (or loses) one of their famous superstars. You will find that they often perform as well or even better without him.

Or all you have to do is study the stats. Pick any moment during the regular season and look at the key statistical measures of performance in baseball. Recognize all the names? Probably a few, but not all of them. Over and over again you will find the names of people you never heard of, in the top ten in the league in ERA, or OPS, or fielding percentage, or what have you. (One obvious current example: Jose Bautista from the Blue Jays leads the league in home runs.) You ask yourself, who are these nobodies? How can they possibly be in the top ten when I’ve never heard of them? The answer is, those nobodies are usually younger players who are actually performing at a higher level than their famous team-mates are. They are often actually performing better than Derek Jeter. They are often paid 1/10 or less what the famous team-mate makes.

To add to the distorting effect, established players who had big years in the past are often rewarded with huge contracts on the expectation– almost always erroneous– that they will do the same or better in the future. Then, because they have big contracts, the can’t just sit on the bench making the manager look like a fool. They must be put into the field to “prove” that the team made the right decision in giving him a big contract. Often, a superb prospect languishes on the bench, waiting for the star to come out of his slump… so he can be traded.

That seems to shock some people who seem to have this naive faith in the media to correctly size things. Why would there be 25,000 articles about Jeter and only one article about his potential replacement, if they were roughly comparable? Well, obviously because you can sell more newspapers if you can convince the general public that Jeter is very, very, very important, and that his performance on the field is nearly god-like, and that the Yankees would be a gang of pus-spurting whinnying whine-bots without him, and they need to read about him.

It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: you will want to read about Jeter because we put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. You will want to see “Avatar” because every general interest magazine in the country has run an article about this movie– as if they just decided to do that on their own, and you want to watch Barbara Walters interview Sandra Bulloch because Sandra Bulloch is very important and brilliant because Barbara Walters allowed her to suck up to her and snag an interview.

Which leads me to my point: it should surprise nobody that the Swiss Olympic Hockey team is competitive with both Canada and the U.S. even if most of the Swiss players are nobodies. They are not famous, but they are not all that far below the NHL’s best in terms of talent and ability, and it only seems shocking to us that Sidney Crosby couldn’t single-handedly destroy them.

The shock of the Olympics hockey tournament for me was not the Swiss or the Americans. It was Canada defeating Russia– manhandling them, really– 7-3. I cannot recall a game in which, in international competition, Canada so dominated an extremely competitive opponent. It may have been the best game ever played by a Canadian team in World competition. All right– I’m exaggerating. I don’t know. It’s just the best, most complete game I’ve ever seen Canada play. They were intense and fast and crisp and utterly at ease tearing circles around a very, very good Russian Team.

I suspect that the reason Canada had trouble with the Swiss and the Americans and the Slovakians was because they didn’t get a 3-goal lead. Instead, with a 2-goal lead, Babcock chose to go to a 1-2-2 formation and play defense. This, of course, is a repudiation of the strategy that proved successful, and an attempt to embrace a failed strategy instead. The Americans must have thought, “thank God they stopped trying to score on us– we were getting creamed.”

Baseball teams, famously, do the same thing when they bring in a defensive replacement for the good hitter who can’t field very well. If this improved your team’s chances of winning, why not do it from the start? Your good-hitting/poor-fielding player may well already have cost your team the runs that give your opponent the lead, and the defensive player won’t hit the home-run in extra-innings that wins the game. It’s not logical.

The this way, the manager can claim that he managed and take credit for good luck.


“I’m living proof that dreams do come true.” Ozzy Osbourne.

The most charming moment of the Olympics: Charles Hamelin’s girlfriend Marianne St-Gelais going nuts during the final laps of the 500 metre race as Hamelin pulled ahead and then hung on to take the gold medal. St-Gelais also medaled, silver, in the women’s 500m.

I would give her a medal for her performance in the stands, for pure, unadulterated joy.

Crazy Heart

Even “The Village Voice” liked this movie. I liked it too but my expectations were too high. I found it hard to forgive the totally unnecessary, contrived, phony crisis that you could see coming a mile away.

Roger Ebert mentioned that a friend of his compared it to “The Wrestler”. I did too, but not to its advantage. Both films are about old, failed entertainers trying for one last shot at redemption. Both of the heroes fall short. But “The Wrestler” did not make the compromises “Crazy Heart” made. It didn’t pander. It didn’t become dishonest. When Bad writes his new song and Jean gets all weepy because now she’ll only remember her bed as the place Bad wrote that great song in before he left her… awful.

The other movie I thought of was “Once”. “Once” did something remarkable: it set you up for a song that is supposed to be great and delivered. Better yet– it didn’t force the actors to stand around afterwards telling you what a great song that was that you just heard– it just delivered it. Beautifully. The most memorable shot: the drummer, in the studio, listening for the rhythm. In “Crazy Heart”, he would have flashed a godawful grin at just how fabulous this poor misunderstood artist was. The director wouldn’t have cared what a drummer really looks like– he would only be concerned about hammering it home to the audience that this is a great song. He wouldn’t have trusted the audience to draw their own conclusion. In “Once”– amazingly– you can see the drummer listening for his rhythm.

Bad doesn’t seem to have a singing voice when he’s working on a new song. He doesn’t handle a guitar like a career performer handles a guitar. His dialogue with the sound crew at the concert with Tommy Sweet struck me as contrived: it’s too tidily what I think they think you think it would sound like.

I also had trouble believing that Jean would fall in love that quickly or easily with washed up, alcoholic, smelly old Bad Blake. I was waiting for the moment of charm or amusement or inspiration. Instead, I saw the neediness, the carelessness, and the desperation. Those are not usually attractive traits. “Crazy Heart” was in too much of a hurry to move on. It didn’t take up the challenge. When does she begin to see romantic possibilities, and why?

The Unspeakable Tragedy of Stefan Kiszko: “For a Laugh”

There is something about Stefan Kiszko’s story, among many, many stories of wrongful convictions, that is especially poignant.

The bare bones: on October 5, 1975, Lesley Susan Molseed, an 11-year-old girl from Manchester, England, was murdered on Rishworth Moor. She was not sexually assaulted but her assailant masturbated over her body.

(I don’t even know what a Rishworth Moor is but it sounds dark enough, and drab and dreary.)

The police needed a suspect.

They never choose a well-spoken, middle-class, white professional who knows how to get a good lawyer for these things. Virtually never. (An exception.)

Enter Stefan Kiszko, 26 years old, a Ukrainian immigrant, with a few strange habits. He happened to live nearby and awaited disaster. Kiszko lived with his mother and compulsively wrote down license numbers of cars that annoyed him. One of these license numbers matched the number on a car seen driving in the area in which the body was found.

Kizsko suffered from anemia and other medical complications.

He initially came to the attention of the authorities when three teenaged girls went to the police and claimed that Stefan Kiszko had exposed himself to them. The police picked him up and questioned him and quickly formed the opinion that this was just the kind of suspect they were looking for in the unsolved Lesley Molseed case. Take that as you will. Then they found the license number in his notes– case closed.

As always– and, as usual, without consequence– the police broke the rules. They questioned him without advising him that he could have a lawyer present. They did not inform him that he was a suspect in the Lesley Molseed murder. They denied his request for his mother to be present. They bullied and cajoled and intimidated and harassed him for hour after hour after hour and then they told him he could go home if he would only sign the confession. According to the Guardian Newspaper, Kiszko had the emotional and mental age of 12.

A smart police officer— well, let’s say, a conscientious police officer– would have realized that Kiszko was vulnerable and easily led and might have looked for something in the confession that provided independent collaboration of the story. A detail that would have been unknown to anyone but the perpetrator. No such luck. I don’t know if they even thought of it, but no such evidence was brought forward.

But that’s not the “industry” of policing. The “industry” of policing is the arrest and conviction of individuals blamed for specific crimes. Whether or not the individual actually committed crime isn’t always relevant to the “success” or goal of the industry. People should understand that. There is a reason why the police and prosecutors are so reluctant to give up on a prosecution even when there is overwhelming evidence of innocence.

As someone who is not in that industry, I think about that a lot. If I had been a cop, the first thing I would have wanted out of Kiszko, if he was going to confess, is something we didn’t already know. A type of knot. A weapon. An artifact. The position of the hands on the body. Anything. I think I would have been troubled if there was nothing like that in his confession.

Maybe a cop thinks that no one would ever confess to a crime he did not commit. [Be it noted that Albert DeSalvo– the Boston Strangler– “confessed”, and allegedly provided the police with details “only the murderer could have known”; DNA testing proved that his confession was false. One can only conclude that the information only the murderer could have known was probably actually provided to him by the police.] I don’t find it so unbelievable. The psychological pressure on a suspect must be unbelievable. It must be like someone constantly poking at you with a pointed stick, jabbing you again and again, stopping for a moment, then starting again just as you begin to relax. And it will all end if you only please please please sign this piece of paper.

Kiszko was tried in July 1976. As usual in cases of wrongful conviction, his lawyer appears to have been incompetent. (Where’s the Hollywood Movie about this lawyer?) In fact, in express contradiction of Kiszko’s wishes, his lawyer made a defense of “diminished responsibility”. He didn’t do it, but if he had, he wasn’t responsible. Needless to say, this strategy undermined Kiszko’s alibi (that he was with his aunt at the time, and then in a store). His lawyer also failed to provide the court with evidence about Kiszko’s medical condition (a condition which made it unlikely he could have carried the body to where it was found) or, astonishingly, that his semen did not contain any sperm (sperm was found in the semen found on Lesley Molseed’s body).

That last fact alone should have disqualified Kiszko from suspicion.

The prosecution apparently knew these facts and failed to provide them to the defense, as they are required to do.

Philip Clegg, an attorney who assisted on the case, later admitted he had doubts about the confession and Kiszko’s guilt at the time. Bravo for you Clegg.  (Cue the sound of one hand clapping.)

The jury must have respected the police an awful lot because they didn’t see any flaws in the case and voted 10-2 for conviction (in Britain, the jury need not be unanimous). Did they think the evidence looked thin but the police probably had stuff they couldn’t show in court?

Awards, medals, and court appointments for all concerned!

A life sentence for Kiszko.

“We can find no grounds whatsoever to condemn the jury’s verdict of murder as in any way unsafe or unsatisfactory”. Lord Justice Bridge, on appeal.

After five years in prison, and innumerable threats from other prisoners, and several vicious beatings, Kiszko began to show signs of mental deterioration and schizophrenia.

He was denied parole because he continued to claim he was innocent. In fact, he was diagnosed as delusional precisely because he claimed he was innocent. All the same, he was denied effective treatment and was shuttled around from prison to prison, hospital to hospital, until he was pretty well destroyed as a human being.

Until he was pretty much destroyed as a human being.

Around 1987, a gentleman named Campbell Malone took an interest in the case, at Kiszko’s mother’s urging, and began to examine the evidence. It seems to take a long, long time to “examine evidence”. Years continue to go by. Kiszko sits deteriorating in prison and years and years go by.

But meantime… Kiszko’s very own lawyer, David Waddington, had become Home Secretary. He would soon be appointed to the House of Lords! David Waddington, you see, was pro capital punishment!

It didn’t take all that much work, really. With the help of a private detective, — why do years go by??– Campbell Malone was able to determine that strong alibis existed for Kiszko, that he was incapable of leaving sperm on the crime scene, and, most astonishingly, the three girls who saw him exposing himself had lied.

They did it, they said, “for a laugh”.

The Yorkshire Police and the forensic scientists involved in the conviction never apologized. Judge Lane apologized but didn’t think he’d do anything differently the next time.

In November 1992, Kiszko, emotionally and psychologically destroyed went home. He became a recluse. He was promised 500,000 pounds compensation but never received it. One year later, he died of a massive heart attack

In one of the few acts of true grace in this sad, sad story–as all the police and prosecutors blamed each other and insisted they were all good and wise and just– Lesley Susan Molseed’s sister had the remarkable good grace to attend Kiszko’s funeral in acknowledgement of his innocence: Kiszko, it turns out, was just another victim.

In October 2006, a man named Ronald Castree was arrested and charged with raping and beating a prostitute. A DNA test proved he was innocent. Ironically, it then proved a match to another specimen — in November 2006, Castree was arrested and charged with Lesley Molseed’s murder. His DNA matched that of the semen found on the body.

I am so pleased that today we have finally put things right.” Police Superintendent Max Maclean.

And that is quite possibly the most obscene statement of all. “We have finally put things right”. Police Superintendent Max Maclean, you are a fucking liar.

No, you haven’t. You never will. It’s simply not possible anymore.

Not until the little girls have had all their laughs.

* In the U.S., assuming Kiszko had been executed– a likely event– , no one would ever have found out he was innocent because no court action can be brought on behalf of a deceased prisoner.

Stefan Kiszko

“I started to tell these lies and they seemed to please them and the pressure was off as far as I was concerned. I thought if I admitted what I did to the police they would check out what I had said, find it untrue and would then let me go” Stefan Kiszko

Thank God– only in the U.S. could we still have the drama of an execution of an innocent man — every other civilized country does not practice capital punishment. Still, for Kiszko, given his idiosyncrasies, it might as well have been a death sentence. Maybe it was worse.*)

“I would like all the officers responsible for the result to be specially commended and these observations conveyed to the Chief Constable” Judge Hugh Park, after Kiszko’s conviction.

Who are we? In prison, Kiszko was repeatedly, brutally attacked by other inmates because he was a sex offender. Perhaps they are simply more naked in their impulses, but it is striking that they didn’t see themselves all that differently from judges and juries, really.

More Details about the Stefan Kiszko Case.

I stopped tracking individual stories of wrongful convictions years ago. Why? There were too many to keep up with.  It’s too depressing, not because we, as a society, make mistakes: but because of the glee with which police and prosecutors openly flout the law and good practice in their desperate lust for successful prosecutions at the expense of judicial integrity.

The enthusiasm with which many citizens continue to advocate for capital punishment, longer sentences, harsher penalties, is testimony to our insatiable desire to seem righteous and our unbridled faith in the police to solve cases and arrest the right person.

We will be ferocious and hateful, if necessary, to defend our sense of righteousness. We will tolerate any amount of abuse and torture to provide ourselves the chimera of safety and security.

It should be the policy of the national parole board from now on to disregard the issue of innocence or guilt once a prisoner approaches the end of his sentence– so we don’t get caught in these catch-22’s anymore, in which a prisoner will not be paroled because he won’t admit he is guilty. What’s the big deal? He has almost served his sentence. Why do we insist he now validate the judgment and righteousness of the prosecution?

Well, it’s obvious why, and it’s wrong.

[2022-05: it appears that the judicial system is actually taking up my suggestion– that the National Parole Board disregard the issue of innocence and guilt when a prisoner becomes eligible for parole.]

The 2010 Grammys

I watched the Grammy Awards for a while. It was striking how much of the presentation consisted of spectacular lights and explosions and special effects. This is an acknowledgement of what the music industry really is about– making everything bigger and louder– rather than any kind of nod to actual musical qualities. If you want to impress the audience even more than the previous performer, God forbid you would do something more artistic. Hell no– just turn up the volume, get bigger amps, bigger lasers, bigger breasts, use a trapeze, strip.

The problem, of course, is diminishing returns. Like the previews at the Cineplex– eventually the amp is at 10 and then what do you do to impress? Tell a story? Develop a character? Couldn’t we just go to 11?

In the middle of all this— an award for Leonard Cohen– “lifetime achievement”. They couldn’t even spare a moment to actually perform one of the legend’s songs. Besides– how do you do a laser show to:

Suzanne takes you down
to her place near the river
you can hear the boats go by
you can spend the night beside her

At what point in the song do you set up the fireworks?

Well… you could. Why not?

Who was lip-synching? And does anyone care? Apparently Pink was not, even while drenched, hanging upside down from her silks. Beyonce looked to me like she synched. It’s pretty safe to assume that most pop/rock artists do. But I wish they would tell you before and during the performance. If you’re not ashamed of it, why hide it?

The Who did not appear to lip-synch their Superbowl appearance. They sounded awful all by their lonesome selves. Did Pete Townsend, 40 years ago, ever dream he would be doing a medley of his hits in front of 100 million people? A medley! I’m guessing that this appearance isn’t going to do much for their careers.

No longer hoping to die before he gets old.


Precious Paul Simon

The problem, always, with Paul Simon is that lurking behind every clever turn of phrase and every strong image is the college sophomore desperately trying to call your attention to one line or another written specifically to have attention called to it. Simon’s a good writer– sometimes an excellent writer. The pitch-perfect tone of “Homeward Bound” cannot be denied. But for every “on a tour of one-night stands/my suitcase and guitar in hand” there’s a “like a rat in a maze” (“Patterns”) or a “you read your Emily Dickenson/ and I my Robert Frost” (“Dangling Conversation”). And you cringe a little.

A critic once referred to “The Boxer” as “one of Paul Simon’s few unpretentious songs”. I thought that was right twenty years ago and it seems more right now. That means I can throw on a CD of 20 or 25 Paul Simon songs and thoroughly enjoy them… about once every two years. Try not to think about whether “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” proves his sophistication, or “El Condor Pasa” his world-weary sensitivity.

One of his better songs– though I barely noticed it for years– is “A Poem on the Underground Wall”. Typically, it’s not a novel concept or a highly original insight: graffiti as some kind of authentic urban poetry. In this case, I liked the last verse, as the hyperventilating bum slashes onto an advertising poster “a poem/comprised of four letters”.

The author of the poem is one of those vaguely ghostly, invisible personages that inhabit the landscape of urban decay and disillusionment, a ragged man, a shadow, who races away, his heart beating madly, after making his “statement”. Simon has the sense to stop the poem before it becomes too weighty, though he needlessly conjures an image of the vagrant being suckled by the “breast of darkness”. Yes, there’s the preciousness. You could never imagine Dylan doing that line.

Simon has occasionally slyly complained about being taken less seriously, or monumentally, than Dylan. That’s why. That and the fact that Simon’s best five songs wouldn’t crack Dylan’s best 25. But it’s a good song. The urban world back in 1965 seemed madly in love with regimentation, conformity, mindless consumption, and the endless pursuit of trivial gratifications even as it rotted from within. It seems even more so today and the pathos and futility of the four-letter poem seems even more poignant. A casualty talks back. Ten years later, maybe he occupied a Harry Chapin song: Sniper.

In an earlier song:

And the sign flashed out it’s warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said the words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And echoed in the Sounds of Silence.

Okay. Bit cheesy. But most clichés exist for a good reason. Somewhere in the faint, dark echo of their original inspirations lies something true and interesting.


A Saint in Every Dream

And they all pretend they’re orphans and their memory’s like a train
You can see it getting smaller as it pulls away
And the things you can’t remember tell the things you can’t forget
That history puts a saint in every dream
(“Time”, Tom Waits)

A great phrase in a great lyric comes to mind as readily as a lovely image you remember from a distant place of important events in your life. In this case: “history puts a saint in every dream”. I’ve wondered for years what exactly that means.

It’s not the kind of line you sing while hanging upside down, wet, on a trapeze dripping over those awestruck young women who all seemed, in their faces, to be screaming “I want to be her!” It’s something you overhear in a bar, over the smell of urine and stale beer, and the rumble of streetcars or trains, and the dismal cuckold of useless tears.

I think it means that what we don’t remember–that we are not conscious of– constantly intrudes on our interpretation of past events, especially when our memory of those events is suspect.

History is written by the victors, of course, including the emotional victors, and we typically interpret events in light of the prejudices adopted afterwards. Most of us probably remember that the Americans entered the war against Germany to stop them from killing Jews. They did not– they entered because Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany happened to be allied with Japan. Most of us probably remember a kind thing or two about someone who later treated us shabbily.

Only a few years before Pearl Harbor, Great Britain had negotiated a great peace with Hitler and Nazi rallies were held in Madison Square Gardens. A few years later, Stalin became our best friend, our comrade, until he too had to be reanimated. America supported Bin Laden when he took on the Soviets– we know how that ended.

But “history puts a saint in every dream”.