Oh My But You Have a Pretty Face: Jesse Winchester’s “Brand New Tennessee Waltz”

Oh my but you have a pretty face,
You favor a girl that I knew.

Oh my.

Jesse Winchester’s lyrics starts out with that expression of startled awe: oh my!

It’s not “holy cow” or “my goodness” or “wow”. “Oh my” is that quick feint with polite astonishment, an involuntary gasp of amazement, too spontaneous to be refined or vulgarized: oh my.

Jesse Winchester was writing about his experience as a draft-dodger. He moved to Canada in 1967 to avoid service in the Viet Nam War. Obviously, he left someone behind. From “The Brand New Tennessee Waltz” (1970):

Well I left Tennessee in a hurry dear,
The same way that I’m leaving you
For love is mainly just memories
And everyone has him a few
When I’m gone, I’ll be glad to love you.

That line deserves a thought or two: love is mainly just memories? That’s not a shocking idea, really. It’s much the same as saying “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. It’s certainly much easier to be in love with a memory than with the person who wants you to throw out the garbage and stop switching channels. It leaves aside the issue of whether that kind of love can be real. He’s feeling “like one of your photographs\caught while I’m putting on airs”.

I don’t mind the Joan Baez version of the song, though I find her generally harder and harder to enjoy the older I get. She’s really not a very good singer at all– she just has a lovely voice. Well, she has a voice that would be lovely if she weren’t so damn obsessed with trilling it. Her best work is her slightest: the vocals on “Diamonds and Rust” nicely get under the lyrics instead of on top of them, like thick creamy icing.

When I was about 14, I biked down to Queenston Heights one summer day and climbed up Brock’s Monument, a tall, narrow cement column that culminated in a series of viewports embedded in a coarse sculpture of General Isaac Brock, the hero of the Battle of Queenston Heights, who was shot by the Americans when they spotted him on his white horse in his scarlet tunic.

The stairs up the monument were very, very narrow. I was on my way down when I encountered a small group coming up, so I stopped and stood against the wall and waited to let them pass.

The first person in this group was a girl about my age. She stepped level with me and turned to look at my face. We were just inches away from each other. That was 40 years ago, and I still remember thinking, “oh my, but you have a pretty face”. Not exactly in the words of the Jesse Winchester song, but the sentiment was the same: oh my.

I can no longer actually remember what she looked like. What I remember– and this is true of a lot of our memories, I think– is the intensity of the feeling I had about that face. In my catalogue of a lifetime of memories, of all the pretty girls I’ve ever looked at, I still remember it as one of the most startlingly beautiful faces I have ever seen. She had red hair and freckles and green eyes and beautiful full lips. The average blonde may be more beautiful than the average red-head, but a really beautiful red-head with green eyes is peerless. Her skin seemed luminous. I was so taken aback that I couldn’t avert my eyes and she seemed so startled by my stare that she stared back. She stepped away, up the stairs, and looked back once.

I waited at the bottom for a long time for her to come down, just to see that face again. She emerged a time later, supremely indifferent to my existence. She walked by me and left my orbit forever.

“Diamonds and Rust” by Joan Baez deserves a mention somewhere, if only for these lines:

Now I see you standing with brown leaves falling around snow in your hair
Now you’re smiling out the window of that crummy hotel over Washington Square
Our breath comes out white clouds, mingles, and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me we both could have died then and there.

For me, autumn has always been the most “real” season– the cold winds, the warm coats, the sound of dried leaves under foot, the stilled conversations, the sense of diminished opportunity. Memories of summer can drift into haze, ennui, an indeterminate place and time.

And then, Baez sings,:

Now you’re telling me you’re not nostalgic/
then give me another word for it/
you were so good with words/
and at keeping things vague

Vague, I suppose, and non-committal. “You were so good with words” is both an accusation and a lacerating confession: I believed you. I may have been a fool, but I believed you, and even with the advantage of hindsight, yes, I’m nostalgic– I wish I could believe again.

The Baez song also has a great opening: ”

Well I’ll be damned/
Here comes your ghost again…”

In case you didn’t know, the song is presumed to be about Bob Dylan. I believe she has confirmed that.

I just happened to be wandering around Kursk one day with 1 million men and a few tanks and…

At the end of World War II, German Field Marshal Erich Von Manstein surrendered to the British and was incarcerated at a camp in Bridgend (somewhere in England) for about 8 years. His health, apparently, was a concern, so he was released early from an 18-year sentence (after a mere 4 years). Then he lived for another 20 years, during which he apparently enjoyed the confidence of the new, democratic West German government.

Von Manstein had lots of friends, including Churchill and General Montgomery. They testified to his good character. Von Manstein, you see, was one of those “honorable” Prussian generals who only wanted to serve his country with courage, dignity, and good grooming.

How he suddenly found himself in Stalingrad with a million Germans with guns and tanks remains a mystery to this day.

Von Manstein wrote in his biography that if Hitler had only left the generals alone to manage the war in the East, Germany would have won the war. What a shame. Isn’t that what comes to mind when you read a statement like that? What a shame.  If only…

Aside from the fact that it probably wasn’t true– Russia was not France– you would think Von Manstein would have been glad– given his avowed personal reservations about Nazism— that someone prevented Hitler from taking over the world. Especially since it couldn’t be him, what with duty and honor and all that.

Like Rommel, Von Manstein claimed he never carried out many of Hitler’s criminal directives and that appears to be partly true. Other than the one to kill 5 million Russians and bomb Stalingrad to the ground, of course.

So conservatives love to point to a guy like Von Manstein because, from a certain, twisted perspective, he seems to represent the idea that war-making can be ethical, uplifting, spiffy, and delightful. What fun it would have been if that parvenu Hitler hadn’t spoiled the party!

Unfortunately, one has to accept the fact that, like Rommel, and Beck, Von Manstein didn’t really seem to have that big of a problem with Hitler as long as he was winning. The ethical issues only seemed to come up when the possibility of war crimes trials appeared on the horizon.

That’s the problem with the entire “conservative resistance” to Hitler– they almost all supported him regardless of his policies as long as he was winning. The problem with the Jews? Well, you had to obey orders or you would be shot. Except that the Italians weren’t very good at obeying those orders and they didn’t get shot.  They were elbowed aside by people like Von Manstein so the real Fascists could get he job done: round up those Jews.

When Hitler started to lose, like Kurt Waldheim, the good generals  suddenly seemed to realize that the concentration camps were a bad idea. “I knew it! I knew we would get in trouble for that…”

Would Nazi Germany have defeated Russia if Hitler had left it up to the Generals? Maybe. Suppose the Generals had decided that a two-front war was not viable– suppose they would have concentrated all of their fire power on Russia. And suppose they would have prepared better and started in April instead of June…. Suppose they had seized the oil fields in the Caucasus before attacking Stalingrad?

But even the generals did not anticipate the T-34 tank, in the huge numbers the Soviets were able to muster, or the millions of soldiers they could eventually hurl into the war.

More importantly, they had anticipated that Russia would surrender after massive defeats on the battlefield.  Russia was not going to surrender under any circumstance.  There was no “there” there, for the “victorious” generals to arrive at.  Just desolation, destruction, and eternal resistance.

Von Manstein vs Rudolph Hess

Hess: left Germany in May 1941, years before most of the worst Nazi atrocities were committed.

Von Manstein: fought to the end of the Reich.

Hess: betrayed Hitler who ordered that his plane be shot down.

Von Manstein: loyal to the fuehrer to the end.

Hess: wanted to negotiate a peace deal with Britain, possibly with the aim of turning the Reich’s full force upon the Soviet Union.

Von Manstein: I was just following orders, except when I didn’t. Critical of the officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler.

Hess: life in prison.

Von Manstein: released after serving 4 years of an 18-year sentence.

… because of his health. He died in 1973.

Self Esteem

Psychology is a religion. Like most religions, it has a core of beliefs –kidnapped from the vault of public cultural wisdom– that are at least partly true. Many of these insights can be fully apprehended in the work of good writers. Shakespeare wrote his plays hundreds of years before psychology became a formal discipline, but his works are filled with insights into human behavior that remain, often, more profound and more revelatory than any psychology text book. Mark Twain, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Bob Dylan… all great artists as a matter of course demonstrate remarkable insights into human behavior. Few of them would pretend that they have mastered a “science” that provides them with reliable knowledge about why people do what they do. Even Karl Marx had tremendous insights into the human mind, and he was far better at predicting human behavior than Freud ever was. (Ask yourself how often a persons’ actions, beliefs or attitudes reflect, intimately, his or her economic interest?)

Psychologists insist that their field of study is a “science”, like math, and physics, and chemistry. Here’s the problem: a reasonably competent engineer using the principles of physics and math and geometry could build a bridge that would, with reasonable certainly, support the weight of a specified load. Is there a reasonably competent psychologist out there who could take an anxious, depressed teenager, and guarantee that he or she will be happy with the application of a treatment based on his theories of human psychology? Could a reasonably competent psychologist even assure you — with justified confidence– that she understood exactly what the problem was? Could he examine your failing marriage and prescribe a course of action that will certainly save it?

Any psychologist might tell you that a particular woman is insecure and has low self-esteem and requires a husband who can be like an approving father-figure in her life. An economist might tell you she’s looking for someone with money. Neither of them will be right all of the time, and probably not even most of the time, but I would bet on the economist most days.

Psychologists do a lot of labeling because it’s a tool of the industry. Without the named syndrome, there can be no treatment paid for by insurance companies. Without a named syndrome, there is no authority, no industry, no power.

Like all religions, it claims to know who is saved (the sane) and who is not (the mentally ill). Unlike most religions– in North America and Europe, at least– it has been able to insinuate itself into government institutions and the justice system so that the weight of government authority can be brought to bear against heretics. No court would accept the testimony of a priest that a particular individual is a sinner, but it would accept the conclusion of a psychiatrist that a particular individual is irrational. I’m not sure that the psychiatrist’s testimony is really any more authoritative than the priest’s.

A heretic is someone who either doesn’t meet the psychologist’s standard for “normalcy”, or rejects the authority of psychology altogether. Heretics can be detained indefinitely, deprived of life and liberty and property, and condemned to perpetual incarceration. They will be labeled: “unstable”, “neurotic”, “schizophrenic”, “obsessive-compulsive”, “depressed”, “PTSD”, and so on. Labels are very powerful. Most people are convinced that these labels actually correspond to a real set of standards and rules that meet the criteria of scientific “evidence”. They don’t.

Consider this: if a bridge collapsed killing or injuring dozens of people and there was legal action and the court heard from engineers about the structure of the bridge and the materials used and the design, you could be reasonably sure that the information presented is soundly based on tested and proven scientific information. You could bring in any number of engineers and they would all agree, at least, on the basic principles of design and material. But when a psychologist testifies, for example, that a man has “psychopathic tendencies” and is lacking in “empathetic response” or a woman (Teresa Lewis) has “dependent personality disorder”, we have no idea if these are real, objective syndromes, or just his opinion all dressed up in polysyllabic babble. It would not be difficult at all to find another person with the title “psychologist” to testify that the subject has no syndromes at all: he’s just bad, or she’s just “needy”.

In fact, in the past few decades, it has become almost impossible to have a suspect classified as mentally ill during the commission of an offense in U.S. courts. (I don’t agree with this development either– for different reasons– among other things, for example, Teresa Lewis has an IQ of 72.).

Like religion, psychology has had it’s schisms and heresies. Freud, Jung, Adler, Skinner, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Moslem…

Unlike most religions, psychology tries to claim it is a science. It is a religion claiming to be a super-religion, so far above subjective experience that all competing religions must bow before it. In that respect, it is very much like a religion: all other religions are false. A devout psychologist believes he has an explanation for religion that is based on his scientific knowledge of how your mind works. He’s partly right. It’s the way your mind works. And the way his mind works, with it’s compulsive obsession with creating for itself the illusion that it understands why people do what they do or feel what they feel.

Psychology is no more a science than Calvinism. Like Calvinism– and a broken clock– it’s get things right twice a day.

Like religion, psychology is used by those in power to exploit and oppress the powerless, to pay itself, to charge people for its service of declaring a person sane, or cured, or recovered.

Like a religion, most of the assertions made by psychologists can’t be proven or disproven. This man is schizophrenic. This man is possessed. This woman is in denial. This woman is self-righteous. This child has a trauma. This child is guilty. This person is depressed. This person is in despair.

Christian Pop

I am an Important Person

They cite my favorite piece of sociological data: In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes. David Brooks, NY Times, July 18, 2010

That’s a fascinating piece of information. If it is to be taken at face value– and I’m not sure it is– our society would seem to be in big trouble. Our kids think it’s all about them.

The social workers and therapists rise as one in a chorus of outrage: but everyone is important. This is great. This is progress. Finally, we have society in which most of us have positive self-esteem.

And I think that is probably correct, if regrettable on some level. Have you ever worked with someone who had low self-esteem? It can be unpleasant. Sometimes a person with low self-esteem can be a bit paranoid and resentful and lacking in initiative– because they are afraid of screwing up. People with healthy self-esteem seem to me more willing to take initiative, trust their own judgment, and expect good results.

Brooks connects this stat to Mel Gibson–he of the infamous drunken tirades– even though Gibson is from the humble generation, the low self-esteem group. In fact, I think Brooks has it all wrong. A lot of Gibson’s fury probably derives from his low self-esteem, not from his ego. This is a man who has to demand respect from people, because, deep down, he knows he will never be able to earn it on his own merits.

And I note the adventures of Carl Friedrich Goerdeler and the Mendelsohn Statue in Leipzig (May 22, 1930–March 31, 1937).

Who was this strange, puzzling man, who advocated the destruction of Poland, the ascendancy of Hitler, .. and, most mystifyingly, the preservation of a statue of the composer Felix Mendelsohn in front of the Gewandhaus concert hall in Leipzig? He traveled around the world warning everybody about the danger of the Nazi regime, while begging foreign governments to respect Germany’s desire to regain control over their colonies, and the Sudentanland. He spent hours trying to decide which of the Hohenzollerns would occupy the throne once he had personally removed Hitler.

Here and There: Neo-Puritanism and the Dutch

I am prompted by this ridiculous story about a young woman training to become a teacher. She had once posted a picture of herself drinking, wearing a pirate hat, at a party, on her Myspace page. later in life, while in placement as a prospective teacher, her supervisor googled her and spotted the picture and expressed his deep, solemn, disapproval. He and the dean of Millersville University School of Education, in their ultimate, beneficent, instructional piety and wisdom, decided that Ms. Stacy Snyder was thereby not worthy of a teaching job, and denied her a teaching degree.

Ms. Snyder went to court and, stunningly– to me– lost. (Of course, this was a U.S. court, where judges are elected by the same people who made Britney Spears a household name). The ruling was that this was not an infringement of her right to “free speech”. Is that what they thought the issue was?

How dare they? How dare those puritanical, self-righteous, stupid zealots deprive this young woman of her dreamed-of career because she didn’t meet their fanatical standards of purity and innocence?

I’ll bet those gentleman are patriotic. I’ll bet they are pious. I’ll bet they are believers. I’ll bet they would feel far more comfortable living with a bunch of Islamic extremists than they could ever imagine. I’ll bet that deep down in their tiny, crispy, blackened little hearts, they would love to force Ms. Snyder to wear a burka.

* * *

One thing I’ve always liked about the Dutch– and one reason a lot of people don’t like them– is this kind of pragmatism that was apparently too rational and sensible for the delicate Americans.

July 9, 2010

[I’m going to note in fairness here that getting accurate, detailed information about this well-worn story about the six-year-old kissing his classmate is difficult, and there are websites out there that believe the offense was more serious than just one kiss. On the balance of things, however, I still think giving the six-year-old a suspension was a tacit confession that the adults in charge had no clue about their jobs, children, or life. While I’m at it, let me note that as for the woman who sued McDonald’s because the coffee was too hot– I’m on her side. There’s a lot more to that story than the media generally admits. It’s become a stalking-horse for conservatives who want to relieve corporations of liability for their defective or dangerous products.]

Speaking of alleged urban myths… has there been a single confirmed use of the “date rape” drug yet?

We appear to have quietly entered an era of Neo-Puritanism in North America. While you can show any kind of violence, blood-letting, torture, cruelty, dismemberment, and murder on television or movies at any time or place, we have become extremely weak-minded and hysterical at the idea of sex.

Part of this is due to the unfortunate, unholy alliance between feminist psychology and Christian fundamentalism in the 1980’s. Off-hand, you might think these two cultural streams had very little in common. They did. But there was one thing they shared: an almost frantic paranoia about sexuality. The result: a kindergarten student is suspended for kissing a classmate on the cheek. Another student is taken away in handcuffs are drawing pictures of weapons. And another student is busted for waving a chicken-finger like a gun.

But the most egregious sins of this ilk are committed by middling managers– people who have some authority because they are astute suck-ups with a bit of education who can fill in forms and transfer money to consultants. They are afraid to make real decision and, therefore, not really smart enough to evaluate advice either. They always tell you, “the consultant said…”, or “the expert said…” So they see the 6-year-old kissing a classmate and they are too crumblingly stupid to realize that this was not ever what was intended by the term “sexual harassment”. * * *

What if your school day consisted of playing guitar, making papier-mâché “aliens” for your Mars project, dropping eggs from the roof to see how they splattered, and learning how to create puppets? Insanity, right? That’s how St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights operates.

I don’t know why it’s taken me 54 years, but I have finally begun to realize just how arbitrary so many of our social and cultural institutions are. In the 60’s and 70’s, we often talked about how schools basically train us to be mindless consumer drones, but, only a few years later, we began to “realize” how impractical it would have been do things otherwise.

And here is St. Ann’s, a towering affront to conventional wisdom. St. Ann’s does not award grades. There are few rules. Students are encouraged to explore their creative sides. And the kids are all right– they go on to good colleges and universities. The sky does not fall in on them.

I have no problem believing that a school like this would be quite successful, and that the students who spend all of their high school years in this institution would be capable, accomplished, and competent, and ready to take on the world.

I think thirty years ago I would have believed the products of this system would be nearly illiterate. Just as I would have believed that someone without access to surgery would die young. Or that a nation without a military (like Costa Rica) would be invaded by its neighbors.

At the same time, the Obama Administration is pushing the Bush educational program: teaching to the tests. Firing teachers and principals if a school does not meet the minimum average. Not an iota of effort made in the direction of teaching children how to actually think: we’ve gone back to the 1950’s where we only want them to read, write, and show up at the assembly line– or, more likely, Walmart, for their minimum wage jobs– and consume, consume, consume.

Go into debt — the modern form of indentured servitude.

Paying the Artist

“The chart linked to the left gives you a rather dramatic picture of the state of the art in terms of artist’s earnings from recorded music. As you can see, the picture is rather dismal. It appears that an artist’s best chance of making any kind of living at all from his own recorded songs is to sell the CD directly to the public, at gigs or online.

Music Industry – the Chart!

You can’t ignore an omission (forgivable– that’s not what the page is about): the chart doesn’t account for the role of publicity and promotion in CD sales. But it does make it clear that the trade-off, for the artist, is absurd. In exchange for access to the “star-making-machinery” of Sony or BMG, you sell a gazillion units, and then get to turn over pretty well all of your earnings to the record company. No– you don’t even “turn over” the profits– you will never even see them, for the music industry skims off almost everything– and I mean that literally– almost everything– before turning over a pittance to the artist. But then, you get to be on TV. You get promoted. You get fame. You get the girls. You get broke.

I have said this before and I’ll say it again: I believe the government should step in and set standards for contracts between musicians and record companies which guarantee that the artist receives a “reasonable” portion of royalties for every unit sold. It also needs to regulate how much the recording industry can deduct from an artists royalties for the cost of “promotion”. To me, those charges have always seemed like General Motors deducting money from the wages of assembly line workers to cover “advertising”. Why the hell should the assembly line workers pay for the cost of doing business? Especially when you find that a lot of these expenses are fees paid to shadow entities that are actually owned by the record company itself– like “image consultants”, market researchers, arrangers, and so on.

The most compelling paradox of the music industry remains this: would any artist be happy to know that his music is not being pirated? Yes, nobody’s stealing your music. You are so lucky.

So what’s a young recording artist/singer/songwriter to do? Would they really want to go back to the pre-internet lottery system: if you get chosen (by a record company) and you’re lucky and you get a contract, you get rich? And everyone else has absolutely no way to reach a potential audience.

I suspect that the current reality is what is going to work as well as anything can work in this world. New artists practice and play when they can, record their own CD’s cheaply with newly accessible technology, and sell them online and at their performances.

The music industry has never, probably, been so democratic: anybody can reach a large potential audience via the internet, post a video on Youtube, post their music at iTunes, and keep their fan base informed via Facebook.

But without the machinery of the music industry establishment, their prospects are dismal.