A Treatise Remembering the Thin White Duke

Many years ago, I was but a wee one who was still trying to forge my identity, my signature, my own style, if you will. At that age perhaps it was a bit young to even think about things like that, but everything you go through at that age would help hammer you into what you will become. I always had an interest in the space program – this was a time after NASA had landed astronaut Neil Armstrong on the moon, but also just after the failure of Apollo 13 put the kibosh on moon missions for a period. I also was beginning to build an interest in music, although in the beginning only one format was made available.

My mom and father were both avowed country music fans – to the point of using that line from The Blues Brothers where Joliet Jake and Elwood ask the woman what type of music was played in the honky tonk bar they’ve arrived at and she says, “Both types:  country and western” – so there wasn’t much beyond the staples of the time in the house:  Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn…you know, the basics. If there was some “renegade” country music played, it was George Jones or perhaps Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings or something along that level. I always knew that there was something else out there, especially when I poked around through my mom’s album collection and saw bands that looked nothing like the country artists she listened to, folks like The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, Jefferson Airplane…I knew someday I had to hear those groups.

Fortunately, that day came much sooner than either my mom or father ever thought would be possible. My father had another son by another woman, my half-brother Monty, who sometimes came around when he was “in the area.” On one of those trips, my half-brother and I ended up riding around in his Monte Carlo, for no apparent reason, when he finally said to me, “Hey, you like space…here’s something you should check out.” He pulled out a cassette and popped it into the player. After a few moments, the intro to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and its fade-in synthesizers gently entered my mind for the first time.

From the first listen to that song, I was hooked not only on the artist but on the music. The guitars, the lyrical storytelling, everything was there that was in country music, it just seemed better in this format. Monty would move on a few days later – leaving the cassette with me – and I would wear it out. I only saw him a few more times over my young life and, to this day, do not actually know whether he is alive or not.

When I heard about the death of David Bowie this morning from cancer at the age of 69, I remembered that time long ago in my life and how much that Bowie had been interlaced with my existence. The days of “Space Oddity”, of course, begat the Ziggy Stardust Era of Bowie’s work, where he took on the persona of an outer space alien that came to Earth. The music that emerged from that era – “Starman,” “Jean Genie” and “John, I’m Only Dancing” being particularly memorable – seemed to be something that others in what was called “rock music” weren’t doing.

Then came the stage of Bowie’s career that I particularly enjoyed. Blending the sounds of rock, soul, German and synthesizer music, the Thin White Duke epitomized the cool of the 70s. Supposedly an offshoot of his character from the film The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Duke was a distantly cool but always in tune person. Unfortunately, Bowie probably was able to draw the ability to conceive such a character – as I learned later in life – because of massive amounts of drug use (while drug use can help artistic performance and development, it can also be the destroyer of those same worlds).

Fortunately for Bowie, he was able to emerge on the other side for what was arguably his greatest phase of his career. Following a few Brian Eno/German influenced albums (especially Low and Lodger), the 80s would be where Bowie would truly bloom. Perhaps because of the video element added by MTV – or perhaps because of his own development as an artist – Bowie would crank out his finest work in this decade. Scary Monsters (and Super Freaks), Let’s Dance, Tonight and his work with Queen on “Under Pressure,” his Live Aid performance and his duet with Mick Jagger on “Dancin’ In The Street” all gave Bowie the credit as an artist that he truly deserved. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and, over the two decades since then, has simply delighted us fans with everything he ever did (and this is completely glossing over all the work he did in films and on stage as an actor).

And I’ve been fortunate enough to have been there for most all of it.

Bowie was formative in my early years and during my career in radio. That era of the 1980s was his heyday and was the apex of my career in Album Oriented Rock (AOR) radio and, in reflecting back on those times, it always seemed as if Bowie was just ever so slightly ahead of the curve, as he had been since his days of “Space Oddity” and Ziggy Stardust. Even after I left the radio business, his later work still had that artistic edge, looking forward to the next big thing, that was always the benchmark of Bowie’s life and career, whether it was in music, acting, art or a myriad of other areas he would dip his fingers into.

Perhaps it is a sign of age, or the passing of time, when we begin to lose our heroes, be they athletic, musical, acting or even familial, that it begins to hurt the worst. Even from my time in radio, I’ve been unfortunate to see men younger than me pass away:  Jani Lane of Warrant and Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots are two who come to mind off the bat, but their deaths were from their own problems and issues. Even some of the greats that I thought I’d have in my old age, like Stevie Ray Vaughan, were unable to join me in potentially making it to my rocking chair. Lemmy just passed and some of the others, like Bruce Springsteen and others, are on the other side of 60; hell, Bono only has a few years on me!

David Bowie led one of the most remarkable lives that mankind can even imagine. He was at the forefront of his generation, but he was also mindful of his place in the world. He was an artist, but he also appreciated the beauty in the work of others. The world is a much darker place without the visage of the Thin White Duke looking down upon it.

Which Side Are You On? “Star Wars” vs. “Star Trek”

WarsVersusTrek

There are many great conundrums in life. “Less Filling” versus “Tastes Great”; Ginger versus Mary Ann; and, since we just completed Thanksgiving, white meat versus dark meat. But there is potentially no greater debate than that of two of the greatest followings of the late 20th/early 21st century:  are you Star Wars or Star Trek?

Ever since the time of Jules Verne – hell, if we are serious, we’ve wondered since we drew images on the caves 35,000 years ago – man has tried to figure out what was beyond our earthly bounds. Leonardo da Vinci is alleged to have created blueprints for rockets and their flight; H. G. Wells used his imagination towards the subject to pen some of the great science fiction of the early 20th century and Albert Einstein actually did the math that would lead to our voyages to the stars. It wasn’t until other German scientists, led by Werner von Braun, actually harnessed the power of rocketry that those dreams became reality.

Since that time, mankind has achieved tremendous feats in the weightlessness beyond our Earth. There were the Apollo landings by NASA in the 1960s/70s, but the then-U. S. S. R. achieved longevity records for time in space and actually built the first long-term space station, Mir, in the 1980s (Skylab, for all of its exploits in the 1970s, only had three missions total with the longest lasting 84 days). Today, the International Space Station stands as perhaps the closest thing to mankind, regardless of nationality, joining together in our best efforts in space and its exploration.

The reach beyond the moon, however, has been limited to unmanned probes and satellites chocked full of cameras and data recorders that can capture the base information of the bodies it passes. These devices, however, lack the human capability of viewing the universe surrounding us and its wonder, of transmitting this astonishment back to a ravenous audience who wants to know what is out in the heavens beyond. Thus, we have to depend on the visionaries who have crafted a universe that soothes our curiosity somewhat but lights the fire of that same curiosity on another hand.

StarTrek

The visionary Gene Roddenberry was the first to take a crack at this difficult task. Star Trek, created by Roddenberry in 1966, showed a Planet Earth that didn’t recognize national boundaries anymore but organized under the “United Federation of Planets.” The flagship of the Federation was the starship Enterprise, captained by James Kirk (and later Jean-Luc Picard) and replete with all nationalities from Planet Earth on board.  There was even an alien, Mr. Spock, who hailed from the planet Vulcan. Their “five year mission” was to explore the galaxies and discover new situations, something that has been a human trait since crawling out of the primordial ooze.

The show wasn’t initially popular as people had a difficult time wrapping their minds around Roddenberry’s concept. Roddenberry was trying to detail the difficulties of society at that time in an arena where such discussion could be possible. While it may seem that Kirk’s machismo and swashbuckling style was the rule, examinations of race relations, destruction of the environment and the devastating effects of war were the overarching storylines that appeared. These themes (as well as many others) were the true staple of Roddenberry’s work on the program and over the wealth of Star Trek-related spinoffs over the past 50 years.

StarWars

In 1977, another entry came into the view of what the galaxy looked like. Envisioned by George Lucas and nearly as dear to him as Star Trek had been to Roddenberry, the movie Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977. Initially not thought to be much by the studios (Star Wars was a toss-in with American Graffiti by Universal Studios to sign Lucas to a contract), the film would turn out to be one of the biggest movies of 1977, earning over $775 million ($1.3 billion today) worldwide in box office receipts (all totaled, the Star Wars franchise has earned over $4.4 billion in its existence). The film would go on to have five sequels/prequels, with the sixth – Star Wars:  The Force Awakens – set for release on December 18.

Since Star Wars joined into the “vision of space race” with Star Trek, however, there has been a battle between the franchises for the minds of fans. Many involved in this battle believe that a person may accept one of the franchises but cannot accept the other, forcing many to choose sides in this epic battle. My question would be…why? The two shows come at the subject of the universe from two completely different angles and, through combination, offer an excellent approach.

When he first conceived Star Trek, Roddenberry envisioned the “perfect” state of humanity – perhaps most importantly peace among the Planet Earth’s nations – that continued to thirst for adventure, knowledge and exploration of the interplanetary universe that surrounded their ship. They would achieve those goals in a state-of-the-art vessel that included the scientific devices that might be found in any assortment of satellites along with the eyes that could relate the wonder of what was being seen.

Star Trek came at the questions regarding the universe from a purely scientific standpoint. There was the philosophical contemplation about man’s (or any species’) place in the galaxies, the dilemma over how to handle a race or species that wasn’t as scientifically advanced and many other conundrums that we face even today. The devices used during the run of the Star Trek franchise have also become scientific items that are commonly used such as cellphones, medical scanners and the like. The Star Trek universe is continuing to expand despite turning 50 next year… a new television/web series is set to premiere on CBS in 2017.

Instead of an array of devices (although some of them were quite impressive…who doesn’t want a lightsaber?), Star Wars chose to tell the story of space as an opera, a Shakespearean play, rather than as a scientific endeavor. The clash of good versus evil, father versus son and even the collision of worlds and their destruction formed the basis for what essentially was a soap opera for geeks (and we can say that proudly, by the way). Each new incarnation of the film extended the story and it isn’t over yet; over the next few years, there are two more Star Wars-specific films in the works and several movie projects on characters – providing “background” to the stories being told – that make up the Star Wars universe.

Being able to accept both Star Trek and Star Wars as a future existence would be perhaps the way it was meant to be. While we have the technological amazement and advancements that would make such a journey a true adventure, there is also the potential for the dramatic and even perhaps violent turns that such journeys can take. In a perfect world, an interdependency between the two franchises and their theories would also prove to be the best approach to the potential problems of intergalactic travel, with each side providing the answer to the questions that are presented.

Thus, as both franchises continue on their individual courses, perhaps they are more alike than they realize. Perhaps they look to achieve the best that the human being – and aliens – can achieve in the myriad of parts that make us whole. Perhaps, just perhaps, Star Wars and Star Trek are the epitome of what we can be rather than the “one side or another” proposition that is offered.

When All Else Fails, Attack the Messenger: Thoughts on the Third GOP Debate

After I took a week off last week, the third debate for the Republican Party snuck up on me. That week spent away from a computer left me with little debate preparation that would have given me some insight into what might be the major themes of Wednesday night’s soiree in Colorado, but that sometimes isn’t a bad thing. The ability to go in fresh sometimes will allow you to view things in a different light and present some new insights that you might not have previously considered. Unfortunately, the overall performance of the GOP in last night’s debate – and at the same time the presenter of the debate, the cable network CNBC – left me feeling nothing.

I should have known from the start of the debate that it was going to be a massive train wreck (and an apology to comedian Amy Schumer for using the title of her movie in that manner). Lead moderator Carl Quintanilla, a respected investigative reporter who has traversed the world (and an alumni of where the debate was held, the University of Colorado at Boulder, for trivia’s sake), opened the proceedings with one of those “eye roll” questions that occur far too often. Likening the debates to a “job interview,” Quintanilla asked the GOP candidates what was their biggest weakness (one of those bullshit psychological questions that come up sometimes in employment interviews). After getting several milquetoast responses from pretty much the entirety of the ten-person stage, the debate careened off the tracks.

At no point in the debate did it seem that Quintanilla had any control over what was going on in the event. Quintanilla allowed the candidates – ALL of them, not just a couple – to run roughshod over his direction of the event. I lost count of the number of times that there was little to no response to a question from the candidates and he often let the candidates interject at times when, according to the rules of the debate, they didn’t have a horse in the race (Carly Fiorina was particularly irritating in this account). His co-moderators – fellow CNBC journalists Becky Quick and John Harwood – weren’t much better with their questions and also were ridden like Grand Canyon mules over the span of the debate.

There was also no reason to have more than these three people asking questions of the candidates. I could have done without watching snake oil salesman Jim Cramer pushing his mug across the screen – even if it only was a couple of questions – and Sharon Epperson’s appearance wasn’t necessary either. In fact, if Cramer and Epperson’s raison d’etre was to give some more prep time to the triumvirate of Quintanilla, Quick and Harwood (who all seemed very unprepared for the event), they failed miserably.

With this said, there was no reason for the reaction from the GOP candidates to some legitimate questions that came up during the debate on Wednesday. It was a case of those under questioning shooting the messenger rather than answering the questions – regardless of their difficulty – presented to them.

One of the most popular methods of anyone under fire – whether they are in politics, entertainment or even the media itself – is to attack the person who is presenting the challenge to them. This is well-known in the debate world as an ad hominem attack and is recognized as a logical fallacy that allows for those under fire to sometimes escape the flames by turning the attack back on the questioner (the “messenger”). It is a tactic that has been well practiced by those in the GOP, railing against the “mainstream media” while at the same time avoiding queries about questions surrounding their past and/or their policies.

Give it to the men and Fiorina on the stage, they were quick learners during the debate last night. After the crowd expressed their displeasure with a line of questioning put towards former Governor Mike Huckabee about Donald Trump’s “moral purity” (a completely correct displeasure, by the way), the others seemed to grasp onto the “red meat” of attacking the media for the line of questioning would give them the desired response from the Republicans in attendance.

Dr. Ben Carson grasped onto that tactic next when questioned over his involvement with a nutritional supplement company called Mannatech. After stating that he had no connection with the company, Carson was challenged by Quintanilla regarding the usage of his image on their website, among other things. After Carson shot a shit-eating grin over his face following the umbrage of the audience to Quintanilla’s questions, he deftly was able to avoid the question.

The problem? The line of questioning was a viable one. The company in question, Mannatech, and Carson have had a relationship for the past decade. Carson shot many videos promoting the company and gave several paid speeches. The company has previously been sued by the state of Texas, resulting in a settlement with then-Attorney General (and current Governor) Greg Abbott for $5 million and the banishment of founder Samuel Caster from having any job with the company. The company has also settled a lawsuit with the Securities and Exchange Commission and still faces issues regarding the claims of cures their “dietary supplements” provide.

A similar situation arose in what many recognized as a “big” moment during the night’s debate. Senator Ted Cruz fed the lions of the right by rattling off the list of “insulting questions” asked by the CNBC panel. “This is not a cage match,” Cruz began (and you got the feeling this is one of those prepped answers he had been waiting to use). “Donald Trump, are you a comic book villain? Ben Carson, can you do math? John Kasich, will you insult two people over here? Marco Rubio, why don’t you resign? Jeb Bush, why have your numbers fallen? How about talking about the substantive issues?”

The problem was is that Cruz’s attack on the moderators was in response to, once again, legitimate questions from the panel. The Trump question was why his policies – including deporting 11 million people, building a nearly 2000 mile long wall along our border with Mexico and forcing them to pay for it and his handling of Russia and the Middle East – “sound like a comic book version of a presidential campaign?” Needless to say, Trump did not answer the question, instead replying to the Mexico situation by saying, “A politician cannot get them to pay…I can,” a non-answer if there is one.

Carson’s question was on how his flat tax plan – similar to that of tithing to a church (someone has to remind the GOP there is a SEPARATION between church and state) – wouldn’t leave the U. S. with a huge budget deficit. Instead of pointing out what cuts would be made or other tactics necessary, Carson instead responded by saying, “That’s not true,” and never answered the question.

Cruz himself dodged a legitimate question. When asked about why he opposed the recent deal in the U. S. Congress that would set the U. S. budget for the next two years, Cruz instead railed about how the moderators wouldn’t ask anything substantive and didn’t actually get around to answering the question presented to him.

And let’s not even get into Trump’s convoluted stance regarding guns…

When you have no defense for the positions you’ve taken, when you have no knowledge beyond the bare-boned rhetoric that has been presented, the only other course of action is to attack the messenger. The GOP seems to have done that pretty well – and not without some truly atrocious questioning by the CNBC moderators to bring it on – in avoiding being held responsible for their proposals and actions.

With this situation taken care of, there were some takeaways from last night’s debate. The one thing I consistently kept wondering about was what the candidates meant when they complained about how government doesn’t do anything. My knowledge of history looks at things like FDR’s “New Deal,” which helped to get the U. S. out of the Great Depression (along with World War II), how government investment in medical research found cures for major diseases such as polio and smallpox, investment in education (especially college educations) has allowed for the baby boomers to be the most educated generation in history and investment in sciences that led to NASA and our exploration of space (and this is just a small sampling). Instead of consistently railing about the “evils” of government, try to admit that sometimes things wouldn’t get done unless there was government intervention.

Secondly, I saw a bunch of candidates complain about Washington seven ways to Sunday as if it were a bastard stepchild. The takeaway I had with was “Why do any of these people want to do something that A) they aren’t going to invest in (in reply to my above thoughts) and B) they despise to the point that they do?” Out-and-out hatred of an institution isn’t exactly going to be something that makes those there welcome you to the table and it isn’t going to inspire confidence in how you will “change” it. Instead of “making America great again” (which is about as asinine a statement there is; our country is already great and it hasn’t gone anywhere except for those nimrods who see boogeymen around every corner), how about we “improve on the United States we have?”

As to the candidates, it was Rubio’s best debate to date and sets himself up well for a future run (perhaps 2020) for the nomination (I don’t see him getting it this year really, but it wouldn’t be a surprise). Chris Christie found his groove (too little, too late) and Kasich was pretty good about presenting a moderate Republican stance. I don’t like to say someone was a “loser” in the debate, but the “Fat Lady” is warming up in the wings for Bush. Rubio flicked aside Bush’s attack on his Senatorial attendance and voting record without breaking a sweat and Bush spent the remainder of the night awkwardly trying to regain his footing.

There’s less than two weeks to the next GOP debate (November 10), so some of the things I’d like to see done won’t come true. I’d like to see the “kiddie table” debate dropped (hey, if you haven’t dug yourself over the 2% mark by this point, you don’t have any viability in the race) and perhaps see a couple of those candidates that were on the “main stage” step aside. Perhaps a little contraction in the GOP race – say eight candidates instead of 14 – would allow some people to truly put their support behind someone with a realistic shot at winning the nomination. It won’t stop, however, the “red meat” rhetoric out of the GOP regarding their “persecution” by the “mainstream media.”