The myth of the reasonable, reality-based Republican died Jan. 15, 2022, in Richmond, Va.
That’s when Glenn Youngkin took office as Virginia’s governor. The Republican businessman won in a tremendous upset in a state that has been comfortably blue in recent elections. Biden won by 10 points, and even in this election, exit polls showed more people identifying as Democrat than Republican. Youngkin, who trailed in the polls until the last few days, won in part due to the usual failure of young people to show up and in part by keeping Donald Trump at arm’s length. He was the reasonable Republican, running alongside a Black woman for lieutenant governor and a Latino for attorney general.
And they’re off to a flying start.
Jason Miyares, the incoming attorney general, made some staff changes, which is typical. Less typical is to give virtually no notice before dismissing people who are holding the line on civil rights like the dudes on the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones. (Is that the right analogy? I didn’t watch much of that show.)
The Richmond Times-Dispatch especially noted that he fired someone with 20 pending court cases on housing discrimination. Lest you think Miyares is just interested in trampling on civil rights, he also terminated someone who has focused on scams targeting older people — someone who voted for Miyares.
(We’re going to get to Fishbone, I promise.)
Then Youngkin came in and fired off a blizzard of executive orders against vaccine and mask mandates. The latter is particularly related to schools, which he also targeted by banning critical race theory.
Youngkin’s a smart man. He knows critical race theory isn’t being taught in schools. He might as well have banned teaching nuclear fusion reactor maintenance to preschoolers. But he knows the base he built. When Terry McAuliffe, who had a successful term as governor last decade and was running again, commented that parents shouldn’t have final say in schools, Youngkin pounced, reassuring parents that they’ll have their say if he’s elected.
Of course, he’s only speaking about specific parents. I’d wager that a majority of Virginia parents want mask mandates in schools. But they’re not the ones issuing death threats to local school board members who have heroically held the line.
Go back to the exit polls. The biggest demographic swing from 2020 to 2021 was white women who didn’t graduate from college. In 2020, that was 56-44 for Trump. In 2021, 74-25 Youngkin.
(See the exit poll numbers.)
This isn’t a surprise. This is what Republicans have been peddling for years. They offer an alternate reality in which white people don’t need to feel uncomfortable.
Oh, you don’t want Gabe or Maddie to have to wear a mask in elementary school? It’s OK. We’ll take care of that for you.
Oh, you don’t want Jackson or Katie to read high school history books suggesting people who look like them may not have treated Black people with kindness throughout American history? Don’t worry. We’ll take those Black authors’ books off the shelves. We’ll make it seem as if Rosa Parks was just battling one municipality’s transportation agency — oh, that was an aberration, of course! And we certainly won’t tell them that all the Confederate statues you want to preserve were erected in the 20th century as a means of intimidating civil rights organizers.
Don’t worry about climate change. Yes, your opinion is just as valid as that bad person with a Ph.D. Don’t worry about poverty — at least, not anyone else’s. You can ignore the Black Lives Matter movement — a couple of protesters are violent, so they’re just corrupt. Jan. 6? Oh, that was antifa.
And don’t worry about thinking too hard. We have to have good guys and bad guys. No nuance. For all the wonderfully complicated things our species has done — the James Webb Space Telescope, the iPhone, Terry Bozzio’s drum kit — we love to simplify things.
That’s especially true in politics, where we’ve simplified the bejeezus out of things. You’re for or against us. Or you’re Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and you’re against everybody.
And look, I get it. I’m trying to get through the rest of my life without thinking about Bitcoin or non-fungible tokens. I’ll let Julie Nolke, the wonderful YouTube comedian who did the sketches explaining the pandemic to her past self, do the thinking for me.
Again, the pursuit of happiness through escaping difficult thoughts is not new. The Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction book of 1964 was called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. During the Bush administration of the early 2000s, a lot of people self-identified as “members of the reality-based community” because sources inside the White House indicated that such people were looked upon with disdain.
As I’m writing this, the day’s Google Doodle is “Get Vaccinated. Wear a Mask. Save Lives.” Only in this time and place would I see that and think, “What a bold stance.”
We used to ascribe such traits to other people. In high school, I was in the play Anastasia, which centered around a woman (played by someone on whom I had an unrequited crush, of course) who claimed to be the daughter of Russia’s last tsar. I played Chernov, an important henchman in the play and the 1956 movie who wasn’t present in the 1997 film or the 2017 Broadway musical that spawned a plagiarism lawsuit. That case was settled in 2019, which I had to look up in court records because reporters just don’t follow through on court cases.
Anyway, the line I remember was a classic: “You are true Russians, both of you. Realities never bother you for long.”
We have a lot of true Russians these days.
Anyway, I don’t want this to be a political podcast, even though I’ve rambled quite a bit here.
I wrote a rough draft about how we’re all doomed, keying in on the fact that Biden is unlikely to avoid being blamed for inflation, which has a lot of causes that have nothing to do with him other than the fact that economic growth and consumer demand are soaring, or the fact that voting-rights legislation is being blocked not just by Manchin and Sinema but by the entire Republican party — again, quote-unquote “reasonable Republicans” like Mitt Romney and Susan Collins tend to hide when such issues come up, or the fact that Republicans have broken color and gender barriers in Virginia and that no matter when the enlightened Millennials and Zoomers finally decide to vote in off-year elections, nothing will change that fact.
Women in power are supposed to be more enlightened. But who was the first female prime minister of the UK? Margaret Thatcher. Who’s the biggest crackpot in Congress? Marjorie Taylor Greene. Who’ll be the first female president of the United States? At this point, would anyone bet against Sarah Palin?
Look, on a personal level, I do just fine with Republicans in office. I get tax cuts, white privilege only grows, etc., etc. But I’m cursed with empathy for people like the kids I see in elementary school from low-income, first-generation, racially diverse families. And I have a master’s degree in liberal studies from Duke, and I’m pretty sure people like me would be hunted for sport in a Palin administration.
If you really want a political podcast by a Southerner named Beau, check out Beau of the Fifth Column. I’m jealous of him because he’s a much better ambassador for the enlightened South than I am. He has a strong Southern accent. I’m sometimes asked, “Hey, Beau, you’re from Georgia, so why don’t you have an accent?” I tend to respond by saying this is a Southern accent, and what you consider a Southern accent is what you heard on The Dukes of Hazzard, you prejudiced Yankee elitist. But my stepmom had a gorgeous accent, and Beau of the Fifth Column has a deep, resonant drawl. And he’s better at putting things succinctly than I am. He does a lot of podcasts, posting most of them to YouTube from a shed or a garage of some sort, but most of them are short. The one I’m linking here is an exception in which he has a fake backdrop and pretends to be a teacher from Virginia struggling with how to teach the debate between Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, as required by Virginia law. He’s not kidding — that was in the bill before someone finally pointed out the absurd mistake.
So check out Beau of the Fifth Column. We’re going to talk instead about something else that highlights a reality a lot of people would avoid. It’s the reality described by a group of Black guys from L.A. called Fishbone on their classic album The Reality of My Surroundings.
This is X Marks the Pod.
Fishbone: The Reality of My Surroundings
I’ve told this story before. It’s March 23, 1991. I’m a few weeks away from graduating from Duke. I’m in the commons room of my dorm, where we had a decent-sized TV and always gathered to watch Saturday Night Live. I’m pondering a post-graduation future with no job and no girlfriend, though I did land a job in August and, to my surprise, one of the women in that room, someone with whom I’d been good friends through much of my time in college, showed up at my door a little while after graduation and confessed that she had been thinking about me, which was nice because I had been thinking a lot about her, and we embarked on the second-healthiest romantic relationship of my life.
But this isn’t about my senior year anxiety or my ex-girlfriend. This is about the musical guest on SNL that night. Fishbone.
Most of my dormmates were not impressed with the antics of Angelo Moore, the fist-pumping of “Dirty Walt” Kibby or the loud, chaotic music produced all around them. My friends laughed and sneered as Fishbone stomped its way through Sunless Saturday while I sat speechless. I couldn’t believe any band could produce something so beautiful and bizarre. A few seconds after they were done, I exclaimed, “That was awesome!” The woman in the room I later dated frequently reminded me that she didn’t feel the same way.
If you’re listening in your car, make a mental note to get home and see the video of this performance. Thirty-eight seconds in, guitarist Kendall Jones and keyboardist Chris Dowd leap into the air while lead singer Angelo Moore does a low spin like a psychotic figure skater. And yes, I said keyboardist Chris Dowd, who is pushing his keyboard around the stage like Melissa McCarthy doing her Sean Spicer impression and driving the podium around to scare the reporters on SNL a couple of decades in the future. A little after the 1:40 mark, Moore yells “Special K!” — Kendall Jones’ nickname — to kick off the blazing guitar solo whose start coincides with Moore doing a front flip, three-quarters of the way around. He lands hard on his back, but springs right back up, gesturing with his cane while Jones shreds.
Fishbone never fit a genre, which is why they never got as big as some of their peers, including their good friends in the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Fast forward 17 years. Fishbone records a DVD of a live performance in Bordeaux, from which several clips have been posted to YouTube. The personnel has changed. The name Fishbone came from the Fisher brothers, bassist Norwood and drummer Philip, but Philip “Fish” Fisher has been out of the band for a decade. Even earlier, just a couple of years after their SNL performance, Special K ditched the band for some sort of religious group, declaring the music he had created “demonic.” Norwood chased him down and tried to forcibly remove his bandmate and childhood friend, only to be charged with attempted kidnapping. The charges were eventually dropped.
Dowd also had left the band with some bitterness. John Bigham was in between stints in the band. “Dirty Walt” Kibby, who played trumpet, shouted and generally looked intimidating, was also out. Only Moore and Norwood remained.
But the performance of Sunless Saturday is just as astounding as their performance on SNL. In this case, it’s astounding because they replicate all of the power of the song amid mounting technical problems. Moore walks out on stage and immediately finds a problem with what I think is his theremin. Or possibly the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. Drummer John Steward also has a small issue with something, though he is exuding calm and hinting at the song’s main riff with his bass drum. Guitarist Rocky George is playing some pretty riffs and arpeggios. Andre Holmes, one of many people over the years to fill Kibby’s role as trumpet player and hype man, talks to the crowd.
Moore leads the crowd in singing a few notes while the band continues playing softly and calmly. Then … BOOM! The band erupts, Holmes sprays the crowd with water, and Moore does what Moore often does — takes a flying leap into the audience.
That only exacerbates the technical issues. The crowd fails to return Moore to the stage in timely fashion, and his microphone isn’t really working. When Moore finally gets back, Holmes pulls him over to share a working mic while the road crew scrambles.
Everything is going wrong. Everything is going right.
So that’s an introduction to this great album. But it’s the last song on the album.
Here’s how the album starts, and I’m going to give you the opening bit here rather than have free Spotify users get stuck with 30 seconds that might not convey the punch to the gut the opening delivers.
These guys aren’t messing around, are they?
That’s Fight the Youth. Lyrically, there’s a bit of ambiguity. Are young people the problem? Or is the problem with those who want to restrain young people? Or both?
What’s clear is that a lot of what people are told is bullshit. “They tell you what to think and how to face the world around you.” “Ignite the truth / restore sight to the blind.”
It’s a quest for enlightenment. And peace. But we’re ready to fight for it. Maybe instead of bemoaning the fact that we don’t have good protest music today, we should just re-release this one.
The rest of the album isn’t quite what you would call a “concept” album. It’s not The Wall. But it could be seen as a collection of slices of life from what this band has seen around them. Some of them are slight and kind of silly. They have four brief interludes called If I Were A … I’d …, in which they fill in the blanks with different people and different outcomes. There’s a 40-second piece called Asswhippin’ that consists of the sound of a whip and some screaming. There’s a 34-second piece called Death March that sounds like a New Orleans funeral.
Some of the songs are paired up to hit a common theme. The one to forget is Naz-Tee May’en, which starts with a statement that we’re going to “celebrate heterosexuality,” followed by the R-rated Babyhead. You can skip those.
Behavior Control Technician doesn’t immediately follow Fight the Youth, but it’s in the same ballpark. People are out to control your brain and keep you from questioning authority. The point is driven home with menacing guitars and some funk-rock horns.
Another successful pairing is a wild contrast of styles. First up, Junkies Prayer, with two people — Norwood in your left stereo channel, Angelo in the right — reciting a mock prayer against a backdrop of bongos and someone laughing. “My pusher / who art in the crack house.” It’s crude as hell, because it has to be. The next song is Pray to the Junkiemaker, more of a ska-funk number with some ironically celebratory horns.
After that is perhaps the most pop-oriented song Fishbone ever recorded, Everyday Sunshine, in which the celebratory horns are less ironic. Sure, it might be wishful thinking — “I wish everyday the sun would shine” is the key lyric — but it’s a gloriously upbeat note after delving into the morass of drugs and it sounds a bit like a gospel revival toward the end, including a shoutout to God.
That’s the beauty of Fishbone. They can find the joy in things, whether they’re truly enjoying themselves or just laughing at their own predicament. Their best known song before this album was called Party at Ground Zero, and the title says it all. Earlier in the album, there’s a song called Housework, a vaudevillian take on everyday chores.
But you simply can’t ignore the messages here. The title of the album comes from the song So Many Millions, a harrowing look at neighborhoods in which the only people getting ahead are the drug dealers.
There’s just one song I haven’t mentioned, and I can’t judge it objectively because it hit close to home for me when I was driving around Durham listening to this album. A couple of my friendships were fraying, and I sometimes felt adrift and alone. Those Days Are Gone didn’t capture my emotions perfectly, but it meant a lot to me.
That’s the penultimate song on the album. Then, at last, we get Sunless Saturday.
Take a deep breath. Fishbone covered a lot of territory here.
That was as close to the big time as Fishbone ever got. The lead single from their next album, Give a Monkey a Brain and He’ll Swear He’s the Center of the Universe, was called Swim. The lone writing credit on it is John Bigham, the guitarist who debuted with the band on The Reality of My Surroundings. He had played with Miles Davis, and he comes across as more studious and serious than the rest of the band. So he wasn’t the person you’d expect to write a slow heavy-metal guitar riff and some silliness for Angelo Moore to yell.
It’s fine, but there’s not much to it. And they were never going to top The Reality of My Surroundings. The same year Give a Monkey a Brain came out, Kendall Jones made his dramatic exit. Critics didn’t like the album, Chris Dowd left, Sony dropped the band, and they’ve recorded sporadically since then. They still tour. And tour. And tour. They went through a lot of trumpet players and some keyboardists, but they put together most of the original lineup at one point. Philip Fisher came back for a while, though he handed the drum chair back to John Steward just last month. Even Kendall Jones came back to make an appearance.
No matter who’s on stage, it’s still Fishbone. It’s ska, hard rock, hip hop, funk and everything else all at once. There’ll never be anyone else like them. And there’ll never be another album like this.
Gen X News
In keeping with the original theme of this week’s podcast — that we’re all doomed — I checked out some news from the realm of astronomy.
First, we’ve finally managed to watch the death of a star in real time! By which we mean, of course, the death of a star roughly 120 million years ago because it’s 120 million light-years away. We did, though, get to see a star go boom rather than seeing a star that went boom.
A little closer to home, roughly 1.2 million miles away, a kilometer-wide asteroid zipped by us on Tuesday.
So humanity is managing to cling to existence. For now.
A couple of hours after processing all that, I noticed something interesting. I was getting a lot of traffic to Mostly Modern Media from one source. Their name is Jude Ellison S. Doyle, and the post in question is called “I Refuse to “Cancel” My Friend Simply Because He Hates Transgender People And Also Burned Down An Arby’s.” In the first graf, they link to something I wrote a few years ago about Patton Oswalt and wokeness. As one of their commenters pointed out, they missed the point. Oswalt was talking about how difficult it is to be an ally, in part because the terminology keeps changing. Oswalt wasn’t saying “tranny” a lot. He was talking about RuPaul saying “tranny” and getting called out for it, even though RuPaul broke down a lot of doors for people who aren’t gender-conforming.
There’s some truth to that. Earlier in my lifetime, “African-American” was preferred to “Black.” Not any more. The term “LGBT” or “LGBTQ” or “LGBTQIA” are considered the best way of referring to people who are not cis hetero, but the term catching on quickly these days is “pansexual.” We’ve seen a rise in the term “person of color,” but that lumps together affluent Asian-Americans with Black people who’ve had it way worse.
Women’s soccer, which I’ve covered for decades, has made great strides in gay rights and trans rights. It’s still predominantly white, and if you participate in public discussion of the sport, you’ll find that it’s ageist and elitist. It’s easier to dump on guys like me than it is to find Black women to write about the sport. I had a Black gay female editor, whom I loved, who encouraged me to stop writing about women’s soccer.
I’m not simply going to do whatever I’m told by one person or one group because it’s impossible to do so. You can’t please everyone. If you embrace Dave Chappelle for what he says about racism, you’re going to be accused of enabling transphobia. Plenty of lesbians have terrible track records when it comes to supporting transgender people. And the generation that has come of age castigating older generations for being insufficiently supportive of women’s sports will one day find itself accused of ableism for being insufficiently supportive of Paralympic sports.
I’m rambling. I know. We old people tend to do that.
I would say the point is that you can’t write off any person or any group. I’d highly recommend Marc Maron’s discussion on canceled comedy from November. It’s nuanced in a way that most discussions on the topic are not. For the most part, he and his guests agree that today’s comedians complaining about being “canceled” just aren’t that funny, and they shouldn’t be surprised that their knuckle-dragging jokes don’t land the way they used to. They also delved into comedy history to talk about the Smothers Brothers, who were literally canceled because they had a powerful, witty voice for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
I read a bit more of Doyle’s writing, including a powerful post about parents in the age of COVID and how we have no good choices. I wish the people sending death threats to local school boards understood that.
But I know a lot of my doom and gloom is brought about by my fellow journalists. Fear sells, conflict sells, and the remaining news organizations in the year 2075 will be falling all over themselves to cover the prospect of war over beachfront property in Des Moines.
We have people who are leading us into an abyss. Leaders do this on occasion. Consider World War I, where complicated alignments forced an entire generation into a war when they’d rather be playing soccer together or singing, as they did at Christmas.
So in the meantime, let’s quit focusing on the people who are leading us to doom. Let’s focus on taking care of each other.
The last paragraph of Doyle’s post on parenting and COVID is wonderful. A lot of us are just doing the best we can under trying circumstances. Let’s be human. Let’s forgive each other as long as we’re making an honest effort to be good to others. To me — and I say “to me” because Doyle doesn’t specify people and might disagree with my choices — that group includes you, me, Joe Biden, Marc Maron … and, yes, Patton Oswalt. I don’t plan to have a tombstone, but if I did, I’d like it to read, “I meant well.”
Doyle concludes: “We’re isolated. We’re not alone.”
So don’t look for enemies. Look for allies, however flawed they might be.
On a happier note in Gen X news — did anyone catch the Gen X shoutouts on SNL this week? One sketch had multiple references to Queen Latifah. Another sketch had a punch line that only made sense if you know the lyrics to the Indigo Girls’ song Closer to Fine.
See? We haven’t been totally squeezed out of the zeitgeist just yet.
And finally, we have an obituary to report. Meat Loaf was a cartoonish figure at times, but man, could he sing.