Sunday, August 16, 2009

Soulsville on the cover of Arts & Leisure

Should there be any doubt that history is written by the survivors, the cover story of the New York Times Arts & Leisure section affirms it today. Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding-- gone. Al Bell, still around. The cover story of the Times is on the occasion of Al Bell, former head of Stax Records, returning to Memphis as chairman of the Memphis Music Foundation, to redeem his own legacy as an executive who took Stax to both great heights and great depths.

In a book called Boogaloo, by Arthur Kempton, the author distinguishes Stax before and after Bell. "Where Jim Stewart [label founder] had seen himself as an exporter of regional crafts, Al Bell envisioned himself at the heart of a complex modern enterprise that manufactured and sold black American popular culture all over the world."

In a Hit Parader story in October 1967, Steve Cropper, a linchpin of the early Stax sound, details the painstaking process of recording which confirms the "regional crafts" phrase.

In our store, we have one of the first releases from the company that became Stax Records, a white label promo by Charles Heinz. The label was then called Satellite, and chances are you've never heard of Charles Heinz.

In its early days Stax was much better at producing than promoting, and the reason we know its artists and sound today is because people such as Jerry Wexler and Al Bell got involved. The price one pays to taste such precious fruits from a far distance, as consumers of radio and records, is that we see and read stories such as the one the Times published today.

The demise of the Stax empire was due to some bad business deals which the Times calls "complicated." It then goes on to portray Mr. Bell as essentially a bystander and a victim in the machinations.

This is what I mean by "history written by the survivors."

Many people more knowledgeable than I am can take issue with the details of this newspaper story, if they wish to. It seems apparent that Bell pushed out the white guys who created the brand, and re-branded the company with one new album, Isaac Hayes' Hot Buttered Soul. After all, the company founders had lost all their backlist masters in a contract with Jerry Wexler, so the status quo that Bell inherited had no "sweat equity." Now the label was to be marketed the same way that the former "Newport Jazz Festival" became the "Kool Jazz Festival"-- as a necessary vice for the late 1960's, early 1970's emerging urban black consumer.

From then on, the Stax Records story becomes a tale of high finance too sordid to repeat here. As the Times points out, Al Bell was acquitted by a jury. But it would be nice for the newspaper to make less of a whitewash when they are attempting to chronicle a history they don't hesitate to call "complicated."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

November 8, 1968 One issue of LIFE Magazine, two different covers. Spinning the election?

As a daily reader of the New York Times, I’ve watched the home delivery issue get thinner and thinner, while at the same time the paper’s news stories play up conflict throughout the world. It is as if the imploding world of the mainstream media needs the planet itself to reflect its disarray. One could cynically argue that if the advertisers would come back to the print media and huckster their goods again, the world might suddenly seem a quieter place.

But desperation makes strange bedfellows. And so the front page of the New York Times Wednesday August 12, 2009, fans the flames by showing a thug waving a piece of paper, Joe McCarthy like, at Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania.

At moneyblows books and music, we are constantly reminded of nothing new under the sun. By re-arranging the detritus of the 20th century—books, vinyl records, magazines, and other things—we daily affirm that tired maxim of “history repeats itself.”

From the 1930s onward, LIFE Magazine was a flagship of the Time-Life media empire, a weekly magazine with dramatic photographs that drove home many world events in dramatic pictorials. They really excelled during wars, especially with photographers such as Larry Burrows who risked life and limb--- and died in 1971 covering the war in Laos for the magazine.

But, by 1971, LIFE Magazine was a dead man walking. The phrase wasn’t used, but “pull the plug on grandma” was the thinking of its owners, and morale within the magazine’s ivory towers had never been lower.

During the election campaign of 1968— which stands as a major news year in American history— Republicans were doing the same thing they are doing now, attempting to disrupt the efforts of their opposing party. They were not going to let LBJ’s administration end the Vietnam War, and must have been worried (as they are now about Obama’s health care plan) that circumstances might favor the incumbents. They had one strong weapon: the Republican nominee for President, who would use the turmoil to turn the election in his favor.

In its issue of October 11, 1968, the failing LIFE magazine cast its lot with the man who would later disgrace the Office of the Presidency. The writer Brock Brower wrote an article headlined “A Vision of Victory at Last within Reach.” It was a happy talk with Nixon announcing his victory in advance, with nary a hint of how he was playing his “future president” card with foreign governments.

As Anna Chennault, Henry Kissinger, and John Mitchell worked behind the scenes to complicate LBJ’s efforts, the Paris peace talks were orchestrated to fail, and South Vietnamese president Thieu pulled out of the bombing halt talks. LBJ, reeling from accusations that he was trying to halt the bombing to win the election for Vice President Hubert Humphrey, realized he could not end the war while he was President. His successor Nixon publicly took the high ground while he set up the Democrats for failure.

All this is ancient history by now, until we discovered the two issues of LIFE Magazine that preceded and succeeded the election of Nixon. In the victory issue of November 15th, LIFE reported that on October 30th, the Thieu government of South Vietnam had balked at the peace talks, even though it had approved them the day before. An article called “The Bomb Halt Decision” ends with a surreal photo of three television screen close-ups on LBJ announcing the bombing halt. If a picture is worth a thousand words, these are several thousand words on the President’s Halloween speech announcing a halt to the bombing in North Vietnam. Reading the “fine print” of the article though, the reader realizes that the picture is showing an advance videotape of a speech that was never delivered. The bombing was halted, but without the cooperation of Thieu, who had been negotiating secretly with the incoming Nixon administration. American citizens would never hear the President’s announcement speech. If this is any indication how the desperate media makes its own news, we roll back one week to the issue of November 8.

We have two different LIFE Magazines with that cover date. Orangutan. And Tron.

The issues may be substantially the same, but the covers and contents pages are different in the two issues here at Moneyblows Books & Music. A 12 page photo essay by one of Life’s star photojournalists, Larry Burrows, featured a 12-year old Vietnamese “girl named Tron” who lost the lower half of her right leg to American helicopter fire. Showing the limitations of weekly journalism, the lede (or lead paragraph) of Vol. 65, No. 19 was slightly different in each issue.

In one, it read, “The U.S. and North Vietnam last week came to an agreement. Not much later, Americans went to the polls to choose a President.”

In the other issue, it said, “The U.S. agreed last week to halt all bombing of North Vietnam. Not much later, Americans went to the polls to choose a President.”

Although this article was written in the past tense, the magazine of course was prepared and distributed before the election. If you have a passing interest in deadline journalism, you know that shelf life of an article is important, so much so that a lead paragraph is designed not to be outdated if possible. And this is a tall order in weekly journalism.

Don’t know if there was a “stop the presses” or if there may be other versions of this article out there, but we have these two. Both are dated November 8, 1968.

It’s probably fair to assume that the more detailed lede came later, e.g. “The U.S. agreed last week to halt all bombing of North Vietnam.” It also hints at the fact that South Vietnam was not part of this agreement. But due to classification of documents, it would be years before Americans would discover the sickening reality that the President they’d just elected, and thought would take office in January, had already taken over foreign policy, by negotiating with South Vietnam as a candidate and promising them favors when he was in the White House.

Now we turn to the table of contents blurbs of the two issues. In the one we are calling “earlier”, the Tron story is blurbed, “The Hope of Peace: As statesmen bargain, a girl named Tron in a Vietnamese village called Andien tries to readjust to the loss of her leg.”

In the issue with the more detailed story lede, the blurb reads: “The Edge of Peace: As the U.S. and North Vietnam reach agreement, a girl named Tron….”

From the “hope of peace” to the “edge of peace”, hours or days between them, a lot was going on behind the scenes. And yet, no peace was in sight as American casualties in southeast Asia would continue to mount.

It was not enough for the desperate editors of LIFE Magazine to influence their story spin while failing to cover what was truly going on behind the scenes. They also changed the covers of the two magazine issues with the same cover date. In what we think is the earlier printing, the magazine cover shows a zoo orangutan inert and morose, with the headline: “New knowledge about wildlife reveals that Zoos Drive Animals Psycho.” It was typical of LIFE Magazine to feature articles about nature, social mores, and entertainment, in addition to politics. Knowing far in advance that this was the issue coming out before the election, I suspect this cover was prepared in advance as the “neutral” cover while the Time-Life editors and owners tried to come up with something more immortal than an inert and morose orangutan.

In fact, their second cover also featured a zoo animal—the human kind. On its own, it’s a wrenching story and one of many incredible spreads by the late photojournalist Larry Burrows. The headline read “As the bombing stops—This Girl Tron. Nguyen Thi Tron, 12, caught in the war, watches her new wooden leg being made.”

From orangutan to Tron is a speechless journey that reinforces the sad cynicism and desperate plight of a dying magazine, to wrench emotion from a still photograph as the competition, television, stole all its advertisers. Yes, it was a picture magazine, not designed for nuance. The Time-Life organization would show how it could play both sides of the fence, announcing the bombing halt while giving Nixon a poster girl for continuing the war. Typically perhaps of the profession, they cheapened themselves by using sentimentality in the service of warmongering.

America in 1968. Two covers of the same magazine. A war we eventually lost big time. Woodstock still to come.