Michael Martin Murphey’s Cowboy Logic

IN A SCENE from the ongoing unmaking of a counterculture, Michael Martin Murphey, at his 70th birthday concert Saturday night in Oak Cliff, saluted the NRA and quoted Bible verses. The audience for the second show at the Kessler Theater stood and cheered the flag-waving patriotic sentiments he offered up in tribute to America’s ranchers, cowboys, military, police and others who were not such heroes to young musicians and their fans when Murphey first hit the stage in Texas in the 1960s and early 70s. Some might remember he was there at the birth of the Progressive Country movement when long-haired southwestern troubadours with both Woodstock and Lone Star in their veins were reinventing country music for younger, dope-smoking Texans who had never heard of Ernest Tubb. Many of them were Democrats and some even liberals.

Murphey’s 1972 album Geronimo’s Cadillac, its title song a rousing anthem lamenting the poor treatment of Native Americans, was new-found gold on the plains, evidence that Texas had smart songpoets and pickers as good as Neil Young and Roger McGuinn or whoever. It was Bob Dylan’s producer, Bob Johnston, who found Murphey and made the album for A&M. That album was on my record shelf with Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua, Willie Nelson’s Phases and Stages and B.W. Stevenson’s eponymous debut as the choice cuts of a soulful new sound that jumped the gap between folk and honky tonk.

With cover boy looks and a gospel church voice, Murphey had come back to Texas to do his own thing after writing songs for hire in Los Angeles. He got to Austin about the time Willie Nelson was arriving back from Nashville and both became chapters in Jan Reid’s genre-defining book The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock. But Murphey soon decamped to the high country of New Mexico and Colorado, leaving the urban and cosmic cowboys behind for various residencies in the rural West. His biggest hit, “Wildfire” (co-written with Larry Cansler) was about a ghost horse galloping through the Nebraska night.

I reviewed and interviewed him in the 1970s when I was a music critic at the Dallas Times Herald, but I did not keep up with him after moving away from Texas myself and had not heard him perform in decades. I knew that after “Wildfire” he had reached the charts with the Adult Contemporary love ballads “What’s Forever For” and “Long Line of Love,” and that at some point he turned his career toward the Western archive, rediscovering and recording authentic cowboy songs, like those once collected by scholars and shared at the annual meeting of the Texas Folklore Society.

SATURDAY NIGHT he came dressed for a John Ford Western — long coat, silk scarf, vest and watch chain, a black Stetson capping his golden locks. I was prepared to hear a new set list tailored to his outfit, but in fact he featured the old hits —  “Cherokee Fiddle,” “Cosmic Cowboy,” “Carolina in the Pines” and “Geronimo’s Cadillac” among them — in fine voice and backed by a virtuosic family band on mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle. He did perform sterling versions of “Streets of Laredo” and Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” and closed with a rhapsodic “Wildfire” in which his lightening fast sideman Shaun Richardson keenly mimicked the late Jac Murphy’s signature piano intro on the guitar, note for note.

Murphey was raised Southern Baptist and was always inclined to preaching, but back in the day it was often about the evils of the record business (And the music gets sold by the lawyers…) Playing to the hometown crowd, he traced his ancestry here back to the War for Independence and got a crowd-pleasing whoop by referring to the Texas Republic as “the greatest beacon of freedom the world has ever known.” And you had to wonder if the slaves would have agreed. An astonishing statement really.

What is that about anyway? Some say he is simply preaching to a different choir now, the ranchers, cattlemen and cowboy wannabes who make up his target audience. And they are a politically conservative and staunchly Christian bunch. He had a lot to say onstage about the need to restock our ranges with cattle for the sake of the soil — an issue I don’t fully understand. But a knowledgeable friend in Colorado who remembers “Geronimo’s Cadillac” rolls his eyes and tells me Murphey’s got his facts wrong. One thing I do understand is that guns are a scourge to this society, and whether in the hands of criminals, wackos or clueless kids, they continue to take the lives of thousands of innocent people. And the National Rifle Association, through intimidation and campaign contributions, abets this carnage daily by blocking all legislative efforts at gun control.

IN A SHOW-STOPPING MOMENT, Murphey leaned into the microphone and cheerfully promoted an upcoming NRA event for “the ladies,” one where women will be taught how to shoot properly and “be safe.” I thought, holy shit, he’s right there with Ted Nugent! Hard not to recall the lyric from “Cosmic Cowboy” that “Up is not the way I want to shoot.” A whimsical song maybe, but at the time it suggested a newly skeptical view of the reckless gunfighters that Hollywood romanticized and celebrated.

That was then, and this is now. When Murphey was first singing and playing at the Inside Llewen Davis era club The Rubaiyat on McKinney in Dallas, folk music advocated peace, love and understanding and was politically distinct from the knee-jerk, fightin’ side of me patriotism of C&W. And while Willie and Waylon and the boys later made it safe for hippies to enjoy the steel guitar, the mindless red-white-and-blue Bible-totin’ chauvinism of Nashville country stormed back even before 9/11 and then provided a soundtrack for the U.S. military debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lyle Lovett and Gary P. Nunn, the former Murphey keyboardist and “I wanna go home with the Armadillo” author, performed at George W. Bush’s 2nd inaugural ball. Enough said.

I was so rattled by Murphey’s rhetoric at his birthday concert that I went back to Jan Reid’s book to confirm that he wasn’t always like this. Sure enough, he referred to himself then as a hippie and had nothing good to say about “the life-denying generals in the U.S. Army” or Baptists, for that matter. But he was 28 years old. People change, and I can only conclude that time and the river — and guns — have come between me and Michael Murphey since then. Somewhere back there he did caution against placing too much faith in rock stars or expecting them to have all the answers. And given his unexamined pronouncements Saturday night, I couldn’t agree with him more. Why should anyone look to a musician for wisdom about anything beyond music? But I have to add that I will never be able to listen to any of his songs in quite the same way again.


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To: Kevin Moriarty, Artistic Director, Dallas Theater Center

I take no pleasure in sending this note, but since I’ve seen only reflexive cheerleading in the local media for “Stagger Lee,” I thought you should hear from someone who loves the theatre but also remembers the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I recently returned to Dallas after years away and was eager to see how much DTC has progressed. I missed “Fortress of Solitude.” I was determined not to miss “Stagger Lee.”

The cast was excellent, I’ll say that, and I sympathized with their game attempts to slog through the incoherent narrative and un-singable songs. The ending was welcome in a way, but I also thought, “That’s it?” This is going to New York?

I was staggered much less by the show than by the top ticket price of $140, which we paid reluctantly to secure good seats. And this is really my complaint: That DTC is charging Broadway prices for a musical that is workshop level at best. I just checked the websites of the Mark Taper Forum, the Arena Stage, The Goodman and The Guthrie, and saw only one top ticket price over $100 and none close to $140. How can you justify this? I guess if people in Dallas are willing to pay it, there’s your case, but I wonder if they get out much and if they’ll be willing to pay it again?

The playwright and director have talked a lot in the press and the program about archetypes and myths and the black experience in America. That’s fine, but you must know better than I, that noble intention and academic knowledge mean little compared to what’s on the stage.

I applaud and support new play programs like the one at the O’Neill Center that helped launch August Wilson. Great that SMU and DTC are working together (in a way they never did in the old days). But in my opinion it raises false expectations for all concerned to hype something as a world premiere that is not ready to earn such notice — and to charge world-class prices for it.

Sean Mitchell

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Lu Mitchell’s 90th Birthday Tribute

Thanks to all the musicians and to everyone who who came out to Poor David’s Pub on Sunday and made Lu Mitchell’s 90th Birthday Tribute such a memorable event. Wonderful to hear so much good acoustic music and history recollected — the stories from all the musicians whose lives she has touched in her long career onstage in North Texas…with the Dallas Folk Music Society, SMU, the clubs, the festivals, the private parties and the First Unitarian Church, to which she pledged her share of the proceeds.

48095_738618516168876_845378190_nHow many people remember that she opened NorthPark in 1965 on a bill with Mance Lipscomb and Carolyn Hester? If you missed it, it was quite a show: Bob and Sally Ackerman, Bill Johnston & Dollars Taxes, Wayne Greene, Martin Delabano and Duck Creek Station, Ann Armstrong & Steve Hughes (wow, if I might say so), James Michael Taylor, David Searcy, Drake Rogers, Bill Sanner, Gabrielle West, Peggy Davis Fleming and Jigsaw and yes, Lu Mitchell & Catch 23, plus Poor David himself! Lu is beside herself with joy and gratitude.

The circle is indeed unbroken. Gracias.

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THE HISTORY OF THE THEATRE, unlike film, is preserved largely through the memories of those who made it and witnessed it, so we are grateful for the occasional book that manages to gather up those memories and shape them into a compelling narrative worthy of the medium itself. Such a book is Wynn Place Show, Jeremy Gerard’s history of The American Place Theatre and its iconoclastic impresario, Wynn Handman. (Smith and Kraus, 227 pp.) Here is the account, in chapter and verse, of Handman’s determination to uncover new forms and new talent in a contemporary theatre removed from the commercial pressures of Broadway beginning in 1963 and continuing for more than 40 years. My god, the work he unleashed! Sam Shepard, Eric Bogosian, Bill Irwin, Maria Irene Fornes, Joel Grey, Olympia Dukakis and Richard Gere are just a few of the hundreds of notable artists who found their voices here in ground-breaking productions made possible by Handman’s nurturing personality and unrelenting spirit of adventure. A gifted acting teacher and director, as well as producer, he got plays from poets and novelists, monologues, adaptations, pieces that could not be readily described.

A distinguished critic and reporter, Gerard explains how this all happened, recreating the period with stories of individual shows and remembrances of Handman supplied by the illustrious APT alumni, as well as through his own recollections as a first-nighter. For anyone who recalls that time in New York and elsewhere when theatre suddenly could be anything and everything and was up for grabs, this is a very good read indeed, even as it leaves you wondering along with Sam Shepard where all that passion went. A keen observer of the press, Gerard also keeps one eye peeled on New York’s most influential critics and how they met the challenge of sifting and interpreting ATP’s unconventional fare. A subplot but one that supplies its own bonus material.

For a variety of reasons, including his “tacking against the mainstream winds,” as Gerard puts it, Handman and his theatre never got the full measure of recognition they deserved for the careers they helped launch and the lively intelligence they cultivated. It seems they have now.

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IT IS HARD TO explain to friends who are not Dodger fans or maybe not Dodger fans from Texas who attended St. Mark’s School of Texas in the late 1960s, the emotional whipsaw of learning recently that Chris Kershaw, class of `67, had died — and then learning that, yes, he was the father of current Dodger ace Clayton Kershaw.

You’d think I would have known this. All those years ago when I was carrying Bob Dylan albums to school to share with other teenage troubadours, I formed a folk group at St. Mark’s with Chris, David Laney, Louis Blumberg and Richard Wincorn. We called ourselves The Bountymen, and our public performances probably could be counted on one hand. Chris, a class behind me, was the most talented, played multiple instruments and had a strong voice. Like Blumberg, who later played drums with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Chris became a professional musician after college and made a living for a time in Dallas as a composer of jingles.

I ended up in Los Angeles, eventually shed my allegiance to the Texas Rangers (see previous post) and became a fan of the local National League team so that I happened to notice when in 2008 a young left-hander from Highland Park High in Dallas, a first round draft pick, made his debut at the age of 20 with the Dodgers. His name was Clayton Kershaw. He had a phenomenal curve ball, was immediately compared to Sandy Koufax, the most famous Dodger hurler ever, and within three seasons won 21 games and the Cy Young Award.

The last time I saw Chris was at some point in the 70s when he was writing and recording commercials. He told me he was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter, trying hard. He seemed driven, and I figured it might happen because he was so good. I lost touch with him after moving to California. Although I don’t remember Chris as an athlete at St. Mark’s, I think he might have tried out for the baseball team one year. Which is why when Clayton Kershaw came up with the Dodgers out of Highland Park, it did occur to me that Chris could be his father, given the facial resemblance. I asked my friends in Dallas who followed baseball if this could be the case, and no one knew. I tried to research it online and found nothing about Clayton’s father or family. I figured the name and face must be a coincidence or somebody at St. Mark’s surely would have known, even though Chris had gone missing from the alumni directory.

As I attended games at Dodger Stadium with my own son and watched Clayton Kershaw become the Dodgers’ ace and All-Star, I took some satisfaction in knowing he was from Dallas but left it at that, dispensing with the notion that he was the son of one of the Bountymen. Then, a few months after moving back to Dallas this spring, late in April, I got an email from the St. Mark’s Alumni Office informing me that Chris had died. No cause of death was given. I looked in the Morning News and found a paid obit framed in strong religious language that mentioned Chris was survived by a wife and two daughters. In small print it also said he was survived by his only son, Clayton Edward Kershaw.

FIRST I WAS shocked and saddened, then stunned to realize he was the father of Clayton Kershaw after all. Good lord. How did this happen? All of it. I ran into a member of the Class of `67 a week later who confirmed that Chris was his father but knew very little about the trajectory of Chris’s life or his relationship with Clayton, except to say that Chris had been through some hard times. Details were sketchy. He said Chris had not been in touch with many of his classmates for a long time, had disappeared from the radar. The obit in the Morning News also did not mention the cause of death.

Clayton did take bereavement leave from the Dodgers to return to Dallas for Chris’s funeral.

I regret that I was unable to attend the service, but I am beset now by questions about what happened to Chris. If anyone who knew him at St. Mark’s or later in his life can share any thoughts or recollections about him, I would love to hear from them.

R.I.P. Chris.

The BountymenLarge
The Bountymen: Richard Wincorn, the author, Louis Blumberg, Chris Kershaw, David Laney. 1966.










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IN THE INAUGURAL season of the Harlequin Players, in the summer of 1965, I drove to the St. Mark’s campus every day in a white, stick-shift (unsafe at any speed) Corvair, with Sonny & Cher on the radio singing “I Got You Babe.” The counterculture was underway, along with the war in Vietnam. Boys were letting their hair grow out over their foreheads, like Sonny and the Beatles. But whatever the length of your hair, you did not want to be late to 10600 Preston Road because the Oxbridge-accented director of the Harlequin Players, an intense young man of unquestioned authority and sophistication, had made it absolutely clear that military punctuality was Rule #1 in the theatre, inviolate. And you didn’t want to displease him or offer a shred of evidence that you were unworthy of his company and respect.

I found myself recalling Mr. Vintcent’s demanding regimen all too vividly on a recent Saturday morning as I drove to the St. Mark’s campus for a rehearsal almost five decades later, worried that I was going to be late for the nine o’clock call. I told myself to relax, it was a reunion weekend after all, and this was merely a staged reading of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, the play for voices (and a large cast) that Harlequins did twice in the eight seasons Vintcent presided over his youth corps. Nine a.m. on a Saturday. Could it really matter if we were a little late?

Mr. V.

No sooner had I walked into Decherd Performance Hall, than I heard that voice. “Where is _________? And where is _________? Surely she’s coming?” The tone was not quite accusatory yet carried a familiar, stern impatience. The sound of Anthony Vintcent had not changed appreciably in 47 years. Except for the new setting of a modern proscenium theater with a big hardwood stage that loomed behind him, all was as before. Harlequin alumni, now in their 50s and 60s, many returning from the east and west coasts for the weekend, palmed bagels and cups of coffee as they turned in deference toward the director who was about to tell them how they were going to prepare in one rehearsal for the 2 p.m. public performance of Under Milkwood.

“Consonants,” he said. “Please remember the consonants. They’re important.” He crisply enunciated an example with an emphasis suggesting we were rehearsing for a national broadcast of some kind instead of for a small audience of family and friends. No doubt Vintcent would have said, “Why should there be a difference?” That was the mark of Harlequin Players, looking back – that Vintcent treated us like young professionals.

For the 70 some-odd Harlequins assembled here and especially for the 16 onstage, the past was undeniably present. Sure, our bodies had aged and people looked different. The boys’ long hair was either missing altogether or in some cases even longer but a different color. Vintcent himself, now 75, was bald on top, with a healthy white beard. Yet we, all of us, were easily swept back in a matter of minutes to distant summers when we had learned so much from this man and from each other. How, exactly, did this happen?

It seemed improbable that such fuss was being made over a high school drama group decades after its last curtain call. Who would believe it? At the packed luncheon in Vintcent’s honor on Friday at St. Mark’s, current faculty and staff must have wondered what it was this wandering Canadian could have done to inspire the loyalty evident at this grand homecoming. Since theatre – unlike film, painting and recorded music – is evanescent, leaving nothing behind but programs, photos, reviews and memories, the experience of the Harlequin Players is measured today through the fond recollection of those who lived it, becoming the stuff of folklore.

The energy powering many of the finest theatre companies expends itself as if by natural law, which is what makes the heyday of any theatre group, even a high school one, something to relish and celebrate. I doubt any of us, when we were 16 and 17, had a clue about this, but the size of the gathering here offered proof that many of us understood it now: that we took part in something that was special in a particular time and place, and we are grateful to Vintcent, to St. Mark’s and to the moon and stars.

IN AN ARTICLE I wrote for the Dallas Times Herald when Tony returned to Dallas to direct a single production of The Happy Time in the late 1970s, I recalled how he had once projected the sort of charisma normally associated in Texas with a winning high school football coach and unthinkable for a stage director. At St. Mark’s, where he also ran the Fine Arts Department and directed plays during the school year, he cast All-Metro-Dallas linebacker Tommy Lee Jones as the narrator (or First Voice) in the first production of Under Milkwood, which proved a revelation – maybe to Jones but certainly to many at the school. Dylan Thomas? Welsh poetry? That kid from West Texas? How was this possible? Legend tells us it happened. Some of us remember.

Janet and Tony at Blue Mesa Grill

Jones was not in the summer group (where Tony himself read the First Voice, as he did at the reunion performance), but Jones’ eventual celebrity reflected back favorably on the milieu Tony created, spanning the St. Mark’s drama club and Harlequins. Perhaps because Tony cultivated a professional attitude in us, it’s no surprise that a fair number of Harlequins later did find their way to grownup stages in theatre, film and other creative pursuits. Mark Capri, back to read the Reverend Eli Jenkins so damned beautifully onstage at the reunion, at one point toured with the Royal Shakespeare Co.; Pat Richardson became a TV star on Home Improvement, Gary Pearle directed plays at Washington’s Arena Stage and on Broadway. The late and much lamented Bill Hootkins made a career for himself in the London theatre and appeared in films with Ned Beatty, John Malkovich, Warren Beatty and Brando. Ann Armstrong achieved acclaim as a top-drawer blues singer and guitarist; Frances Aronson became a lighting designer on and off Broadway, Jenny Burgess a leading actress at Dallas’ plucky Stage #1, Kimberly Webb a fixture at Berkeley Rep, Jerry Carlson and Ronald Wilson professors of film studies, Fran Burst a documentary filmmaker. I drop these names reluctantly, knowing that I’m leaving out many more who achieved distinction in the arts and elsewhere, but even this short list might suggest that something was happening here all those years ago, something ignited by Mr. V., as some called him.

There were more than 200 Harlequins in all, and some have now left us, as we were soberly reminded by Mr. V. at the dinner Saturday night at Blue Mesa Grill. Those of us still on the planet were asked by the reunion organizers to write personal letters to Tony, to be collected in a binder and given to him, each letter spelling out what he and his summer theatre meant to us.

I wrote that I doubted he could have given much thought to the possibility he was educating a future drama critic that first Harlequins season but that is the career path I took at one point. And without question, my own sense of what theatre could be or not be was influenced by him, his mind and intuitive method, his belief in the quasi-religious purpose of what we were up to. I remember how tireless he was in what must have been a daunting task, coaxing mumbling teenagers (me) beyond our limitations into a realm of believability as demanded by the text. You wanted to be good enough not to let him down. I think that was a big part of it. And he didn’t do it through fear or intimidation. Instead, he insisted that you climb up to the place where he was standing so you could get the same view.

I told him he showed me a side of myself I did not know existed. At 17, I was more interested in sports than putting on costumes and pretending to be someone else; I wasn’t sure I wanted to do this at all. But my parents urged me to try it, and how can I thank them enough for that? Once I was in the room, I had no desire to leave. It was way too interesting. And I got to play a tender-hearted prize-fighter in the first production.

The St. Mark’s campus today is nearly unrecognizable from the one where we spent that first summer. Architecturally more distinguished it is, to be sure, and the Decherd Performance Hall seeming as Lincoln Center compared to the tiny black box where Under Milkwood, The Cave Dwellers, The Happy Time, The Cherry Orchard, The Lion in Winter, Oh! What a Lovely War!, The Madwoman of Chaillot, Uncle Vanya and so many more were produced.

Yet sitting onstage at the Decherd during the Under Milkwood rehearsal, the air-conditioning so effective we needed long sleeves, I suspect some of us missed the old space, where we might have communed more easily with the ghosts and spirits that plays leave behind. The Harlequins theater was air-conditioned, sort of. Outside, the nights were so hot and muggy you could have walked down Preston Road naked at 2 a.m. and still felt warm.

The author, right, in The Cave Dwellers, with Kimberly Webb

That image in fact occurred to me late one night after a show, a sign of imminent debauchery or merely a symptom of the sensory expansion released by the whole experience, evidence that theatre was not something you only saw with your eyes and processed with your mind but felt on your skin. Tony talked about ritual and ceremony, and on that night, alert and sleepless, I felt I understood for the first time what he meant and how our little group was connected to some larger, eternal human need to act out stories in order to claim our place on earth, as primitive peoples had done, maybe even here in the jungle heat of north Texas summer.

When she introduced Tony at the luncheon Friday, Janet Spencer Shaw, the former Hockaday teacher, Harlequins’ managing director and “queen,” looked out from the podium and asked why all of us were here. Then she speculated that we must be members of the same tribe who had found one another long ago.

Her words hurled me right back to the epiphany of that steamy night in 1965, and they felt oh so true. Saturday we were onstage again, the tribe gathered around the warmth of Dylan Thomas’ rhythmic poetry and our leader, who reminded us how lovely it could sound, how lovely he could sound reading the First Voice, describing all manner of timeless creatures inhabiting a Welsh coastal town, indeed taking us there. Tony told me once that acting frightened him, and that’s why he became a director. It remains a statement I must take on faith, for with his voice, intuition and talent, of course he could have been a successful actor – at Stratford, in New York or Hollywood. Instead, he gave himself to us, and all these years later I think we are still trying to prove ourselves worthy of his devotion.

The rehearsal ran four hours with a short break. Unlike Mark Capri, Jenny Burgess and others who were pros, I had to be reminded I was not projecting (oh, that). At 2 p.m. the lights went to black and a remembered anticipatory silence filled the hall. At last, a spot came up, stage right on Tony, at one end of our readers’ semi-circle. “To begin at the beginning,” he said. “It is spring, moonless night in the small town…” The ritual had started one more time, and who among us wished for it to end?


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After watching Obama underachieve in his debate with Mitt Romney, I knew I would wake up to the instant analysis by “liberal” reporters in the LA Times and elsewhere that Romney had “won” the debate and made the contest for the White House much more “interesting.” Really? what was interesting and so telling about the LAT, NYT and the MSM in general was how saying that Romney “looked presidential” indicates that “looks” are what count in our shallow and debased political discourse as narrated by such focus group hucksters as Wolf Blitzer.

The truth of the matter is that Governor Forehead steamrolled over the anemic PBS host Jim Lehrer and disarmed Obama with the audacious force of a psychopathic liar, unabashed in his cynical mendacity, knowing that fact-checking is for college nerds. There, that’s my lede. No wonder I’m not writing for The New York Times.

Yes, I was disappointed that Obama, like so many in his party, seemed oddly afraid of reminding Americans not traveling by limousine or private jet that it’s the Democrats who have lobbied and legislated for a more equitable society, with justice and health care for all. Where is the downside to speaking up about this? And when Mitt shamelessly tossed out that slur about Obama being incapable of reaching across the aisle to work with Republicans, why didn’t the President hit that one out of the park like a hanging curve ball:

Maybe Governor Romney has some advice on how I could have reached across the aisle more effectively to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who announced in 2009 that the single most important thing the Republicans in Congress wanted to achieve was for President Obama to be a one-term president — not create jobs or improve our schools, end poverty, address climate change, make America energy independent, rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and help the middle class from disappearing…NO, instead, with utter disregard for the welfare of his fellow Americans, the leader of your party in the Senate told the whole world that he was going to devote all his energy to what I would call extreme and unpatriotic partisanship. What would you call it, Governor?

But the fact that Obama did not take the fight to Romney and was all too polite in parrying his fusillade of lies remains  less significant than the media’s treatment of the debate as sheer theatrical performance, as if that has anything to do with the qualities required of a president. The Dallas Morning News (but of course) actually said the debate made evident a clear choice in the contrasting policies of the two men. (!) That’s like saying you have a choice between rooting for the Dallas Cowboys or a fantasy football team — although even fantasy football teams are graded by real numbers and statistics, unlike the purely imaginary playbook Romney held up in Denver.
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HAPPY FANS ARE all alike; every unhappy fan is unhappy in his own way. A 19th century Russian novelist might have said this were he alive today, but he also might have said, “What’s with the bobblehead dolls?” And “What happens if you get relocated or move away?” When my son, Devin, heads off to American University in Washington, D.C. this August, he might or might not be taking his bobblehead collection from Chavez Ravine with him, but he will surely be taking his allegiance to the Dodgers, one nurtured by the geographical fact of growing up in Southern California. He is the main reason I am a Dodgers fan, not that I want to saddle him with that onerous responsibility, given the unpleasant final years of the McCourt ownership.

When I moved to Los Angeles from Dallas in 1983, I was still under fan contract to the Texas Rangers, an affiliation I found it hard to shed for the longest time. Being the fan of a team, especially when you are young, is an emotional attachment that is not readily transferable, yet given the peregrination of so many modern American lives, I have to assume that others, like me, have come to reckon with the limits of such devotion, weighing the meaning of the past against the benefits of the here and now.

The Rangers, less conspicuous than the Chicago Cubs, were, like the Cubs, fitfully promising and often disappointing, albeit with their share of dazzling, media-ignored stars like Buddy Bell, Oscar Gamble, Jim Sundberg, Julio Franco, Jim Kern, Danny Darwin, and, later, the bona fide headliners Nolan Ryan and Rafael Palmeiro. But, as with the Cubs, I suspect, the Rangers annual mediocrity and blind hopes instilled a perverse loyalty over time. Long before they even thought about getting to the World Series, the Rangers were an interest I shared with my dad, Gene, who was not a native Texan and did not like football or Landry’s Cowboys but embraced the Rangers the minute they showed up in 1972 after migrating from the nation’s capital.

My dad and I went to many, many Rangers games in the 1970s and `80s at the old Arlington Stadium where there were no luxury boxes and it was easy to walk-up almost any night and buy a good seat. (This now qualifies as ancient history.) Once I left town, the Rangers and their seasonal fate provided a ready fall-back topic for our phone conversations, and before the internet, dad would send me clippings from the Dallas papers containing news of trades and clubhouse rumors. I continued to monitor their occasional bursts of competence from afar and sometimes trek down to Anaheim to see them play the Angels.

I didn’t dislike the Dodgers, I just didn’t care. I wanted to love L.A. like Randy Newman, but I had grown up an American League fan (despite the designated hitter rule). In Game 6 of the 1985 National League playoffs, when St. Louis slugger Jack Clark homered off Tom Niedenfuer to give the Cardinals the pennant, I watched my officemates at the LA Herald Examiner shout with pain and disbelief, but I just thought, well, the Rangers aren’t even in the playoffs. In 1988, when Gibson hit the home run off Eckersley to win Game 1 of the World Series against the favored Oakland A’s, I was watching in a West Side bar with some friends, and I did my best to join in the celebration, but I had no goosebumps on my arm. As far as baseball was concerned, I was still not yet an Angeleno.

It was the birth of my son that changed that. Not immediately, but his mother and I took him to Dodgers games as soon as he could walk, and at the point that he stopped staring at the row behind us and began looking at the field, I realized he was probably not going to grow up to be a Texas Rangers fan. By the time he was ready for T-ball he was wearing Dodger Blue, and me, too. I had undergone a conversion. It wasn’t like when my dad had to study with the priest to convince the Catholic Church he was worthy to marry my mother. This conversion happened naturally, as we bonded in familial support for the home team during the years of Eric Karros, Paul LoDuca, Shawn Green and Eric Gagne while Devin learned the game. By the time he was old enough to understand the infield fly rule and invest some part of his sense of well-being in the fortunes of a professional baseball team, there was no room in the house for my previous affiliation. It had been exorcised, with an assist from the future President George W. Bush.

Now, I still have friends in Dallas who roll their eyes when I bring this up, but I believe the character and quality of ownership can add or subtract from the untidy sum of emotional logic that goes into being a fan. And W was bad news rising as far as I was concerned. Installed as the figurehead owner by an “investment group” that purchased the Rangers from oilman Eddie Chiles in 1989, Bush the Younger made his mark first by foregoing the possibility of building a new stadium in Dallas and escaping the dismal exurbs of Arlington, preferring to let the citizens of Arlington pay for a new stadium next door, enhancing his equity before moving on to run for governor. Talk about your public-private partnership! Next, he inexplicably showed the door to the greatest hitter ever to wear a Ranger uniform, first-baseman Rafael Palmeiro, replacing him with the good but not-nearly-as-good–and equally expensive–Will Clark.

Yeah, it’s hard to like Palmeiro now that we know he used steroids and lied to Congress, but at the time Bush let him go, in 1993 (before McGuire, Sosa and Bonds were even under suspicion) the move was so disturbing, it allowed a fan like me to step back and begin to disengage.

It was fitting that on Bush’s watch the team colors changed from blue to red, the same color as the state of Florida on CNN’s electoral map after the U.S. Supreme Court handed W the the White House a few years later. When I saw Rangers highlights on Sports Center during this period, the team was unrecognizable. Just as well.

Bush’s undistinguished tenure as the Rangers’ owner went unnoticed by the national press corps covering the 2000 presidential campaign, but then they missed a lot. Looking back now, I really should thank W for buying the Rangers because my antipathy to all he stood for helped ease my transition to becoming a Dodgers fan. I didn’t have any particular feelings for the Dodgers’ owners, the O’Malley family that had brought the team west from Brooklyn in 1958. In Los Angeles (as opposed to Brooklyn) the O’Malleys seemed to walk on water, even after Walter’s son, Peter, sold the team to Australian media monopolist and non baseball fan Rupert Murdoch in 1998.

The Dodgers did not prosper in the National League West under Murdoch’s stewardship, but they did reach the playoffs three times under the next owner, Boston parking lot developer Frank McCourt. And despite McCourt’s mismanagement and calamitous divorce, the Dodgers became Devin’s team during these, his formative years. Not only did he have a Jackie Robinson poster on the wall of his room but a framed front page of the LA Times sports section from 2006, with a picture of Normar Garciaparra celebrating a 10th inning walk-off home run to beat the Padres following an historic 9th inning when the Dodgers hit four consecutive home runs to tie the score. We had watched it on TV.

The Rangers eventually made the playoffs, too, in 1996, 1998 and 1999 (going 1-9 in those games) and in 2010, they finally reached the World Series, pitted against the Dodgers’ hated rival, the San Francisco Giants. Under the circumstances you might assume I would have welcomed this opportunity to reconnect with my old team. Indeed, it was tempting. But then before the first game in Arlington, ex-Presidents George W. Bush and his dad, the former Yale first baseman, ersatz Texans and genteel war mongers, were wheeled onto the field and greeted with a deafening roar and standing ovation from the capacity crowd. I thought back to the night of Gibson’s home run against the A’s in 1988 and how I had wanted to be happy the Dodgers won but could only pretend. Now I would be pretending again, given this spectacle that brought to mind the insignificance of sports compared to all the damage W had done to the nation and the world. I could not avoid thinking that if the Rangers won, the Bushes would be pleased, and the notion of being allied with their contentment was a deal-breaker, plain and simple. Such are the vagaries of emotion expended on behalf of strangers in uniforms.

Maybe it was silly to care about any of it, but I realized I was stranded between teams given the situation and would have to check my lately acquired Dodger loyalty at the door, along with my former Rangers cap, as I rooted on this night for the outlander Giants. However temporary this turnabout, I still felt I might need a papal dispensation for what would surely be crossing to the dark side in Devin’s eyes. As it was, I just kept quiet.

Not that he approved of the ex-president, on the contrary, but more importantly to him, the Rangers were all that stood between the Giants and the World Championship. The Giants! Unlike me, he had grown up as an Angeleno detesting the Giants. When he was in fourth grade, he had attended a Giants game in San Francisco bravely wearing his Dodger colors, and a grown-up had barked at him, “You better take that jacket off, son.” The Giants! Possibly even Tolstoy, from the grave, would understand.

Devin is young. Who knows where he will end up living later in his life and if he will have a son or daughter born in some city other than Los Angeles? And what factors of arrogant owner behavior, political symbolism and millionaire player personalities will come to influence his athletic enthusiasms?

He will have to look into his own heart and figure out what it means to be a fan and what team, if any, deserves his time and attention. For now we have the Dodgers. The Giants, as we know, won that World Series and returned to their beautiful and loathsome park by the bay. They are our enemies once again this season. Think Blue.


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(This ran in The Dallas Morning News 1/23/12, but for some reason is not on the Web site.)

LOS ANGELES — The late political columnist Molly Ivins came into this world a daughter of privilege but left it at age 62 an unrepentant hell-raiser and populist, as Kathleen Turner is demonstrating onstage at the Geffen Playhouse. Turner, the once smoldering star of “Body Heat” and now post-femme fatale, puts on red cowboy boots and essays a comic Lone Star vernacular to bring Ivins back to life in the one-woman show “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins,” running here through February 19.

Co-authored by the journalist sisters Margaret and Allison Engel, the show derives from a career’s worth of distinctive and salty prose Ivins produced for The Texas Observer, The New York Times, Dallas Times Herald and others. The conjunction of the personal and political in her work makes it possible for the 75-minute play to unfold as memoir cum state house primer, with Texas her lifelong partner in word-processing.

Although Ivins achieved a national reputation for her quotable observations on the sport of Texas politics, as one-person shows go, “Red Hot Patriot” is unusual for its actress being more famous than its subject, who died in 2007 of breast cancer. This is adventurous and problematic. An accomplished thespian as well as movie star, Turner easily commands our attention from a seat at Ivins’ old desk in an empty and nondescript newsroom, but her husky declamations of Ivins’ droll one-liners never quite reach Austin’s city limits.

Turner has stated earlier (the show originated in Philadelphia last year) that she is not attempting to mimic Ivins’ voice or personality, but, that said, her performance would benefit from an imagined acquaintance with Scholtz Beer Garden and a few verses of Willie Nelson.

As it is, “Red Hot Patriot,” directed by David Esbjornson, is often entertaining, given its source material (“Texas ain’t all what people think it is – just mostly”), and informative, offering a refresher course in the current events of the last 40 years, as sifted by one of Smith College’s more colorfully ornery alumnae, ending in a plea to renew our democracy. When a giant image of George W. Bush fills the back wall, Ivins remembers the former president (not favorably) from her days as a Houston debutante. After he beat her friend Ann Richards to become governor of Texas, she dubbed him “Shrub.”

Some of her most memorable columns are recreated in context – her fervent opposition to the Vietnam War recalled in the moment her eyes fell upon the name of a boyfriend from Yale etched into the wall of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Ivins’ father was an oil executive and Republican, and she grew apart from him as she developed a social conscience and affinity for the rowdy world of newsprint. Her combative relationship with “the admiral,” as she called him, provides a set of bookends for the evening. Confronting her typewriter at the outset, struggling to find the right words to describe him just after his death, she stares off into the middle distance, her hands not touching the keys. After a pause, she looks up and says, “This is what writing looks like.” It’s a laugh line but is, of course, true.


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Edwin Stein Jr., professor of English emeritus at Whitman College and a former colleague of mine at Cincinnati Country Day School many years ago, has died after a long illness. There is a memorial service for him in New York on Sunday, 10/2/11, but I am unable to attend. I sent a brief remembrance to his wife and two sons and include it here. I would love to hear from any students or teachers from Cincinnati Country Day from that period — two years that in retrospect Ted and I agreed later were more important and strangely blessed than we realized at the time.

When Israel announced the other day that it was going to build more houses in East Jerusalem, I wanted to call Ted to discuss it and was sadly reminded that I cannot call Ted anymore. This is tough and very hard to accept. When I was in New York in August and had lunch with Ted and Judy, he hugged me afterward and said, “I guess this is goodbye,” but I did not allow myself believe it. As I said to Kevin when he informed me that Ted had died, his father was among the best people I have encountered in this life.

When describing him to friends who had not met him, I often said Ted was the smartest person I knew. But while that was true, it did not explain the human being he was, someone whose reflexive kindness and generosity of spirit were so evident and so uncommon. You felt it when you were in his presence certainly but also on the other end of a telephone line or in an email or, before email, in letters. Remember letters? Ted was also a champion letter writer, above and beyond.

Through the long night that has stretched over American politics for the last however many years, Ted was a constant companion in the darkness, always finding rays of light where I could see none. It was a balm and relief to talk to him, to share a sense of disbelief and cathartic anger and feel less alone in the face of so much bad news.

We met at Cincinnati Country Day School in the fall of 1970, when I was just out of college and he had just dropped out of becoming a doctor. We taught there together for two years, the only time we ever lived in the same city, yet over the next four decades we managed to stay in touch, and I kept close to my heart the encouragement he had given me to be a writer – encouragement based on I don’t know what since I hadn’t written much of anything then. Yet coming from Ted it meant something because he himself clearly had the soul of a poet and more knowledge of literature than seemed plausible for one person, and I looked up to him.

Those two years in Cincinnati in the early `70s  when Nixon was president and the Vietnam War was still going on appear so sweet in hindsight now, benefiting from a long lens perhaps that filters out politics, troublesome school administrators and various personal trials. Still, there was something special about that time and place, Ted agreed with me years later, as we harked back to the camaraderie of the five-member English department that on Fridays after school regularly forestalled a weekend of grading papers by downing pitchers of Hudepohl lager at a bar overlooking the Ohio River. Or so I want to remember, especially now.

When you’re young, you don’t always realize the significance of the friendships you are making in a given year or at such and such job. You overestimate some and underestimate others. Time sorts it all out. I’m not sure I could have foreseen back in Cincinnati that Ted would have such a lasting influence in my life, becoming one of those rare people who would always be there, remembering the right details and what mattered, never drifting away into the distraction and self-involvement that separates most adults from each other as they go about their lives.

In a society of hype and cant and marketing, he was, in contrast, authentic, an unassuming truth-teller who bristled at injustice and believed the world could be a better place – and have a lot more poetry in it. I would submit that the world was a better place for Ted having been here, nourishing so many students both in and out of the classroom, reminding us all of the beauty and power of language. I will miss him dearly but carry his words and wisdom and wry humor with me every day from here on.


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