Archive for October, 2009

lennonRobert Hilburn was pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times for 35 years, from the psychedelic era to the emergence of the iPod. He witnessed many of rock ‘n’ roll’s seminal moments and interviewed virtually every major pop figure of the period. All of this is chronicled in his memoir, “Corn Flakes with John Lennon (and Other Tales From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life),” to be published this month. He and Lennon were especially close–largely because of their abiding love and admiration for Elvis–and Hilburn spent a lot of time with John and Yoko up through the fateful night outside the Dakota. Here are excerpts from the book, which yours truly, of course, will eagerly add to his Lennon book collection, from the LA TIMES:

John Lennon raced into Yoko Ono’s home office in the mammoth old Dakota building with a copy of Donna Summer’s new single, “The Wanderer.” “Listen!” he shouted to us as he put the 45 on the record player. “She’s doing Elvis!” I didn’t know what he was talking about at first. The arrangement felt more like rock than the singer’s usual electro-disco approach, but the opening vocal sure sounded like Donna Summer to me. Midway through the song, however, her voice shifted into the playful, hiccuping style Elvis had used on so many of his early recordings.

“See! See!” John shouted, pointing at the speakers.

The record was John’s way of saying hello again after five years. I had spent time with him in Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, during the period he later referred to as his “lost weekend” — months when he was estranged from Yoko and spent many a night in notorious drinking bouts with his buddies Harry Nilsson and Ringo Starr. John got so boisterous one night that he was thrown out of the Troubadour, one of the city’s landmark music clubs. He invited me to dinner a few times, and I later found out it was when he had an important business meeting the next morning and didn’t want to wake up with a hangover. I got the nod over Harry and Ringo because I didn’t drink anything stronger than diet soda. We would eat at a chic Chinese restaurant and then return to his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Those hours would race by because we loved talking about our favorite rock hero, Elvis, which brings us back to “The Wanderer.”

I’ve experienced hundreds of memorable concert and interview moments, so it’s hard to rank them in any favorite order, but my final hours with John in New York are certainly on the short list. It was just weeks before his death in December of 1980, and his playing the Summer record was an endearing greeting — and one that was typical of John. Of the hundreds of musicians I’ve met, John was among the most down-to-earth.

Back at the hotel, Around 11:30, John turned on Johnny Carson’s TV show and ordered corn flakes and cream from room service. He turned the sound down on the TV and stirred the corn flakes and cream with his spoon in an almost ritualistic fashion before taking a bite.
I didn’t think much of it until the same thing happened the next time we returned to the hotel after dinner. This time I asked what was up with the corn flakes.
He smiled.
As a child in Liverpool during World War II, he explained, you could never get cream, so it was a special treat. He took another bite and gave an exaggerated sigh to underscore just how sweet it tasted.
I spent hours at the apartment and the studio talking to John about the changes since Los Angeles. He felt at peace for one of the few times in his life. He was deeply in love with Yoko and thrilled to be a father again. He also spoke with affection about the Beatles days and how much he still looked forward to seeing Paul. That surprised me because of the sarcastic barbs he’d launched in interviews and the biting lyrics he’d written about Paul since the breakup of the band. “Aw, don’t believe all that,” he said, smiling. “Paul is like a brother. We’ve gotten way past all that.” He also spoke fondly of Ringo but more distantly about George. He felt slighted by some things in George’s autobiography, “I, Me, Mine,” especially George’s failure to give John credit for helping him learn guitar techniques.
Mostly, we talked about the “house husband” period that was just ending, a time of emotional drying out, a chance to reset priorities.
He had decided in 1975 to shut down his career to work on his strained marriage with Yoko and to spend time with Sean, who was born that October. He also wanted to escape the pressures and expectations of the rock ‘n’ roll world. Despite his highly acclaimed solo works of the early 1970s, John found it difficult to deal with the ghost of his Fab Four association.
“When I wrote ‘the dream is over’ [in ‘God’ in 1970], I was trying to say to the Beatles thing, ‘Get off my back.’ I was also trying to tell the other people to stop looking at me because I wasn’t going to do it for them anymore because I didn’t even know what the hell I was doing in my own life,” he told me that first day. “What I realized during the five years away was that when I said the dream is over, I had made the physical break from the Beatles, but mentally there was still this big thing on my back about what people expected of me. It was like this invisible ghost. During the five years, it sort of went away. I finally started writing like I was even before the Beatles were the Beatles. I got rid of all that self-consciousness about telling myself, ‘You can’t do that. That song’s not good enough. Remember, you’re the guy who wrote “A Day in the Life.” Try again.’ ”
As Elvis sang “Don’t Be Cruel” in the background, John recalled his first and only meeting with our mutual rock hero. It was a story he relished sharing as much as he did his Beatles memories.
“It was probably 1965 and we had a break in L.A. during a tour. We went up to his house and we were terrified. I can’t remember the first moment I saw him, but he looked great. We started singing some of his songs. That’s what we always did when we met Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins or any of them.”
I asked if Elvis had known how big the Beatles were and if he had felt any hint of competition.
“Are you kidding?” John replied with a laugh. “He knew damn well who we were — from the word ‘go.’ He was terrified of us and the English movement because we were a threat to him. I heard he was so paranoid all afternoon that he kept practicing things to say to us, asking the guys around him if we were any good. It was like Ali wondering if he could handle Frazier. To us, he was a god. We’d like to beat his record and become the champion, but we would always give him credit. It always hurts and infuriates me when Mick Jagger puts Elvis down. Maybe he’s jealous because Elvis was the original body man in rock and it’s too near to Mick’s game for him to admit that Elvis’ movements were at least as good as his and that maybe Elvis could sing a damn sight better than he could.”
John’s favorite time with the Beatles surprised me — the early days. Hamburg, Liverpool, the dance halls. I’d thought he’d say it was when the band had conquered America. “Naw,” he said with a wave of a hand. “We were already blasé. We had the show down. We were already past our peak as performers. It was like Vegas — what we did on stage, I mean. We shook our head on this number and . . . well, you know the rest.”
I told John I couldn’t imagine, as a fan, how hard it must have been for him to simply walk away from music.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life — not make music,” he said. “Not because I had this love for music or because I was so creative and I couldn’t bear not to be creative, but because I felt that I didn’t exist unless my name was in the gossip columns of Rolling Stone or the Daily News or whatever. Then, it dawned on me that I do still exist.”
We had such a good time over the three days that John invited me to his and Sean’s birthday party at Tavern on the Green. I knew what the perfect birthday present for John was. I had mentioned in the studio that there was a great new Elvis photo book by Alfred Wertheimer, who had spent a couple of weeks with Elvis around the time of “Hound Dog” in 1956. John hadn’t seen it.
The party was scheduled for noon, and I left the hotel around 11, thinking I’d pick up a copy of the book at a bookstore. But I had to go to a half-dozen stores before finally finding one, and the party was over by the time I got to the restaurant. I headed back to the Dakota. I didn’t want to bother John, so I left the book with the doorman.
At the bookstore, I also picked up a copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry in case I wanted to quote more from the poem John had mentioned. He had said he wished he could put those feelings into a song, because it would be the perfect love song. During the flight back, the final lines struck me. In them, Barrett Browning says, “If God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.”
I flashed on that final line two months later when I heard the news.

Excerpted from “Corn Flakes with John Lennon (And Other Tales From a Rock ‘n’ Roll Life),” by Robert Hilburn. Copyright ©2009 by Robert Hilburn. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, Pa. 18098.

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Yes, jitterbugger’s been under the mostly rainy weather we’ve had in Dallas this week, but starting to come back to life thanks to the miracle of antibiotics the size of horse pills.
Not only that, my high-dollar laptop with all the bells and whistles has failed me, again, which crimps my blogging style. But we’ll be coming back strong soon enough.
Meanwhile, remember the immortal words of the Apostle Paul my namesake: the fruit of the spirit is love, jitterbugging, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.
BTW, throwing in this picture of the iconic Barney Fife. One of the best Halloweens of my life was the year I found a Barney Fife mask and deputy uniform I wore to a Halloween party in college.
It was one of the best Halloween parties I ever had mainly because every girl at the party wanted to be with Barney Fife.
My male-man bond love for Barney is eternal.

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The old saying has it that laughter is the best medicine, and we all know it’s true. Laughter is one of the greatest of all the gifts of God. It lifts us higher when we’re up and can relieve our pain when we’re down
But an equally potent life tonic is music. Sweet music.
The Bible contains a number of scenes in which the Bible characters break out in song or dance in celebration. One of the most joyous and sexy scenes in the Bible is found in Exodus 15, where the prophet Miriam (yes, the woman was a prophet) and the other women break out the tambourines for some song and dance.
Song and celebration thus became ingrained in the Hebrew faith, with all its attendant rituals and festivals and occasions for praise and glory to God.
Of course, the Hebrews invented blues music as well. A big chunk of those 150 Psalms, which were and are songs made to be sung, were bluesy laments. They aren’t all happy cowbell rock music.
Music is about as great a gift as anything God gave us. Even the Last Supper was topped off with Song.
Have you ever in your mind’s eye seen Jesus singing?
O happy day, when Jesus walked.

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From A Tree Full of Angels: Seeing the Holy in the Ordinary, by Benedictine Sister Macrina Wiederkehr, St Scholastica Convent, Fort Smith, Ark:

If you, O Lord, should remember our guilt, Lord, who could survive?
(Ps. 130: 3, my paraphrase)

Today I made a list of all the evils in my life that I would like to eradicate. Often I have not considered such things as evil. I tend to think evil is something glaring and terribly noticeable, yet so much of the evil in my life is like a cancer that slowly eats me alive. It is good to stand back from it once in a while and ask: How did I get this way? How did I become so suspicious? How did I become so indifferent and apathetic? Where did this unwillingness to look at my faults come from? How did I become so content in the midst of all the trivia in my life? Why am I in this comfortable rut? What evil is lurking in my heart that has brought me to this state? What cancer is eating me alive?
Today, Jesus, I ask you to look at these evils with me. Help me to own them as deadly.
From the evil of fear that traps me in my narrow self centered existence and prevents me from stepping out in faith and risking new things, deliver me and set me free, Jesus. From the evil of prejudice that causes me to make judgments about a person or situation before I know all the facts, deliver me and set me free, Jesus.
From the evil of acting omnipotent, trying to do all of God’s work alone, and refusing to admit my dependency and poverty, deliver me and set me free, Jesus.
From the evil of busyness and activity, never pausing to be still enough that I can experience your contemplative look of love, deliver me and set me free, Jesus.

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For Goldie, out among the stars:


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The Hallgrímskirkja, literally, the church of Hallgrímur, is a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík, Iceland. At 74.5 metres (244 ft), it is the largest church in Iceland and the fourth tallest architectural structure in Iceland
The church’s unusual design is supposed to represent volcanic columns rising between the steeple tower – a reference to Iceland’s many volcanoes.

Las Lajas Cathedral or Las Lajas Sanctuary is a cathedral located in the southern Colombian Department of Nariño and built inside the canyon of the Guaitara River. The architecture of this cathedral is of Gothic Revival architecture built from January 1, 1916 to August 20, 1949


The Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família is a massive Roman Catholic church under construction in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. Construction began in 1882 and continues to this day. The temple is scheduled to open for worship by September 2010.

red square

The Cathedral of Saint Basil the Blessedis is a multi-tented church on the Red Square in Moscow that also features distinctive onion domes. It is very often mistaken by Westerners for the Kremlin, whose buildings are in fact situated across the square from the cathedral. Arguably the most recognized building in Russia, it is an international symbol for the nation and for the city of Moscow.
The story: In the 1500s, an apprentice shoemaker/serf named Basil stole from the rich to give to the poor. He also went naked, weighed himself with chains, and rebuked Ivan the Terrible for not paying attention in church. Most of the time, admonishing anyone with name “the Terrible” wasn’t such a good idea, but apparently Ivan had a soft spot for the holy fool, as Basil was also known,and ordered a church to be built in his name after Basil died.
Ivan the Terrible lived up to his name after he supposedly blinded the architect who built the church so he would not be able to design something as beautiful afterwards.


Notre Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris’ in French”, is a Gothic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris, France, with its main entrance to the west.
Construction of the church started in 1163, when Bishop Maurice de Sully decided to build a cathedral befitting his status as the bishop of Paris. Notre Dame was completed some 200 years later – one of the first European cathedrals to be built on a truly monumental scale.
Legend has it that when Notre Dame’s bell “Emmanuel” was recast in the 1600s, women threw their gold jewelry into the molten metal to give the bell its unique ring.
At the end of the 18th century, during the French Revolution, the church was ransacked, its treasures plundered and many of the statues of saints were beheaded. Notre Dame was dedicated to the Cult of Reason and then the Cult of the Supreme Being – for a while, it was even used as a barn!
In 1831, Notre Dame was made famous by Victor Hugo, who wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” about Quasimodo, a hunchback bell ringer who fell in love with the Gypsy Esmeralda. The popularity of the book spurred a gothic revival in France and helped the restoration of the cathedral back to its original splendor.

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christina davidson

christina davidson

I learned many decades ago when, in my first life as a working-slug street reporter, I did weeks of research for a magazine article about homeless people living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalks in downtown Bryan, Texas. I learned that homelessness can be the result of a lot of little setbacks that have a snowball effect in the lives of people who aren’t lazy and shiftless, who aren’t drug addicts and alcoholics, who in fact are people like you and me who turned out to have the proverbial black clouds over their heads.
Or, the result of people trying and trying to break out of the cycle of poverty, only to get knocked down time after time until their optimism and hope yield to utter despair and broken spirit.
Naturally, a lot of people who read it ignored whole segments of the reporting and bombarded me with angry responses, so convinced were they that homeless people are just lazy and no-count, or else drug or alcohol abusers or, as they say nowadays, whatever.
So I could relate to this pushback piece that journalist Christina Davidson wrote after doing some in-depth reporting on a homeless couple as part of a fascinating series she’s done on homeless folk in cities across the country. She’s been on a “recession tour” in researching a book on the homeless and published this blurb for the mighty fine and always smart and serious Atlantic Magazine, where her series on the homeless have been published in the online edition:

A piece I recently wrote about a homeless family sparked a flood of angry comments coming to me via multiple routes, which argued what the people “should” have done to prevent their current hardship. Since my natural inclination is to appreciate different perspectives and empathize with individual struggles, I can understand clearly how it provides comfort to pass judgment on the homeless. If you believe there are things someone should have or could have done differently, then that means it could never happen to you.
In my conversations with homeless individuals and families over the past months, I’ve repeatedly heard reference to the “snowball effect.” I’ve found few who could pinpoint the cause of their homelessness to one single thing. More often it’s described as a downward slide that builds momentum, quickly becoming harder and harder to stop.
That’s why in the piece about Wilkins and Emma I compared it to falling off a cliff: “Wealth buys passage on toll roads a safe distance from the edge, but poverty’s foot path runs along the craggy and unstable lip of a gaping precipice. Emma and her family hit a few ledges on the way down, blown by winds of misfortune every time they began to regain stable footing.”
In the story of any homeless person, maybe one of the underlying causes can be an irresponsible choice, the development of an addiction, the inheritance of mental illness, an accident, an illness, or one of the varied forms of bad luck. But in most cases, the most common contributing factor is simply poverty.
I don’t feel the need to address at any serious length some of the judgements about Emma and Wilkins: that they shouldn’t have had a child (should she have had an abortion?), that she always should have been working (she was also working as a roofer when they became pregnant, and childcare costs nearly as much as a minimum-wage job would pay), that they shouldn’t have driven to Montana (you don’t know the family reasons for the trip), that public transportation is always a viable option (it’s not), that they should have lived closer to work (not possible when job sites change constantly), that he should have gotten a higher-paying job with better benefits (because they grow on trees?). For some people it seems easier to pass judgment than to feel compassion. I have an appointment later today to interview a newly homeless mother of four in Minneapolis. I only know the barest outline of her story at this point, though no matter what her situation, under the circumstances I expect to hear from people that she shouldn’t have had so many children.
I can understand someone concluding that Emma and Wilkins should have had car insurance — with that, they would readily agree, though that doesn’t mean they could have afforded car insurance any more than the small fortune in fines they received as a result of not having it. Emma acknowledged in a statement I quoted that they had made mistakes in their past. As I’ve heard from so many homeless, once that snowball starts rolling, it’s difficult to prevent the boulder it quickly becomes.
The state of Washington should absolutely require drivers to have car insurance, but I don’t believe the system of penalties in place for those unable to afford its purchase contribute to the bigger picture of a healthy society. When property taxes are down, is that what we’re going to do to fill government coffers?
If someone doesn’t have money for car insurance, is it to our benefit to fine them $450? Is it to our benefit to double it to $900 if they can’t come up with $450 within 15 days? Is it to our benefit to eventually imprison them for 30 days, at a cost to taxpayers of $65 per day, if their license is suspended, they have to drive to work, and still can’t come up with that $900?
This set up reminds me of a comment made by Robert Daneri, whose family of six experienced four months of homelessness until very recently. As Robert puts it: “Policy affecting the homeless is made by the wealthy and implemented by the middle class, but neither understand the life of the poor.”
Taxpayers can end up footing a larger bill in order to punish an individual because he/she couldn’t afford the fine imposed in the first place. What productive end does that serve? And think of the outward ripple affect of that trend — those who lose the only minimum wage job they have because they get caught in the loop, those whose families end up homeless as a result. How does that process boost our nation’s productivity?
Rather than slamming someone with a unaffordable fine because they can’t afford car insurance in the first place, a more practical system could be arranged fairly easily. I wouldn’t suggest the government should get into the car insurance business, but what if rather than targeting uninsured drivers as a source of revenue, the fine imposed would be a reasonable monthly payment financing the purchase of that insurance? That $450 could cover a six-month premium under some circumstances, though the government would have to establish arrangements with one of the insurance companies that don’t charge higher rates for those living in poorer neighborhoods.
So I ask my readers, do you think something like I’ve outlined above would be more judicious and of greater overall benefit to the productivity of our nation than a system that leads to what I referred to as a debtor’s prison in the story of Wilkins and Emma? If not, please feel free to offer another suggestion for an arrangement that would not punish the poor.
****Christina Davidson is a writer, photographer and book editor based in Washington, DC. She specializes in editing books about national security, terrorism, and war, but writes on a broad array of topics, including the popular frugalicious foodie blog http://www.feedthemasses.org. She is working on a book based on her Recession Road Trip.

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