Here’s a song for the silly season. May I call your attention to Iris DeMent, performing her song, “Wasteland of the Free.”
The video itself may be one of the worst ever seen on You Tube, which is saying a lot. But check out the lyrics as DeMent strums her guitar at an outdoor bluegrass festival in 2010.
It may sound as if she wrote the song while watching Sleazy, Dopey, Starchy, Wifty and the rest stumbling toward the Iowa caucuses, but in fact she issued it in 1996 during the Clinton years.
“We got politicians running races on corporate cash,
“Now don’t tell me they don’t turn around and kiss them people’s ass.”
DeMent is raging about extreme CEO pay, resistance to raising the minimal wage, wars for oil, teen-age ignorance, preacher hypocrisy.
Her shrill cutting sound – Dolly Parton on ‘roid rage – may not be to everybody’s taste (she’s one of my favorites) but watch handsome, driven redheaded Iris nailing her own words and unleashing the anger behind them.
First time I heard her voice was in 1994 while I was writing about a farewell tour by the great Tom Paxton, who had recorded his tribute to the Verdigris River in his native Oklahoma. I hope I didn’t insult him by asking, who in the world is that backup singer?
It was Iris DeMent, child of Arkansas, raised in California, from a Pentecostal family, the 14th child of her father, the eighth child of her mother.
Her first CD, “Infamous Angel,” would have been a career masterpiece for most singers except that she followed it with “My Life,” which contained two signature songs – “My Life” and “No Time to Cry” – which makes the listener cry and think and try to gather up "the pieces of my heart," as Iris puts it.
I caught her once, at some club on eastern Long Island, mid-winter. She played a few songs and then paused and looked around and solemnly pronounced, “Stopped off at Amityville on the way out.” She meant the site of the Amityville Horror, the family massacre, many years earlier. We all whooped at a glimpse of her noir streak.
In her third CD, “The Way I Should,” DeMent kept growing – with a haunting personal hymn, “When My Morning Comes Around,” plus songs about sexual abuse, the toll of Vietnam and politics in “Wasteland” -- no red, no blue, just fat-cat preachers and grubby politicians. Somebody recently started a web site called Wasteland of the Free, tied to the Occupy movement, for which Iris could be the songwriter laureate.
Check out the video but better yet find “Wasteland” on her third CD, with Iris in the studio, on a better beat. After that, enjoy the silly season.
Instead of writing the usual cluster of postcards from this past year, I am retaining one outstanding memory – the grace of two presidents, in the home where they have lived, and a handshake that remains with me to this day.
I got to visit the White House on Feb. 15, after a friend scored a special invitation (not a press credential) for the ceremony for 15 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, including Stan Musial. My biography of Musial was almost done, and he was being flown in from St. Louis to receive his medal, at the age of 90.
On a cold, gorgeous sunny day, I met up with John Zentay, a Washington lawyer who in 1962 had escorted Musial to the White House to meet President John F. Kennedy. I told the story the next day in The New York Times, how Zentay was carrying a photo of young Stan the Man and young J.F.K., and how we spotted Musial being escorted in a wheelchair by his grandson to the security gate. While the old star waited for clearance, Zentay showed him the photo. Then another invited guest — a handsome woman with what could best be described as vigah — strode up and spotted the photograph.
“That’s my brother,” she said. It was Jean Kennedy Smith, the last Kennedy sibling, who was also to receive a medal that day. Musial, who is slowing down, did not respond, but Zentay and I were thrilled by her reaction.
What I did not mention in my column the next day was meeting Yo-Yo Ma, another medal recipient, at the gatehouse. Open and bubbly, he chatted with all of us as we waited. I thanked him for the Silk Road Project CD I have at home; I could have thanked him for dozens of other performances. What a nice guy.
The ceremony was also described in the Times — great sports figures like Jim Brown and Joe Morgan honoring their friend Bill Russell, and Musial’s family looking on proudly as he received his medal from President Obama.
After that came a reception — refreshments, mingling, casual introductions. I sought out President George H.W. Bush, who was also in a wheelchair that day, but had willed himself into standing when presented with the Presidential medal.
Because we were in the White House — smaller, more intimate, than you might think — I could not help remembering how my childhood friend Angus Phillips, the long-time outdoor columnist with The Washington Post, was once invited for a predawn fishing expedition with President Bush. Through a lapse in protocol, Angus found the president padding around his living quarters in a bath robe. Angus was mortified but President Bush was cool.
In 2011, President Bush was back, casually hanging around his old residence with the medal around his neck. I asked him about the whereabouts of his old George McQuinn first baseman glove that he wore for Yale in the College World Series of 1947 and 1948. He once displayed the mitt to a gaggle of sportswriters when we visited the White House to schmooze about baseball. This time the 41st president turned to his wife and said, “Hey, Bar,” and asked about the glove. Like any older married couple — I can relate — they could not remember where the glove was stored in Houston. Once again, I was reminded what a decent and approachable man he is.
This is the part I did not tell in my column. Not enough space. Too personal:
As the guests mingled, I heard a flurry of applause from a front foyer, where a military chamber group had been playing. I heard the hum of a cello, followed by applause and laughter, and I followed the sound. It turned out that Yo-Yo Ma had asked the military cellist if he could sit in for one movement of Dvorak, and when he finished, President Obama, still mingling with his guests, had given him a warm hug. Clearly, they are kindred souls as well as a couple of Harvard guys.
The president was tall and graceful and very much at ease as he started moving toward the hallway.
My friend, who had arranged my guest pass, introduced himself and asked the president about something they had in common. Politely, President Obama stopped, gave my friend his attention, and answered the question. Then he said: “I’m sorry, guys, but I’ve got to go. I’ve got some work to do.”
As any guests would do, the people nearest to him cleared a path, and in a chorus said, “Go! Go!” the way any guests would do for a host who needed to take care of business.
As the president strode toward a stairway, he could have picked up speed, looked straight ahead, but this was his borrowed home, and he was the host. As he walked, he made eye contact. I was pressed against a wall, just another guest in a dark suit, not about to interrupt him, but the president stuck out his hand and greeted three or four of us, who were clearing space for him. I felt his hand for a second, and then he was gone, up the stairway, out of sight.
As a long-time journalist, I have met a lot of people, and I force myself on people only when on duty. However, the glow of the offered handshake has stayed with me as I recall the short chat with President Bush, and the instinctive inclusion from President Obama. Nearly a year later, I still relish the brief exposure to their grace.
As Christmas Eve approaches, I think about my Aunt Irene.
She was blonde and bubbly, what the show-business columnists of the day called a “chantoozie,” singing in clubs on the East Side of Manhattan, when there was still quite a Mitteleuropa presence in that neighborhood.
Irene worked late, slept late, and was always about nine hours behind the rest of us.
“I do remember going with Mom and Dad to a Hungarian restaurant in Manhattan, where Irene did stand up and sing a song to the accompaniment of a violin player,” my kid brother Chris recalls. “She had such a big voice, full of flashy highlights and vibrato, and she gestured dramatically with her hands.”
That was Irene. At this time of year, she would hum snippets of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” around the house, but she launched into high gear only on the afternoon before Christmas.
My family would crowd into Grandma’s modest row house in the Jamaica section of Queens, every inch covered with ornate decorations. Grandma would serve us sweets, maybe even a sip of Tokay wine for the adults, and we would wait for Irene, who had embarked in late afternoon, heading to Gertz or Macy’s in the hub of Jamaica.
Finally there would be a bustle in the narrow hallway, and Irene would burst into the crowded living room, tossing her fur coat in a corner and distributing packages, exquisitely wrapped, for all of us. The packages had just been wrapped by exhausted clerks, eager to go home to their own holidays, and now we were tearing into them, barely half an hour later.
I cannot remember what gifts she gave us, only that they were elaborate and expensive. She must have spent every dime she had made for months of singing in some smoky club.
Irene is long gone. I regret that I never saw her perform, but when I hear the strains of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” I know I caught the best of Aunt Irene, in her own sparkling living room.
The most overtly religious thing I do, aside from prayer, is take out the family menorah every December.
I love to handle its sturdy stem and graceful arms, and I love the ritual of lighting it, when we are home, when I remember.
I am a Christian; we have two or three Ganeshas around the house; I still glow from interviews with the Dalai Lama years ago. It all flows together, particularly in this country founded on freedom and multiplicity.
The menorah stirs feelings that are ancient – the same connections I sense in Brooklyn when I gaze at the Hasids who, of course, make no eye contact whatsoever. I feel they are kin, somehow, through my father, who was adopted, but I spare them from telling them so.
The menorah touches deeply because it speaks of survival and courage. When the candles flicker through our front window, they say, Here Too, More of Us, whatever us means.
The past year, lights have been glowing in parts of the world where it takes extreme bravery to congregate, much less protest. Light a candle for people of courage. Happy Hanukkah.
The man hears that his grand-daughter is doing well on the saxophone in grade school.
I’ve got a record in my room, he says.
To his surprise, in the stacks of albums, he finds John Coltrane.
He shows her how to — ooh, carefully — place the forefinger under the tiny bar, drop the stylus on the outside border. Coltrane starts honking.
I used to listen to jazz my first decade on the road, he says, thinking about Horace Silver in one joint, Marian McPartland somewhere else, the night Richard Pryor and Jack Jones held a scat-singing duel during a Johnny Hartman gig in L.A.
Coltrane motors away from the melody, doing riffs with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, Roy Haynes — "My Favorite Things," from Newport, 1963. First time he heard this album was over at Sam and Faith’s.
The girl is listening and talking at the same time. She is a quick study. The best part of vinyl, he says — well, two: even with the scratches, the sound is better than an iPod — is the liner notes.
The quartet veers back into the melody and the girl catches it. They’re playing the first song over, she says. No, it’s jazz, he says. It’s all the same song.
He shows her the credits for the other side, where Coltrane is joined by another tenor sax, Pharoah Sanders. I like that name, she says, repeating it a few times.
When the first side is over, she turns the vinyl over — two tenor saxes prodding each other on the title song, Selflessness.
I’m going to tell my teacher about Pharoah Sanders, she says.
After she heads home, the grandfather locates his Billie Holiday anthology. Next time she is over, I’m going to play "Georgia on My Mind." (They used to live in Atlanta, and she will know this song.) It’s got young Eddie Heywood on piano and Lester Young on tenor sax. Gorgeous liner notes. He thinks, I’m glad I kept my albums.
Thanks so much for finding this site, which will keep growing in days to come.
Thanks also for the hundreds of sweet notes on the NYT web site and in the social media in the past 24 hours (my kids keep me posted.)
My ongoing enjoyment of my colleagues and the bond with readers has me glowing since I filed my last regular Sports of the Times column.
In a day or three, as the first entry here, I will file one favorite postcard from 2011.
My plan is to take some good swings in the NYT sports section on occasion, and regularly write about other stuff here – older role models (nonagenarians) who are still working, my love of music and radio and cities and grandkids, and maybe I will write postcards from some exotic new place my wife chooses.
First things first: we’re taking one of the grand-daughters out for Xi’an lamb in Flushing Chinatown.
Talk to you soon.
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see:
George Vecsey is Hofstra University's Alumnus of the Month! Read a Q&A with George here.