John Graves

John Graves passed this week at the age of 92 on his ranch called “Hard Scrabble” near Glen Rose, Texas. Graves was a writer, best known for “Goodbye To A River,” a book that has been described as one of the finest works of Texas literature ever written. I’m not sure whether calling something “Texas literature” is meant to describe it or apologize for it. Or maybe it’s used in simple enjoyment of the novelty of having the words “Texas” and “literature” in the same sentence.

Graves could be considered in many ways the literary offspring of the revered Texas Triumvirate – writer & folklorist J. Frank Dobie, naturalist Roy Bedichek and historian Walter Prescott Webb – his writing distilling the craft of all three into one man’s words.

I was lucky enough to have my photography linked to those words when Texas Monthly hired me to make a photograph for an article about the epidemic of Oak Wilt Disease which was rapidly devastating the Texas live oak population. At that time there were just a few pockets of widespread Oak Wilt and Texas A&M wasn’t exactly sure what it was or how to stop it. I took my old 4×5 up to a ranch not terribly far, in Texas terms, from Graves’ Hard Scrabble and photographed a single majestic oak standing naked against a patented Texas sunrise. When the article, titled “Dead Oaks,” came out I was proud to see the byline “by John Graves” next to my photograph.

I never knew John Graves and I have a horrible confession to make as a Texan educated back when Texas cared about education: I never read “Goodbye To A River.” Oh, I’ve read things that Graves has written, many things, but it’s been a while. On the occasion of his death somebody posted a link on some social media site – that ephemeral medium that is instantly gone and never yours – to another article in Texas Monthly, much more recent, about guns that Graves had written. I looked it up and started reading.

My god, I’ve sure been reading a lot of crap in the last several years. The best make it look so easy and effortless, like watching Eric Clapton play the guitar. The first sentences of “Great Guns” are simple, evocative prose that connects and constructs, and reminds you of the power of language in the hands of a true artist. And then it gets better.

Are there literary offspring of John Graves’ generation of Texas writers? I’m sure there are. Name your favorites in the comments. In the meantime I know what book I’m reading next.

Great Guns

by John Graves

The author John Graves, photographed on August 22, 2006, holding a Winchester Model 97 shotgun outside his home in north-central Texas. Photography by Michael O’Brien
I AM NOT A MEMBER OF THE National Rifle Association, nor do I collect rare firearms, attend gun shows, or subscribe to gun magazines. I am not, in other words, a “gun nut” and, in fact, can sympathize to a degree with the views of those who detest all such weapons and want them regulated. You can’t have lived in a large American city for any length of time, as I have, without seeing that such people’s opinions may have a certain amount of validity.
But I grew up in a time and a region that almost automatically sparked interest in not only guns but also the hunting of birds and beasts, in which pursuits such weapons were and still are central components. Nor did a war experienced in the U.S. Marine Corps and a functional country life during most of the past forty-odd years do anything to hamper the affinity.

On writing

I wrote the following to a friend, a writer, editor & scholar.  Then I decided it should be here.

UntitledSeems like each creative interest ebbs and flows throughout my life and swings between photography, music and writing, although the writing has never really blossomed.  And lately I have a strong pull to write but I’m uncertain exactly how to get on with it.  I’ve even thought about taking some kind of online writing course but wouldn’t know where to find a good one, or if it would do more harm than good… y’know…?  I kind of want to write short articles/editorials/essays/whatever that (hopefully) well-express a point of view that will help make people think about issues and (hopefully) act as a result.  Kind of like this and this.

I realized a few days ago that I pour whatever creative juices I have for writing into… emails…  I could make myself feel a little better about this and use the word “correspondence” instead, painting a picture of Jefferson, Emerson, Vonnegut in my head, writing letters.  But it’s emails.  I realized that often I’ll draft, craft and edit so that whatever I’m saying to whatever person is exactly the way I think it should be.  I’m doing it now.  And I think that’s a little stupid, perhaps even sad.  But when I sit down to Write something (with a capital W) it’s so fucking hard to pull it together to actually write.  I realized that the reason I do that is because, mostly, emails have to get written – someone is expecting a reply or a contact from me.  Essays don’t have to be written.  In an email there is probably just one person, someone I know at least a little, and they aren’t reading it like it’s anything more than what it is.  It’s out the door, read, and then it’s gone.  No big pressure, no big expectations.  Same with music and photographs. Music is totally transitory.  And with my photographs I long ago found that emotional place where I can just put it out there and if people like it great, if not, great too.  People look and they move on.  Writing seems so very different than those.

Even as I’m writing this one possible bit of self-advice is forming in the back of my head.  Authors of books I’ve read offer up their wisdom and experience.  I hear Stephen Pressfield saying, “Just sit down and start writing. Keep doing it. Every day.” and Anne Lamott saying “Yes, it will be shitty. It will get better.”  I know.  I just have to impose some sort of structure and deadlines on my own writing I guess.  And not just to do the writing but to share it.  Seth Godin is now saying: “You have to ship, just creating isn’t enough.”

So, here’s the first shipment.

John Mellencamp says you’re stealing from him, so Google should give him money

John Mellencamp wrote an article for Huffington Post. I wouldn’t have noticed either except that Bob Lefsetz happened to mention it in a recent newsletter. Mr. Mellencamp says, essentially, that you’re stealing from him and that ISPs and Google should pony up and give him some money.

I posted this as a comment to the article:

The real problem is not illegal downloads. That ship has sailed, sorry Mr. Mellencamp. People turned to free downloads because the industry refused to evolve.

The real problem is the system of tracking, collecting and distributing royalties in the US is fundamentally broken – not necessarily by design but in practice. The system, as implemented, benefits the top 10% of artists at the expense of the bottom 90% and massive amounts of money is donated to politicians to keep the system broken. Sound familiar?

Every other country in the the world has a single Performing Rights Organization (PRO). Music sales, plays and performances are properly tracked and the artists get paid. It’s not rocket science. The US is the only country in the world with more than one PRO. The PROs shake down small clubs and coffeehouses for thousands of dollars per year yet there’s almost a 100% chance that the artists who perform in those clubs will never see a dime of that money. Lady Gaga will. Probably John Mellencamp will. Or used to.

The solution: 1) a single PRO entity; 2) proper tracking of radio airplay and other performances, not “sampling”; 3) a fair method of establishing and enforcing royalty collections; 4) pro-rata distribution of royalties to all rights-holders. Other countries do this. We can too.

If you really want to help the artists – all of them – insist we have a single PRO in the US.

Our Elections: The New Sport of Kings

Wolf-PAC TX

Join Wolf-PAC TX
Follow @WolfPacTX

In a recent Gallup Poll, the corrupting influence of money in politics is the #2 most important issue to American voters, just after jobs. It’s more important than the deficit, terrorism or any other issue. Why do we not hear one word about this from our candidates? The facts speak for themselves.

“Our elections have replaced horse racing as the sport of kings,” writes journalist (and Texan) Bill Moyers. “These kings are multibillionaire, corporate moguls who by divine right–not of God, but [of the Supreme Court's] Citizens United decision–are now buying politicians like so much pricey horseflesh.”

Congressional candidates with the most money win 93% of the time. Once elected our legislators typically spend 50-70% of their time fundraising. If they want to stay in office they have to raise massive amounts of cash – the average US congress election in 2010 cost $1.2 Million Dollars. (It’s more now.) Think about that. That’s raising $50,000 each and every month while in office. Who has that kind of money to put into politics? Not you and me, not even collectively. Not even the unions: In the recent Wisconsin election, unquestionably the battleground election of corporations vs. unions, corporations and anonymous PACs outspent unions by 8 to 1 – and won. The wealth we’re talking about has to come from the “kings” Mr. Moyers describes.

Why do you think they give this kind of money to politicians? It’s simple. Return On Investment. In 2010, a good if not spectacular year for the stock market, the average blue chip stock in the US earned about 11% Return On Investment (ROI), so for every dollar invested the investor earned eleven cents. In the 111th Congress for every $1 spent in lobbying by oil, gas and coal companies $59 in subsidies were received. That’s a 5900% ROI. In 2004 multinational corporations spent $283 Million Dollars lobbying for a tax break to bring offshore corporate profits back to the US, promising to spend the money saved in taxes on creating jobs at home. In return they received $63 BILLION Dollars in tax breaks. That’s a 22,000% ROI. (And, ultimately, the companies only spent 9% of the tax break savings on jobs in the US). The pharmaceutical industry spent $119 Million lobbying congress to bar Medicare from negotiating for competing drug prices. This resulted in $90 BILLION in additional revenue per year. That’s a 77,500% ROI. This is why money is pouring into politics. Buying politicians is the best investment you can make by far.

The sad truth is because of this broken system our representatives no longer represent us, they represent their funders – those who fund their campaigns to get elected and who hire them when they leave politics.

Our politicians are addicted to the money. Their professional lives depend on it. Lawrence Lessig, professor of ethics at Harvard School of Law, uses this analogy effectively: The alcoholic may face his marriage failing, losing his job, ruining his health and countless other catastrophic events. But the alcoholism is the first problem to fix – until that is addressed no other problems can be. We have many serious problems to face as a nation – jobs, health care, deficit, wars, crumbling infrastructure, immigration, just to name a few. Most of us have different ideas on the way those problems should be solved. Says Mr. Lessig in his wonderful little handbook for citizens, One Way Forward, “We don’t have a common end. We do have a common enemy. …The corrupting influence of money is the first problem facing this nation. …Unless we solve this problem, we won’t solve anything else.”  No matter what issue you personally feel strongest about there is zero chance it will be properly addressed unless we fix this issue of legalized corruption.

Unfortunately the solution may not come from our legislators, even those with the best of intentions, the highest character and a backbone strengthened by decades in politics when they leave for Washington. They are virtually powerless against the status quo and the addiction to money. And frankly there is little incentive to change things because the current system is how politicians gain wealth, influence and security. Maybe a few, hopefully our own Pete Gallego among them, will lead to empower citizens again in this country, to right this faltering ship of state. But it’s up to us to insist they do it, and failing that, to do it ourselves. (Join Wolf-PAC Texas!)

If Pete Gallego takes up this cause of restoring democracy in America it will likely be the hardest thing he’s ever done. But what could be more important or more just? Perhaps another Texan can be his inspiration. When LBJ was sworn into office he immediately took up the cause of civil rights. His advisors told him not to do it, that he would fail, that it would doom his presidency and the Democratic party for decades. LBJ replied, “What the hell is being President for?” And he passed the Civil Rights Act.

Pete needs our votes, certainly. But unfortunately he needs money even more to make it to Washington. Let’s do what we can to help Pete get there. But let’s also send him with the primary mission to remove money from politics so he doesn’t need it to stay there.

What Are You Leaving Behind?

What are you leaving behind?

via Seth’s Blog by Seth Godin on 5/26/12

Trail after wildfire, Davis Mtns. Texas

I love watching contrails, those streams of white frozen exhaust that jets leave behind. It’s a temporary track in the sand, and then the sun melts them and they’re gone.

Go to Montana and you might see the tracks dinosaurs left a bazillion years ago. Same sort of travel, very different half-life of their passage.

All day long you’re emailing or tweeting or liking or meeting… and every once in a while, something tangible is produced. But is there a mark of your passage? Fifty years later, we might hear a demo tape or an outtake of something a musician scratched together while making an album. Often, though, there’s no trace.

I’m fascinated by blogs like this one, which are basically public notes and coffee breaks by a brilliant designer in between her ‘real’ work. Unlike tweets, which vanish, Tina’s posts are here for a long time and much easier to share and bookmark. Her trail becomes useful not just to her, but to everyone who is interested.

What would happen if you took ten minutes of coffeebreak downtime every day and produced an online artifact instead? What if your collected thoughts about your industry became an ebook or a series of useful instructions or pages or videos?

What if we all did that?

Photo Essay: Mexico’s Drug War – 50,000 Dead In 6 Years

A masked Mexican soldier patrols the streets of Veracruz, on October 10, 2011. Soldiers of the Army, Navy and members of Federal Police patrol the streets of the city as part of “Veracruz Safe Operation” after a rising tide of violence plaguing this tourist city. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

 

This is what the unwinnable “war on drugs” looks like.  Look at it.  This is what we are doing.  All sides profit from the carnage – the cartels, the law enforcement and incarceration industry, the politicians, the military-industrial complex.  Money drives this reign of terror from all angles and there is no incentive to change the status-quo because the money just keeps coming.  It’s all about the money.  This is a genocide and our so-called representatives in government have blood on their hands because they won’t even have the conversation about legalization.  Portugal legalized drugs and their drug abuse declined by 50%.  I don’t do drugs but I have a conscience.  Look at these photos and say you don’t care.   http://www.theatlantic.com/infocus/2012/05/mexicos-drug-war-50-000-dead-in-6-years/100299/

Adventures in the City: Anjela gets her wallet stolen

Anjela got her wallet stolen Friday. We’re not sure if it got lifted from her purse or fell out somehow but within minutes of her last seeing it someone started using credit cards at a Target store in N Austin, charging $1200. Also within minutes I got a call from USAA fraud department asking if we had made these charges and if we had our cards in our possession. I had mine so I called Anjela. “Of course I have it, I just… Shit! My wallet’s gone!!” Luckily she doesn’t carry much in her wallet: a few credit/debit cards, her driver’s license, insurance cards, a couple rewards cards, a store gift card, a “lucky” $2 bill. We started making calls. The process for canceling the cards was quick and painless. New cards are on their way. She was very near the driver’s license office so she went directly and got a new DL. En route she called the police and, surprisingly to me, they were interested, assigned a case number and detective, asked us to contact them if the credit card companies could give us any details about when and where the cards had been used. They were appreciative when Anjela called back and gave them this information and said they would use it to look at the security footage to see if they could identify the culprit. I kind of figured in a city of this size the cops just wouldn’t really pursue something like this. I’m glad they do and hope they catch the person(s).

The hardest thing was to wrap our head around “How does someone do that?” If they lifted the wallet then that’s one thing, but if it fell out how does someone see it, pick it up and think “Yeah! Let’s steal some shit!” It’s hard to understand. What if it was their wallet?

But it gets better… About 8:30pm I got a phone call. “Is this Todd Jagger? Do you have a wife or girlfriend named Anjela Garcia? I found her wallet in a Target bag on 183.” He sounded older, very Texas country. I asked if we could meet him. He said he was at Mehl’s Motel on N Lamar near Airport Blvd. I vaguely remembered some seedy motels in that area. But he gave me his name and his phone number, told me what he was wearing and that he’d be outside. Before we left I told Anjela she should call the police and let them know someone found her wallet. She did and they told her, “Do not go there without a police escort. Go near the location, call 911 and give them your case number and wait for a patrolman.” We were kind of torn on this. I mean sure, the guy may or may not be associated with the thieves. Certainly he was hoping for a reward though he didn’t ask or even mention it on the phone. Probably just a guy trying to do the right thing. We didn’t want to jam him up with the cops, y’know? We decided, “Well, let’s just drive by and have a look. If it looks cheesy we’ll call the cops.”

Mehl’s Motel is an old 1950′s motor court, the kind that has a single lane arch-covered entrance and exit. You hardly notice it in the slow gentrification of that area of Austin. It was very run down, very dark, looked very dicey. There was no way I was going to drive or walk in there. We went to a new BBQ restaurant a half block away and called the police. We still felt conflicted about putting something like this in motion but it seemed like the only reasonable course. They said a patrolman was on the way. It took a bit longer than we thought it would but about 13 minutes later I saw a patrol car coming down Lamar. I tried to get his attention but he drove past, passed the motel then turned around and drove past us the other way, then turned around again and came into the parking lot. I guess he was checking things out. He was a big guy, 6’3″ 230 lbs. He almost crushed my hand with his handshake without even trying. We told him that the guy seemed like he was trying to do the right thing and we didn’t want to cause any trouble for him. The officer said, “Yeah, you want to think people are okay but the sad thing is you just don’t know. You’ve got to be careful. I’ve been working this area for a long time and, well, Mehl’s Motel isn’t the La Quinta, you know. He may be the one who stole it, you just don’t know. Let’s roll over there and talk to him.”

He didn’t drive into the court either. He parked the patrol car in front of the complex. Immediately people started scattering, movement in the shadows of the motor court, a guy briskly left the complex trying to look nonchalant as he walked away from the patrol car at a clip. Taking the cue we didn’t pull in either, we parked on the street next door. As the big cop walked into the court and more people saw him they shuffled inside rooms shutting the doors behind them. It was a little surreal, like a scene from a movie. He found the room and the man came out. He wasn’t nervous or upset that we had brought an officer with us. I kind of apologized saying we already had a case and they told us we needed to bring an officer. He said no problem. He handed Anjela a Target bag with just the cards in it, no wallet. Most of the cards were there but not all. The main thing was her driver’s license – we didn’t want that out there for identity theft ease. I guess the thieves probably took out any cards they thought they could use and tossed the wallet with her insurance and store cards, then tossed the bag with the cards after when they realized they had been flagged stolen. Of course it’s also possible the man was involved somehow. The cop took the man’s ID and asked us to wait by his car. I handed the man $50, thanked him and shook his hand. He didn’t seem like a thief. He said “I just thought ‘What if I had lost my wallet, I’d want someone to do the same.’”

So that’s the kind of stuff that happens in the city. I guess it can happen anywhere but you just don’t think it’s going to happen to you. From memory can you name everything in your wallet? What about the account numbers and numbers to call? Right now, take everything out of your wallet and take a picture of it or put it on a scanner – front and back. If you have neither of those write the numbers down. Don’t carry your social security card or any little pieces of paper with passwords, PINs or personal information. Do have a contact phone number. Use gift cards right away – they can’t be traced or replaced. Have an alternate credit card somewhere so you aren’t left without resources. And watch out for thieves.

Wish I was in Memphis

“Memphis. I love it and I hate it,” said our driver as he took us into a part of town tourists never see. Three years ago at Folk Alliance we signed up for the outreach program to play a set at wherever they wanted us to – a school, old folks home, hospital, whatever. We played at a homeless veterans’ shelter. These guys weren’t sure what to think of us, two white cowboy looking dudes. But I guess attendance was mandatory to listen to us. Let’s say they did not appear enthusiastic about the entertainment they were expecting. We started with “Every Day I Have The Blues” and everything changed. We were okay. We spoke their language.

Man, I’m really missing being at Folk Alliance this year. Lefsetz writing about it, well, it’s making me sorry we didn’t go this year. Sure, it’s a total clusterfuck. Sure, you’re playing your showcases in one of the “lesser” rooms at 2:10am, and everybody just left because the guy before you has a bigger following even though he’s one of a crap-ton of Sensitive Singer Songwriters at the conference, and nobody knows who the hell you are, and you know you don’t really fit in here in any way shape or form, you’re a 55 year old West Texas country boy by way of Austin and your pickin’ buddy is even older and looks like he’s not feeling very well, but goddammit if your shit that sounds like Bill Monroe playing a duet with Slim Harpo isn’t folk music then what the fuck is, and you’re starting your songs, trying to “get it up again” even though you’ve played this goddamn song 5 times, or is it 6, already today, and there’s nobody, literally, in the room. But you’ve only got 20 minutes and you’ve got to be spectacular, people or not. Maybe somebody comes in, maybe they don’t. It doesn’t matter. You’re there, you’re putting yourself out there, giving it your all, hoping that someone hears you and then maybe says some good things about you to someone else, or maybe they write something about you on a blog that a gazillion people read. Or hell, maybe some pretty girl will flirt with you, like that ever happens. But yeah, you’re playing your songs, you’re having fun, and people start digging it because you don’t fit and and aren’t yet another Sensitive Singer Songwriter, and the blues are fucking cool even if they are been played by a couple of old West Texas farts who on any other night of the year would be sound asleep, and the blues are especially right and proper here in this town at this hour.

Yeah, I miss it.

Spotify Needs to Free Itself From Facebook

 

I’m a big fan of Spotify.  I’ve fully bought in to the subscription model for music (with a couple caveats: album art/liner notes and completeness of library).  As long as the catalog is overwhelming and has the music I want to hear then I’m 100% in.  I’d much rather pay $5-10/mo. to have everything than $12-18 a CD, no question about it.  This is the way music is going, accept it, enjoy it.

That’s why when I first heard of Spotify I started getting interested.  Yeah, I had tried Pandora and Slacker and Rdio but they didn’t connect.  I could see blog posts about and screenshots of Spotify and read what the CEO said.  I wanted it.  But I couldn’t have it.  No licensing for the US.  I knew some folks had gotten early US access but I didn’t know how.  I read where a few resourceful people had done some “things” to get access.  Ironically I knew that our CD The Border Blasters “Blast From The Past” was available on Spotify (through our distribution deal with CDBaby).  I knew this because I’ve gotten paid for people who stream or download our music via Spotify.  It’s pennies, to be sure, but those are folks who are probably fans now and they weren’t before.  I call that a win.  And that’s another rant for another time.

When the service launched in the US I was stoked.  Finally!  I got an early invitation and signed up.  Yup, it’s good.  Damn good.  Yup, their Americana and Roots catalog is a little thin but there is a lot they *do* have.  Some stuff I’d never seen before.  For the last month or so of doing the Border Blast Revue on KRTS I was programming the show about 75% via Spotify.  It was wonderful to have access to some of the new major label releases that never serviced our small station and some super small stuff that somehow made it into their library.

Then Spotify announced the partnership with Facebook.  “Uh oh…”  Now you *have* to have a Facebook account to get a Spotify account.  I guess Spotify needed the cash infusion.  I’ve heard they are hemorrhaging cash and that the major labels structured ridiculous and horrible deals to get access to their catalogs.  A chunk of ownership by Facebook bought them some life for their US launch.

But unless they get out of the deal with Facebook, or at least give the option of having an account without Facebook, I believe that relationship might also create serious long term problems for Spotify.

I think the bloom is off the rose for Facebook.  I’m on there but I rarely post anything.  I just don’t like the fact that I’m not the customer – I’m the product.  Sure it’s great to see what everyone is doing and find old friends and stuff.  Everyone is there.  But people are getting hip to the constant invasions of privacy and the commoditization of our personal lives for the big corporations.  I don’t think anyone thinks Zuckerberg or the Facebook behemoth has our interests at heart.  They sure don’t have a motto like “Don’t Be Evil.” (Of course, whether or not Google lives up to that motto is certainly open for debate…)

It’s really too bad that Google didn’t make the deal with Spotify instead.  Maybe they tried and couldn’t work the deal I don’t know.  Maybe they were too invested already in their own Google Music service.  But I really think that was a missed opportunity for Google.  It could have been exactly the shot in the arm that Google+ needed.

I’ve tried to talk several of my friends into getting Spotify.  They would love it; I know they would.  But they say “No way!” to Facebook.  Spotify may be tapping into the masses on Facebook but by doing so they are shutting the door on probably an equal number of potential customers who will never, ever sign up on Facebook.  And unless Spotify can make their service available to anyone, not just Facebook members, it’s going to decline along with Facebook.

I guess the positive spin on this is that there is still a void, an opportunity.  I thought Spotify was going to be the holy grail of music subscription: Everything ever recorded available any time to anyone for an affordable monthly fee. That’s the goal.  That’s what Spotify said it wanted to be.  They aren’t there yet.  And the Facebook deal hobbles getting there perhaps as much as it helped them.  But I know if someone builds that they’ll own the music world.