Friday, December 16, 2011

The Passing of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens: 1949 - 2011

I was saddened to read about the passing of Christopher Hitchens this evening. It was no secret that he was dying of cancer, and his biography book tour was cut short due to his diagnosis. While I didn't agree with many of the positions that he took, I found him to be a true man of letters. He was definitely one of the last of the best essayists. Christopher Hitchens wrote many great books on the subjects of government and religion. While I was infuriated with some of his points of view over the years, I found some of his work intriguing. One of my favorite pieces that he did was where he allowed himself to be waterboarded to see whether or not it was truly torture; he changed his position on the subject and agreed that it was torture in the worst way imaginable. 

His positions when it came to religion were at times extreme, but many of them I agreed with. I don't believe we should have a war on Islam, but I feel many of the "God" religions to promote a war on reason. I also have problems with the theories that he and Dawkins professed on Tibet's situation. 

Gore Vidal supposedly named Christopher Hitchens as his "heir" in the world of literature. Hitchens was once friends with Gore Vidal, and later on they had a nasty end to their friendship, which became part of a very nasty public feud where Hitchens seemed to suggest Gore Vidal was a crazy old conspiracy theorist while Gore Vidal concluded Hitchens had become a fascist. 

Hitchens made a promise during his interview with Larry King that he would not leave this world crying out to God to accept him as a believer. I'm pretty sure he kept to that promise and left this world just as he was. If he did, I agree with what he said would be the circumstances of him doing so, being pumped full of those wonderful drugs to take the pain of death away. 

R.I.P., Mr. Hitchens. We'll miss you, and thanks for the many great writings you have left behind. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A.J. Weberman: "Dylanologist"

"In 1961 Bob Dylan struck a bargain with Satan. In return for his soul Bob would have half a century of fame and fortune. Then the Devil would materialize and spirit him off to Hell in a hand basket (Made in China)." - Exercept from The Devil and Bob Dylan.

When it comes to Bob Dylan, you’d probably think about his folk anthems and his unique voice that many people can easily recognize in any era of his career. Bob Dylan has been well documented through music history; people have written books trying to analyze his lyrics and his statements during interviews; and there are those who are left guessing about Bob Dylan. One of the most well known of people who have studied the life of Bob Dylan is A.J. Weberman. Rolling Stone has named him “The King of all Dylan Nuts.” One of Weberman’s most well known of research methods was digging through Bob Dylan’s garbage, and Weberman has been the source of ridicule and controversy. At the same time, Weberman’s material has contributed to over 400 books on Bob Dylan from various writers.

The discoveries in Dylan’s trash that Weberman has shown the world have been rejected songs and poems, scribbled sketches, and even lived to tell the tale about coming across Jakob Dylan’s dirty diapers. Weberman has also extensively studied the lyrics and has come up with a method in how he reads Dylan’s lyrics. He was even the subject of a documentary in 2006, ‘The Ballad of A.J. Weberman.’ Weberman moved on to dig through the trash of other celebrities and public figures and coined the term “garbology” and even wrote a book about his life going through the garbage to get the facts and the dirt (literally) on other public figures.

Weberman is back with a new book, ‘The Devil and Bob Dylan.’ The book discusses the very moment that Dylan went bad, which Weberman believes was in 1961, when a young Bob Dylan supposedly sold his soul to the devil to become the famous musician he would become. Weberman also brings his own revelations from his research about Dylan through his discarded poetry that Dylan is a closeted racist, that “Blowin in the Wind” is a song that contains lyrics about lynching African-Americans, that Dylan is HIV positive, has connections with Palestinian terrorist organizations, and many other facts about Dylan that Weberman has stated in previous years with further insights.

I tried to read through this book with as much as an open mind as possible. I found it to be very interesting in some places, I found places where there’s some good old- fashioned yippie radicalism at work, and I also found a lot of the information to be intriguing. So, I wanted to ask A.J. Weberman some questions about his life digging through Bob Dylan’s trash, about how he views Bob Dylan, and of course some of the things in the book.

When you first started going through Bob Dylan’s garbage, did you ever think there would be anything in there that would keep you digging through it? When was the exact moment that you knew you were going to keep digging through Dylan’s trash?

Dylan told me that one morning he got up and there was an empty wine bottle on his stoop so he opened his garbage can and realized the trash that the maid had disposed of last night was like gone. He set up a video camera was a relieved to find out it was me and not someone trying to find out his routine so they could kidnap his kids.

I’ve seen some of the things that you have shown publicly that you have taken out of the trash. Some of which is Dylan’s poetry, which you seem to have a deep interest in. You mention at the beginning of the book in the pretext that you had the gift of being able to provide insights into classical poetry while studying in college, and that you applied the same methods to analyzing Dylan’s lyrics and poetry. You also mention that you make your assumptions based on clusters of words around one specific word, and that Bob Dylan is also, like you, politically incorrect. Some people believe that Bob Dylan was a civil rights hero, a folk hero with liberal beliefs in the same light as Woody Guthrie, and someone who would hardly be in the light that you paint him in. When you say that Bob Dylan uses racist analogies in songs like ‘Blowin in the Wind,’ do you believe that there’s a level of accuracy you can hold to such a claim?

I believe that I have pointed out many dog whistle racist words in an entire series of Dylan poems. You can read the book and it is up to you to decide if I prove my case.

The first chapter of the book is when you say Dylan made his deal to the devil and subtly admits it in an interview that was done in 2004 for ’60 Minutes.’ They say that Robert Johnson, one of the earliest influences in blues, also made a pact with the devil in exchange for talent and fame. Robert Johnson sang about making the pact at the crossroads, you say Dylan sang about his pact with the devil on Highway 61. It seems the two of them have something in common about revealing their flaws, or their supposed deals with the devil.

Here is one verse from Highway 61: "Well Georgia Sam” well the Communist Party USA controlled by the Soviet Union “had a bloody nose” idiomatic expression, they were defeated and damaged but not permanently and seriously by McCarthyism “Welfare Department” the anti-Communist liberals who invented the welfare state “they wouldn't give him no clothes” they wouldn’t let the Communists express themselves in words that clothed their true Soviet puppet totalitarian agenda “He asked poor Howard” the Communists asked a folksinger, poor Howard “where can I go? Howard said there's only one place I know” the folksinger responded that there is only one outlet that entertained Communist thought “Sam said tell me quick man I got to run” the Communist folk singer said tell me quickly as it is urgent I run for office, take over America, run at the mouth “Ol' Howard just pointed” the Depression Era folkie just wrote a song direct and obvious in meaning and reference; often unpleasant; ‘a pointed critique’ ‘a protest song’ “with his gun” accompanied by his acoustic guitar “And said that way down on Highway 61” and Howard told Sam to infiltrate the world of folk music in order to receive mainstream media acceptance. It is not about the Devil.

The one era of Dylan’s career, which even I agree in finding to be comical, is the Christianity era. The one thing you mention is that was a period in his life where he was at the height of a heroin addiction. It’s also an era of his career that he hasn’t really addressed as it seems to have been something he sweeps under the rug. People wonder if he still practices Christianity. Not even T. Bone Burnett, who Bob Dylan confided in as they walked that path together, will even say if Bob Dylan is still practicing Christianity. What insights can you provide into that era of his career that we probably don’t know about?

After Dylan became a Christian he stopped shooting dope. If he were still preaching Christianity he would be in touch with his Minister, Michael Canfield, and Canfield would have mentioned it to me. A lot of Christian cats want to believe he is still a Christian but he is not. I don’t know where Dylan prays or if Dylan prays but I believe he, like others in Neturei Karta, pray for the destruction of Israel which they believe will hasten the coming of the Messiah.

Besides Bob Dylan’s garbage, you have also gone through the garbage of some other well-known figures. One of the more interesting of garbage piles that you have gone through was Richard Nixon’s. What interesting finds did you end up with in Nixon’s garbage?

Never got it. The Secret Service had the police arrest me.

You had an interesting history through the 80s and 90s. You belonged to the Jewish Defense Organization, where you taught people how to fire weapons; you lived in Israel for a short period of time where you found yourself involved in the middle of some controversy related to [domestic assassinations]; and you contributed research for a PBS documentary on Lee Harvey Oswald. You never settled down, you never became a stockbroker like Jerry Rubin, and you’re still going strong today. You’re obviously someone who isn’t going to go away silently or tone it down. If you had to define your life’s experiences and travels, how would you do so?

Well Jerry Rubin got run over and became road pizza. Cross at the green not in between. What a long strange trip it has been

When people say “A.J. Weberman is a madman,” is that as much of a compliment to you as someone saying, “A.J. Weberman is a genius” when they talk about you?

No one says I am a genius, but history will absolve me.

One last question… Will Bob Dylan’s Christmas album be playing in your apartment on Christmas morning?

Never bought it, as I know some of the money from it will be going to Palestinians.

Many thanks to A.J. Weberman for allowing me to interview him. You can learn more about A.J. and purchase his book through his website at Dylanology - The Study of a Poet Who Sold His Soul to the Devil

Book Trailer and Trailer for 'The Ballad of A.J. Weberman.'

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Different Look at Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle'

“I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” - Upton Sinclair on the impact of The Jungle

When I’ve talked to people who have also read Upton Sinclair’s ‘The Jungle,’ the one thing I hear is “it made me not want to eat meat ever again.” The book definitely details the once unregulated industry of factory farming, meat packing, and canning. I have read about how many people have listed ‘The Jungle’ as a major influence as to why they became vegetarians. However, I think people are missing the point that Upton Sinclair was trying to make with this book. 

The book is credited for inspiring the Food and Drug Administration, for creating safety standards for beef and pork, and it was also highly controversial when it was released. Theodore Roosevelt hated the fact that Upton Sinclair had written this book, but he agreed to create the regulations that were put in place. It’s hard to say exactly how much influence this book had in that process, but there is no doubt that ‘The Jungle’ did just that. Upton Sinclair wrote this fictional book based on his discussions with those who worked in the slaughterhouses, the people in that industry talked to him about the struggle to unionize, and he based it on their personal stories through the character of Jurgis Rudkus and his family who immigrate to America from Lithuania to make a better life for themselves.

The book is about more than just the conditions of slaughterhouses; the book is actually a book about the struggles of the working class in the early 1900s. This is a book that talks about predatory lending, urban housing, income inequality, creating profits instead of revenues, child labor, working conditions, and what happens when you have an unregulated, laissez-faire system that Ayn Rand wrote in favor of in her own novels and philosophy. The results of it are disastrous and barbaric, and we see the consequences and the plight of the people who are trying to make it in a society where they can’t; they’re living at the mercy of fate and have no means to protect themselves.

I would think that this book would be flying off the shelves in an era when we’re calling for deregulation, getting rid of child labor laws, and after Newt Gingrich says he wants to put young children as janitors in schools( along with his earlier statement in the 90s that we needed to get rid of the Food and Drug Administration), and the fact that we are living in the age of predatory lending practices again. We’ve also seen people such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser discuss factory farming conditions, the use of illegal immigrants for labor in slaughterhouses, and we’re seeing that our food is unsafe. We’re also using poison known as “high fructose corn syrup” in most of everything that you buy in a supermarket. It’s hard to believe that books like Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” are more popular now than you’d think “The Jungle” would be.

If you want a sobering account of what deregulation looks like, read ‘The Jungle.’ You’ll see what living in a deregulated country will look like if we continue on the path. The one thing you’ll read is that there were some regulations in place during that time, but the regulator was turning a blind eye to what was going on in the slaughterhouse; it’s similar to the stories of those trying to regulate big oil and the big banks. What we are seeing now is what Upton Sinclair was talking about when he wrote 'The Jungle.' The slaughterhouses and all the stuff about the conditions of the slaughterhouses were all just part of the story, but it wasn't the actual point of the book. While it's great that 'The Jungle' has influenced people to reconsider their diet, we should be reconsidering our hearts. 

Please Support the Borders Group Foundation

During the early morning of 11-11-11, I took a fall in my bedroom and cracked the L1 vertebrae in my spine. This disaster unfortunately came during a time of being uninsured due to the fact I’ve been unemployed since Borders closed in September. While I’m definitely lucky I’m not paralyzed and not in any serious pain, there are of course physical discomforts I have to go through, and I have to wear a compression brace through February. The biggest problem that this has given me is getting the proper follow-up care. Living in Riverside County in California, being uninsured, and having to be at the county’s mercy does not come with good follow-up care. The county of Riverside was ineffective in being able to provide me with follow-up care. Follow-up care with any injury such as this one is obviously important, especially when you could require medication refills, and to make sure the injury is healing properly.

However, I was referred to the Borders Group Foundation given I’m a former Borders employee. The Borders Group Foundation existed through the company’s years of operation; the foundation was supported by voluntary deductions from the paychecks of employees who decided to give, and many people in the stores and at the corporate office supported the foundation through the years of operation. The foundation would cover travel expenses for those of us who lost family members if we needed to travel, helped employees who were going through financial hardships, or employees who suffered medical issues. The foundation definitely saved a lot of Borders employees during some very difficult times.When I heard that the foundation still existed and was referred to them, I put in for assistance and explained my situation being uninsured and injured. I explained I was having difficulty in attaining follow-up care, and they sent me the paperwork and helped me through the process. Today, I found out my paperwork was approved and I will start getting private follow-up care in 2 weeks. The foundation will be picking up the entire cost. 

I know a lot of people who didn’t work for Borders were sad that we closed. A lot of authors that I knew also told me they were saddened and concerned about the closure of Borders and concerned for Borders employees. I’ve also had former Borders customers read this blog and send me e-mails telling me they were so sorry to hear that Borders closed, that they missed having a local Borders, and that it’s sad we have very few book stores around anymore. There was also a heartfelt video while we were going through liquidation on YouTube that Borders employees shared of a little boy crying about how he was going to miss Borders after the family made one last trip to their local Borders, and the mother thanked Borders “for all the years and memories.”

If any of us booksellers at Borders touched your lives, gave you a coupon when we weren’t supposed to and told you that it was because you were a good customer, came in frequently and got to know us, you appreciated our help in finding books you couldn't find or needed suggestions, we agreed to help carry your Christmas shopping goodies to your car, or you were one of those people who asked us the question while we liquidated of what we were going to do next, I ask that you please do one thing: make a contribution to the Borders Group Foundation on the website as the foundation now also accepts contributions from the public. We’re also reaching that time of the year of generous giving, and it can even be written off on your taxes.

There are a lot of us who were part of Borders that are going through hard times right now. Having the Borders Group Foundation around for us may save some lives, as it has mine. This is when I feel proud to have been part of Borders. I feel truly blessed and I want to publically thank the Borders Group Foundation for assisting me during these times. I'm also making my plea to my readers who may have been Borders customers, and the authors who were self-published or published by a publishing house that had events at Borders, to please consider giving a donation to the Borders Group Foundation. 

You can learn more and make your donation at the Borders Group Foundation homepage by clicking HERE

Thank you, and best wishes to all of you during this holiday season. Unfortunately there's not a Borders to go to anymore during the holidays, but I hope you all will support your local book stores and the "other" book chain that still exists. 

-Brian the Bookseller