coffee with dead people: chuck barris

Chuck Barris died Tuesday in, of all places, Palisades, NY. The songwriter, author, television producer/emcee and cultural lightning rod was 87.

Most may not know that he wrote the post-Golden Age of Radio single “Palisades Park”, or that he worked behind the scenes on American Bandstand and was in no small part influential in the rise of what we know as reality television. Most know him in one of two ways: One, as the central character in the 2002 film adaptation of his self-professed unauthorized autobiography Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; or two, not entirely removed from the first, as the cracked-out host of the cracked-out late 1970s *ahem* talent program The Gong Show. 

He gave us any number of pop cultural icons and curiosities, launching the immortal Bob Eubanks from radio disc jockey to near-ubiquitous television presence for the better part of twenty years, to early exposure for a very youthful Paul Reubens, to giving David Letterman some of his earliest appearances as a celebrity judge on The Gong Show. He might not have been a kingmaker per se, but his work shaped a lot of American television culture to the present day.

Barris showed the world what an introvert looked like when faced with success, a national audience and a multi-camera studio. Or, perhaps, he really was cracking under the pressure of being an international man of mystery and assassin. Or, perhaps, drugs (a claim Barris vehemently denied to his death.)

The Gong Show was an early part of the lineup back in the days when USA Network ran blocks of old game shows every weekday afternoon. We lived in the suburban Twin Cities before cable became commonplace; my father got one of those enormous satellite dishes so that he could watch the Packers out of market. So, my brother and I were exposed to far more of the 1970s than I probably should have been.

And yet there we would be, in that ebullience known only to the young, dancing along to Gene Gene the Dancing Machine. Those memories are some of a scant few I have when my brother and I were both children. That joy still welled up when Central Wisconsin finally got Game Show Network and Gong was on every night at 10pm. That joy came back when I found Gene Gene compilations on YouTube last week.

Barris was also an accomplished author. Confessions is one of my favorite books (certainly not for the faint of heart), and The Game Show King is one of the better memoirs I’ve read. After Gong went off the air in 1980, he largely disappeared from public life, moving to France before returning to the States in his latter years. He never fully recovered from the loss of his daughter to a drug overdose, and four years of consistent on-screen delirium will suck the life out of anyone, much less someone who never wanted to be on that end of a television camera.

He might not have been a saint, he might not have been responsible for the downfall of Western Civilization (at least not entirely), but he gave me some of my earliest and most favorite memories, and now the coffin of my childhood is fast running out of space for the added nails.

The end of both the film and book is an uncomfortably apropos way to conclude:

I came up with a new game show idea recently. It’s called the old game. You got three old guys with loaded guns on stage. They look back at their lives, see who they were, what they accomplished, how close they came to realizing their dreams. The winner is the one who doesn’t blow his brains out. He gets a refrigerator.


coffee with dead people: dietrich bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, courtesy Dover Beach

‘Coffee with Dead People’ is a recurring series on figures, historical and otherwise, I find to be fascinating, reflections on their lives and works mashed up with mine. And they’re dead.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most brilliant theological and philosophical minds of the 20th century, a textbook example of what might have been…

…had he not been executed by the Germans with Allied artillery virtually within earshot?

…had he decided to stay in the United States under asylum, as his friend Reinhold Niebuhr pleaded with him to do?

…had he not maintained his moral compass and theological integrity in the face of a tyrannical cultural movement?

My first encounter with Bonhoeffer was in college, where fervent and zealous fundamentalists gravitated to The Cost of Discpleship merely on the name of the work alone. In all likelihood, none of them probably read and understood the book, talking hyperbolic about laying everything down for Jesus in that inimitable way fervent, zealous fundamentalists can talk.

My first interaction with Bonhoeffer came a little later, finding his Ethics at a book liquidator for next to nothing. What I found was not a blustering, glib firebrand who would draw fundamentalists with his populist ramblings. Quite the opposite; I found a nuanced, skilled thinker–very German, very Lutheran–whose commitment to Christ and the doctrine of hypostatic union–the full God-ness and humanity of Jesus–led him to extrapolate a brilliant, almost mystic ethic based on the economy of union versus disunion, with God and with one another. His clarity was almost disconcerting, unlike colleagues such as Niebuhr or Tillich, Bonhoeffer took a simple idea and built an entire universe around it. Postman once said ‘Clarity is courage,’ and indeed, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was courageous.

It is what people have done with him that seems cowardly in comparison.

Eric Metaxas, heir to the late Chuck Colson as the socio-political voice of Evangelicalism, wrote a biography of Bonhoeffer that might as well have been any number of modern American Evangelicals. It was a puzzling work that was on one hand very readable and enjoyable, but also intellectually harrowing and anachronistic. Indeed, one pre-release reviewer of the then-manuscript found it so fraught with mistakes, grammatical, historical and otherwise, and so deviant from other, more socially-proximate bios on the subject that he insisted HarperCollins not publish it. (Nashville’s Thomas Nelson, an Evangelical publishing house, ended up releasing it to Evangelical acclaim. (The former is a subsidiary of the latter. Metaxas, as Jeff Tweedy. YHF, my friend. YHF.)

The political and religious left have claimed Bonhoeffer as their own as well, using his ‘religionless Christianity’ as the basis for everything from universalism to a theological grounding for primarily-political recognition of same-sex marriage. We’ve already covered how fundamentalists love a good title. I think, with what I believe to be good reason, both miss the point (as tedious distinctions like left and right are wont to do since they ultimately represent nothing but idolatrous self-interest.)

This is not to say that it is inappropriate for one to, ahem, appropriate ideas into one’s thinking on a particular subject (lest I be rendered a hypocrite for having a series called ‘Coffee with Dead People’.) It’s just that when we deal with our own thinking on subjects, we need to do so with an understanding that the mere appearance of concurrence is not concurrence itself. We are inexorably at the mercy of context, and granted that matters of context and intent are not entirely knowable, this is not the same as saying they are not knowable at all. Tillich’s approach toward panentheism and process leaves me wanting, but that doesn’t mean I can’t agree with him when he says that faith is the object of one’s ultimate concern. Bonhoeffer’s unwavering resistance to the Nazi corruption of the German church is a false equivalent to both fundamentalist self-immolation and ‘progressive’ self-glorification. It is culturally and temporally located and what we derive from that has to be appreciated within that framework. Hating the Cubs doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the careers of Ron Santo and Ernie Banks.

Beyond all of this linguistic nonsense, though, lies a creeping, disconcerting thought, the one that plagues each of us periodically in our lives: what might have been? Then, I look at a person like Bonhoeffer, lionized after his time, and wonder how he must have felt in Flossenburg or Buchenwald, the final days of his life playing out toward an undeniable end. Had he not asked himself the same questions, his life would not have the same lasting resonance, for he would not have been a man at all. Then I consider Jesus in the same way, carrying the weight of dread in Gethsemane, then the beatings and the execution. Who thinks for a moment that Jesus didn’t consider doubt when the Romans were doing what they did best?

Then I hate myself for my compromise, and place my trust in divine grace to cover the deficit. What more could be done?

coffee with dead people: edwin friedman

‘Coffee with Dead People’ is a recurring series on figures I find to be fascinating, reflections on their lives and works mashed up with mine. And they’re dead.

I don’t like leadership. No, let me clarify: I loathe leadership — leadership classes, leadership books, leadership workshops, leadership leaders, leading leaders who lead by leading. It’s a pretentious system propped up by people who couldn’t do much else with their lives, so in an effort to reclaim their misguided adolescent sense of importance, they wrote books and wore bad Cosby sweaters and talked of synergy, mentorship and mentees, visioneering and other varied ephemera, which is to say, other varied bullcrap.

The biggest affront to our common sense from the leadership set was that leaders are made and not born.

In a desert of dry, self-congratulating, self-nullifying leaders, reading Edwin Friedman–a Jewish Rabbi and therapist who found himself working in the Lyndon Johnson administration–was counter-intuitively like drinking deeply at the oasis of sensibility; a forerunning kindred spirit who reassured me that there was, indeed, a place for blackish sheep like myself in leadership.

Ed Friedman has been dead for nearly 18 years.

Edwin Friedman, courtesy Wikipedia

“This book is for parents and presidents. It is also for CEOs and educators, prioresses and coaches, healers and generals, managers and clergy. It is about leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety,” Friedman asserts at the outset of his unfinished work–and required reading material for any and all of the above mentioned–A Failure of Nerve. “It is for leaders who have questioned the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility. And it is for anyone at all who has become suspicious of the illusions of change–suspicious of the modern fashion wherein solutions, as well as symptoms, burst upon us in every field of endeavor (management, healing, education, parenting) and then disappear as unexpectedly as they had first appeared, only to be supplanted by the fad of another ‘issue’ or cure, sending everyone back to square one.”

Needless to say, Friedman’s shotgunning resonated loudly with me. And–wouldn’t you know it?–he delivered the goods, right up until his death.

I keep coming back to Failure of Nerve because there hasn’t been a situation I’ve been in with regard to work, church or relationships that doesn’t ultimately get addressed by Friedman’s notions of emotional triangles, imaginative gridlock or data junkyards/junkies. (I also keep coming back to him because I keep recommending this book to people I know who really would benefit from it and they don’t bother.)

The make-up of a leader isn’t based on what they can regurgitate back, on how much they can relate to people’s pain or their methodology. I know plenty of wonks who make very poor decisions for themselves or those they lead. I’ve seen people who get so clouded by their sense of empathy or disregard better judgment in the name of attempting to relate and understanding–socially-acceptable sociopathy–and, as a result, end up in disastrous, often compromised positions. In both, a person’s leadership is self-sabotaged in the name of an ill-advised short-sighted pragmatism because either data or sympathy pains are making the decisions and not the rooted, differentiated self. This need not be exclusive to leaders, either: this can easily include friends, co-workers, peers, family members–anywhere relationships are present; which is to say, everywhere, because there can be no leadership without an established relationship. (Washington, are you listening?)

In any case, Edwin Friedman came along at the right time in my life, after the original critical thinking epiphany and during a period in my life when I was in the throes of being herded, isolated, maligned and left for dead by ‘leaders’ who were more interested in protecting their causes and their positions than they were in any sense of meaningful progress. Friedman helped restore my faith in the idea of a leader. If you’re disillusioned, I’m confident reading him will have a similar result.

Ed, this smooth cup of decaf is for you.

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

coffee with dead people: elvis presley

‘Coffee with Dead People’ is a recurring series on figures I find to be fascinating, reflections on their lives mashed up with mine. And they’re dead.
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. — Jeremiah 20.9, ESV

I’ve finally started launching into Peter Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. The first of a two-volume epic biography of the single most important pop culture figure of the 20th Century, Guralnick comprehensively researched and charted the trajectory of Presley, from most modest beginnings through his big break, to Sam Phillips selling him to RCA. (The second volume, Careless Love, chronicles his downfall into self-parody and unseemly death in 1977. It seems awkward to say I look forward to reading it.)

Philosophically and scientifically speaking, we talk a lot about paradigm shifts: revolutionary ideas that at first are mocked and disregarded until those ideas prove to be viable and justifiable enough to upend conventional thinking. While there were plenty of precursors to Elvis, black and white, it was Presley whose force of nature changed notions of popular music forever.

We don’t tend to think of him this way, though. People my age and younger–if we think of Elvis at all–think of the sequined, jumpsuited muse for the Honky Tonk Man–a swollen Vegas crooner who set the standard for fading celebrities flailing at an attempt at a second fifteen minutes of fame. Even in decline, the man remained a trend setter.

And, in our mental depictions of fat Elvis, we neglect his rise, his beginnings, his revolution, his very person. The caricature doesn’t tell us anything save what we think of him, which is to say, not much. We don’t factor in that a man who spirals into self-caricature and irrelevance was, necessarily, at one point a highly relevant icon. We neglect the modest beginnings, the people who told the shy boy he couldn’t sing, the older kids who mocked his guitar playing. We fail to see that this person was once very much a human before he was a rock star.

“…Sam [Phillips] saw in Elvis the very person that he was but rarely showed. Where Elvis appeared unsure, tongue-tied, incapable of expressing himself, Sam saw in him the same sort of burning ambition, he was only lacking the ability to verbalize it.” — Guralnick, p. 120

In a sentence and a half, the author not only nails Sam Phillips and Elvis Presley, but reads the mail of any number of would-be creative and artistic geniuses; martyrs to any number of paradigm shifts. Indeed, Elvis wouldn’t be Elvis without Sam Phillips, a mentor and partner who would give a shy kid a shot on acetate and work with him until the greatness within hinted at in the trickle of a single happy birthday 45 gushed out and set Memphis, the Delta and, eventually, the world on fire.
I don’t know about you, but I’m scarcely a blogger with modest success, and I will never forget two types of people: the few who saw something in me worth encouraging, and the many who viewed me as little more than a novelty act, a heretic to be marginalized or a malcontent to be ignored. We are only as much as those who encourage us encourage us to be. The story of Elvis is the story of Sam Phillips, who saw the opportunity to shape a young Presley into a commanding presence behind the microphone before seeing the opportunity to profit. The story of Sam Phillips is the story of Elvis, an artist who provided enough success to Sun Records to attract and elevate talent like Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins, amongst others, while also elevating the notoriety of those who had gone before, Arthur Crudup, BB King, Bobby Bland, Bill Monroe, et al. In him was fulfilled all the blues and the country: the new covenant of rock and roll.
And yet, like the covenant more familiar to religious folks, it is not a complete usurpation of that which went before it, but a fulfillment. In the Mississippi Delta, so many contexts swirled together that something like this was bound to happen: the prophetic desperation of the blues, the folksy, Appalachian roots of country, the rapture and hope of gospel, the raw exuberance of jazz, blended together and left to swelter under a steamy Memphis sky. The church didn’t know what to do with a church boy playing the devil’s music, the blues singers and pickers of the day looked on in envy and indignation as a white boy took Big Boy Crudup’s ‘That’s All Right’ and made it something more, Nashville, being Nashville, didn’t want anything that wasn’t by, of and for them. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.
There is a certain undeniable literary quality to Elvis’ life, and yet it isn’t mythic to the point of being unrealistic. Elvis is perfectly salt of the earth, vulnerable, perfectly human. There is nothing spectacular about his talents: he doesn’t have the considerable vocal range of an Orbison, the steely charisma of a Cash, the prodigious guitar skill Perkins had or the raw hellfire–with apologies to Nick Tosches–of a Jerry Lee Lewis. None of them, though, were anything of cultural note without Elvis going before them. And Elvis, time and again according to Guralnick, is proven to be perfectly polite, decent, hard-working and successful. The excesses attributed to rock and roll are not present yet (though they were certainly present in the blues, country and yes, even gospel. It’s amazing to think of Jake Hess–yes, that Jake Hess from those cringe-worthy Americana-cum-Evangelical Gaither Homecoming specials–as a controversial, gyrating gospel singer with the Statesmen.)
Presley’s rise to prominence is also a story in which any one of us could be the central character. It’s remarkable enough to be literature, messianic enough to be religious, earnest enough to be American (and I mean that in the most non-pejorative way possible) and familiar enough to be both relatable and attainable. We’ve all been told to let our dreams die, to be content with where we are, to know our role and fall in line. Few of us, though, have had that Sam Phillips character around; the one (or several) who won’t be content until he or she finds that potential and works at us until we are able to articulate something greater: to be the paradigm shift in our own lives. To take even modest amounts of talent and making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. To prove the naysayers wrong, not because they need to be told off, but because we believe we could be more. To say “I don’t sound like nobody,” as innocently as possible. And to be right.
Yes, Elvis destroyed himself through bad business deals, bad management, bad spending and dietary habits. But there was something there to be destroyed–something deemed worth destroying, perhaps–in the first place. Irrelevance is always preceded by relevance. Most of us will never attain a fraction of what Elvis did from 1954-1958. Yet we’ll always troll a falling star, because we envy success while, at the same time feel justified in our own misery in deriving satisfaction from watching someone famous crash and burn. (Miley Cyrus comes to mind, though, I don’t think I’ll be having coffee with her any time in the future.)
It’s easy to write off Elvis Presley because, at the end, he was a shell of the man who held America captive and changed popular music forever. To negotiate with his life’s work prior to his downfall, though, is to realize just how meaningless our lives tend to be, a revelation of just how much potential we let others destroy or allow ourselves to squander. His narrative is as much about us as it will ever be about him. That’s not exactly a comforting fact.
Then again, the prophetic seldom is.

coffee with dead people: thomas a kempis

On the days I write for this here blog on these here interwebs, I find myself so wrapped up in writing that I’m ashamed to admit that I have lost the time to read.

For a while, after I appealed and had to stick it to a faculty member who stuck it to me earned my MA, I was in a nice little groove with cranking out writing and going through books. During grad school and even dating back to my undergrad, I had accumulated a significant number of books on my queue to plow through once I got done. The list did indeed begin to shrink, but I got so involved in writing here–and life got in the way, as it is wont to do–that actual reading took a backseat. (By way of a consolation prize, the nice thing about developing a philosophical or literary mindset is recognizing the philosophical or literary qualities found in other media–television, movies, radio and web presences take on an entirely new dimension of appreciation and meaning…or become even more vapid and braincramp-inducing. Regardless, we get the media we deserve in receiving the media we consume.)

So, in an effort to supplement original content with my re(-re-re-re-)recognition of the proposition that writers typically become better writers by being committed readers, I present to you, the reader, a new, semi-regular feature: coffee with dead people.

courtesy wikipedia

For my inaugural entry, I have coffee with the long-dead, and long-admired Christian mystic, Thomas à Kempis (c. 1380-1471.)

If I have my attaché with me, you will find two guaranteed items in it: my moleskine journal, and The Imitation of Christ. I first stumbled onto this landmark of Christian philosophy, theology and devotion during my time at the gulag, spending time with specific people who would later betray me. Once I got a copy of my own–and have since given away somewhere between 5-15 copies to people along the way–it quickly became a standby in my library and came along virtually everywhere I went up to this day.

There are several ways in which I value that quiet rabble-rouser from the Lower Countries: one, he was a quiet rabble-rouser; part of a local movement which sought to reform the church and generally give more than a patronizing crap about caring for the less-fortunate and was firmly Catholic, while yet a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation. Two, for being a man who spent most of his life in monastic seclusion, the guy demonstrably has his finger on the pulse of the human condition. In this respect, Thomas’ little masterwork transcends religion: Imitation could be read with as much interest and rewarding value by someone who does not ascribe to religious faith as it could by a ‘devout religious’, borrowing from his medieval phrasing, dealing so much with the emptiness of giving in to the self and emphasizing focus on God and the scriptures for strength and resolve. Three, it’s eminently readable without watering down his principles or feeding that false inference that audiences need to be talked down to rather than addressed as something more than a lowest common denominator.

Imitation also touches on points that are more fully fleshed out by some titans of philosophy and theology. First, though there are several preceding strains of reform, some of the ideas here are examples of what is brewing in Europe culminating with Luther. There is also a strong existential component in the work, anchoring one’s self in something ultimate, the void of human experience without a clear sense of identity predating Kierkegaard by about 400 years and Tillich by 500. (In fairness, when it comes down to it, who isn’t an existentialist?)  One of my all-time favorite lines–within the opening paragraphs of Imitation: “I would rather feel compunction of heart for my sins than merely know the definition of compunction”–is a thought which the underrated and overlooked Michael Polanyi (he who will probably earn his own CWDP entry down the line) indirectly fleshes out in his seminal work Personal Knowledge.

In an age when the ‘Christian Inspiration’ section of the bookstore is bloated with wretched works churned out by wretched writers who may or may not particularly care much about the orthodoxy or internal rationale of their works–looking at you, Rob Bell, John Eldredge, Beth Moore and a host of others–it’s refreshing to sit down with a guy who was honest without throwing away a sense of personal or religious responsibility and didn’t live in a time where the quality of a book takes a backseat to the number of copies it sells. Instead, that medieval monk managed to submit only one of the lasting cornerstones of Christian devotion which has resonance even to, and perhaps now more than ever, this day. (Good luck writing anything that isn’t more than a flavor of the month for the niche, John Piper. Piper is terrible, and is likely a heretic, and definitely not in a good way. I digress.)

The other quality I value from Thomas is that he routinely kicks me squarely in the butt. Taking a shot at Piper in a java-induced salute to the named teems with irony, irony which is not lost on this writer. At the same time, I feel that he, like anyone familiar with philosophy and theology, recognizes the tension of existence. Where is that balance between grace and conviction? More generally, what does it mean to be human? Those struggles are part of all our journeys, or at least they should be. To find someone who gets that is rare–and I would further say that anyone we meet or encounter along the way who comes close to understanding one’s own existential struggles should be a person never far from one’s life and reach. And, by ‘struggle’, I do not mean failings or shortcomings, as in Christian parlance, but in simply living this life. Anybody I interact with who can, after any amount of time in relationship, keep ruining my crap is worth keeping around.

And when one finds such a person in a book, even better, for that person is never further than your bookshelf or nightstand. Or a well-traveled messenger bag.

Have you read this dead person? With what dead person would you like to have coffee? Feel free to comment!