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The Saints of Good Intentions 

So, I had kind of been off social media for a while, and then Covid-19 started, and I wanted to be in touch with folks. And then all of this chaos began, emotions got heated, and... you know how it goes. So, yesterday on Twitter, the dude from American Aquarium misread a tweet of mine and accused me of "whitewashing" the memory of MLK in a tweet of his that reached a far larger audience than I have for my own music. Me. A "white washer" of history?  The one white guy who has been writing about racism and police brutality for close to a decade. The guy that lived in the heart of Newark, NJ during the OJ trial. The person who has seen, firsthand, what white privilege is by the way I was treated in that city's jail compared to black and brown kids who had committed lesser crimes than I did. I'm the guy who has worked side by side with ex-cons and victims of police brutality on the back of garbage trucks and in restaurant dish pits and factory assembly lines from New York to Texas. The guy who has driven through every state while on tour playing to very small audiences, not in the back of some $2,000-a-day tour bus, but in my own car, going out of my way to stop in places like Jonestown, MS, one of the poorest towns in America, or the Piney Ridge Reservation, where 3rd world poverty is a way of life. I have seen this country in a way few people have. So, when I pointed out the fact that I have been writing and singing about these topics for a long time, and that American Aquarium seems to have just become "woke" this year, he responded by insulting me and the status of my music career. When his fans pointed out that he had misread my tweet, I didn't even get a fucking apology. And because I don't have the power of thousands of fans and followers, or the platform afforded to more famous people, I am being branded, at best, as complicit to the race problems happening in America. And I'm really pissed about it because it could not be further from the truth. 

I started writing protest songs in 2002, but when I started singing songs about race and politics in 2009, I took a lot of shit from people, especially comfortable-ass middle-aged white people. "Why are you angry?" is the blanket bullshit I would get from these people. "Oh, I really liked EXILE ON WILSON STREET, why can't you do something like that again?" I took shit from people on the right who didn't like it. I took shit from people on the left for calling out their bullshit. I was told by people in the music industry (a term I'll use loosely to describe both the Folk and Americana world) that politics in music was more or less not a welcome topic, or that I was just writing songs like that to get attention.(Yes, look at all the attention!) I was rejected for the Folk Alliance conference that was celebrating Woody Guthrie's music. They celebrated Woody Guthrie by having a singer whose record label was financially backed by the guy who built the Keystone Pipeline while I toured by myself in Idaho, where I was threatened by a tattooed preacher for being a "commie". But I did not let any of these setbacks deter me or my message, because nobody else in the folk and rock and Americana world was doing or saying anything. Mind you,  ALL  OF THE SHIT THAT IS HAPPENING IN AMERICA NOW WAS HAPPENING IN AMERICA THEN!    (Check out 2012's Talkin Revolution Blues or 2014's Poor Man's Bible

When I was a kid I wanted to be either Batman, a member of KISS, a priest, or the centerfielder for the Yankees. Since I traded my once promising baseball career to shoot dope, listen to John Coltrane, and study literature when I was 19, I guess I settled for a budget-rate combination of the other three, and I'm just doing the best I can. I've never had a manager. I've never had a publicist. The one agent I had fucked my touring life up like Covid-19 did for others, but without the actual disease or associated lockdowns; just a canceled record release tour that, unlike the Covid-19 situation, nobody donated money to me for after it was cancelled or #metoo'd the agent for being a lying scumbag. I was on a record label for one record, but that's a story that deserves its own blog post. I hate social media. I don't like taking photos of myself. I have less than 40 monthly listeners on Spotify. Basically, as the guy from American Aquarium pointed out with glee, nobody has ever heard of me. And nobody knows that I'm a nobody more than I do, trust me. But the truth is that I am just not built to be successful in today's music industry. But that doesn't stop me from playing music. It doesn't stop me from writing songs about things that matter to me or telling stories that nobody else is paying attention to. It doesn't stop me from writing really smart, catchy, deep, meaningful, pretty damn good songs that don't dumb shit down. (Yes, I am going to blow my own horn for once) It doesn't stop me from working my ass off in a soul-wrenching blue collar job to make money so I can keep making records and going on tour. This is what I do. This is who I am. I know your question: "Has it ever occurred to you that you maybe aren't that good?" My answer: Yes. I think that every day of my life. Every time I pick up a guitar or a pen, I'm haunted by the genius of my idols. Every time I hear my voice in a studio, I cringe. Every time I look at my checking account, I question my life choices. But then I go out and play a gig and realize I can stand toe to toe with any motherfucker making music today. I look at my tiny fanbase and see some of seriously brilliant writers, musicians, and artists that enjoy my work and it helps me know that I'm doing the right thing, even if that feeling is only fleeting. 

Long story short: It's really easy to be political when it's fashionable. Everybody is "speaking out" now that Trump is in office. In the late '60's and '70's, there was a period where protest music was hip, and it produced some of the greatest records of all-time, including my all-time favorite, Marvin Gaye's "Whats Going On". But do you know what happens to singers who sing politics when it isn't fashionable? Look up Joe Hill, Pete Seeger, Nina Simone, Phil Ochs...it's a list with quite a bit of tragedy attached to it. Unfortunately, bad shit goes on in this world even when famous people aren't singing about it and the news cameras aren't rolling. Singers have been the reporters for a forgotten world that the media doesn't see since the dawn of society.  And we still need that. The question is, who is it going to be? Bruce Springsteen, flying over the country in a lear jet? Bands that sell their songs to clothing companies that use child labor so they can "get exposure"? Singers who sell their songs to car companies that continue to pollute the earth? People whose songs become anthems for beer commercials? Fuck no. It's going to be some kid who maybe doesn't have the social skills, or the media tools, or the financial means, or the ego to do the thing necessary to become a star. But if that kid has a voice, a conscience, and a desire to make the world a better place we should encourage it. We need those people. Encourage them and their work. 

Listen, I don't know what the point of this piece is. I guess I'm just venting over the situation and coddling my bruised ego. I  guess I want to defend myself from being accused as a "whitewasher" by someone who doesn't know me or my music on a forum where there are no retractions, corrections, or apologies . Yes, I do feel a little sanctimonious writing this at a time when so much bad shit is happening to much better people on a much grander scale. This is a fractured world. The world is hurting. I am hurting. We all are hurting, This is me showing you my hurt. My vanity. My disgust with myself and the world I live in. It is what it is. 

I guess the moral of the story is one that Pete Seeger told many times (Pete got blacklisted) KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE. I'm going to be keeping my eyes on the prize, long after these artists are back to singing songs about trains and drinking. If that's for you, then buy a record, sign up for the mailing list, make a donation to me or to a good cause, and most of all, spread the word. If not, best to you and thanks for reading! 

 

Peace, 

 

MJ

American Workers, Let's Make a Deal!  

It’s only 7:30 AM on a Weds morning and I’m already staring into my desk drawer. This where I keep an assortment of bowls, bats, chillums, vape pens, and rolling papers, along with another half dozen or so forms of drug paraphernalia, scattered randomly among bits of stems, seeds, and discarded bud that will one day soon, when things get desperate enough, find it’s way into one of those devices and get inhaled into my lungs, and I’m asking myself “Is it too early to get high?"

Of course, time is really just an illusion and “early” is relative, depending on the hours you keep. For instance, if you snorted some speed at around 8 PM last evening, well, then it’s not too early. You might actually think it’s late. Or maybe you work the graveyard shift, in which case you’re probably already familiar with the magic of speed.  However, if you're like me and you have been up for less than an hour and you're sitting in your home office wearing sweatpants, a t-shirt, and house slippers while sipping your third giant cup of coffee, it might seem a little premature. Then again, what do I have to do today? I’ve already done all the things a responsible adult does in the course of his average quarantine day: I’ve checked my email (none), responded to those emails that require prompt, professional replies (none), and I have read all of the sad, horrid, and mind-bendingly stupid news stories that one mind can handle in less than an hour in this age of terrifying disease, banal stupidity, and shitty writing, without succumbing to suicide. 

Yes, America. This is our new normal. Not that anything in America has ever actually been normal, to me at least. I’ve always thought that this place was a little fucked in the head. Sure, freedom of speech and choice and all that jazz, and, well, jazz, but really, having spent my entire adult life trying to be a man who can pay his rent through his artistic endeavors, I have been forced to spend days, weeks, even months in some of the most insipid, brain-numbing, and pointless salt mines that this nation has to offer. I’ve performed countless useless chores that require only the skill to inhale and exhale at regular intervals and be subservient enough to be at the beck and call of some under-educated, vile, often racist asshole manager whose sole talent is following the orders that corporate America, which has deemed this creature my superior due solely to the sheer amount of time that this person could remain standing in one place at one time without having an original thought, has given him.  All the while,  being paid just enough money to keep me out of hoc and forcing my return week after week to some colorless, soul sucking, glorified warehouse just to keep the hamster wheel spinning in my favor.  Yes, my friends, I have been in the sausage factory and I have seen the sausage being made. And it is not pretty. This is America. This is the America we hold up to the rest of the world…the America that we cradle in our hands and fondle by the balls. The America we drape in a cheap, Korean-made flag that might poison your kids, and the America we use to sell over-priced, gas guzzling cars. Of course, we don’t mention all the racist shit, the bad environment, the ignorance, the blood lust and the almost sexual longing for war and dominance, but that’s all part of it too. Normal America. It isn’t my world, but I live in it, and if that is normal to most people, well, then who the hell am I to argue? But that “normal” has been pushed aside and replaced by what the zombies on television are calling the “new normal”: Grown, well-read, educated people,  perfectly sane adults on most days, upstanding citizens, drinking their coffee, staring into the abyss, looking for a way to make another monotonous, joyless day pass as quickly as humanly possible. And they are contemplating rolling a huge joint at 7:30 in the morning in the middle of the work week. 

Of course, the work week is no longer what was even 6 weeks ago. For most of us Joe Six Packs who are accustomed to getting up and breaking our proverbial backs for what amounts to barely enough money to get by, work is a memory, becoming more and more distant and less desirable with each passing day. Our friends and neighbors have turned into masked strangers, almost villains, as we have closed ourselves off from the possibility of any contact with other humans, afraid that we might catch the dreaded Covid-19, a particularly contagious, curious, and sometimes insidious virus that has now killed more Americans than the Vietnam war.  And while killing as many Americans as the Vietnam war in a little over a few months might have seemed like an impossible task a year or so ago, it should come to no surprise to any decent, thinking American that our current President, a national clown and perfect representation of everything wrong with humanity, could easily oversee a tragedy that could topple the combined death toll of a war conducted by the likes of LBJ and Nixon without even breaking a sweat. Catastrophe has always been his trademark, especially if it comes made-in-China and is plated with fake gold. You see, despite the best efforts of the President’s team to tell the story otherwise, this is not a tale of man vs. nature, or of science gone wrong. No folks, this is purely a story of one man’s ego and stupidity, and the lack of courage possessed by the people around him to stand up him that has led us to the brink of societal collapse. Tolstoy warned us all, but Americans don’t read anything longer than it’s takes to take a shit, so here we are. We are here because America really hates competence, despite its claims to the contrary. The New England Patriots and Tom Brady. The New York Yankees. The Beatles. All accomplished champions in one way or another, but rattle off those names to Joe Average and you’ll see exactly what America thinks about a winner. That’s how this dumb, evil jackass got elected in the first place. But there is no time to relive past elections or dive into the depths of the corrupted American system, or this country’s broken psyche. The boss is calling on the other line. 

Yes folks, that’s right. It is time to go back to work.  You’ve heard the call coming from the usual suspects: GOP goobers like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and their bevy of empty-headed, bible-thumping, elected henchmen, each with a long laundry list of failed ideas that continue to recycle themselves into our lives every 4 to 8 years: tax cuts for the wealthy, the elimination of social services, privatization and corporatization of everything holy (including the remaking and resurrection of Jesus the corporate lawyer) and the support of brutal dictatorships, including the one we are currently living under. The usual suspects want you to get the economy rolling again. Of course, that group basically represents all of the problems that make America what it truly is to the rest of the world: a festering dung pile of stupidity. (Sorry, America, I know this sounds harsh, but you should get out more.) Yes, in this stilted Democracy where the people vote, but an antiquated system designed by brutal slaveholders chooses, these stooges, bought and paid for by the richest people in the world, whose names and identities and how much they have donated must remain a secret in order to uphold the rule of law and preserve our freedoms, are our elected officials. After all, the Supreme Court acknowledged in Citizens United that money is form of freedom of speech, and it’s time we as Americans just accept the cold, hard truth: some Americans (and wealthy foreigners) were born with more freedom than us lowly worker bees. And their voices are clearly louder than ours. And they are saying it’s time to get back to work. The true heart of America, the economy, is not beating as strongly as it can be, and it needs fresh blood. That blood must be yours. 

Of course, doctors and scientists are still saying that America isn’t performing enough tests to “reopen” safely, whatever that means in a country where mass shootings are so frequent that going to school has become a ritualized survival test. However, this is America and we don’t listen to educated people, especially those elitist Ivy League bastards who think they know things better than us. Americans don’t care about the disease, how contagious it is, or how many deaths it will cause. Americans don’t care that the two populations most vulnerable to COVID-19 are minorities, specifically African Americans, and the elderly. Let’s be honest: America has never really liked minority populations anyway. And the elderly? We used to love the old folks, but the reality is that the elderly around today just aren’t Greatest Generation material. No, they’re the Baby Boomers, who started their adult lives with such great promise by giving us Dylan and the Summer of Love, and Sly Stone and Woodstock. Then they gave us Altamont. And then The Eagles. Another term for Nixon. Eventually, over the decades, they slowly devolved into a hideous amalgam of everything they used to stand against and morphed into the slimy moral ambiguity of Bill Clinton, the soulless and evil stupidity of George W. Bush and the Iraq War, and the shameless mediocrity of the post 1970’s Rolling Stones. 

Now we have the ultimate Boomer in the Oval Office: Donald J. Trump. He’s pompous, rude, incredibly dumb and dangerous and he doesn’t give a flying fuck about anybody but himself and his own self-image. Obviously, this pandemic has not been good for Donnie Asshole and just like other times when things have not gone well for him, like his previous marriages and every single one of past business dealings, he wants out and he wants to stick you with the bill. In fact, he’s already got one foot out the door. In his bleach-contaminated mind, this pandemic is over and done with. He has defeated the virus that Obama stuck him with, and further effort is futile. Pack up the task force and if anything more needs to be done, well, have your governor call Jared. Trump has got his proto-Nazi rallies to preside over. In other words: Fuck You. Get back to work. 

That puts the average working American in quite a bind. Without adequate testing, we can’t know for sure how many people are still infected. Furthermore, the symptoms and the severity of the disease vary from person to person, so there is no way for sure to tell who is going to become a carrier without symptoms, and which people will wind up praying that an extra ventilator pops up on a local Craigslist ad in time for the overworked and understaffed hospital that they are in to procure it fast enough to save their lives. Once again, as history has always had it, the working class have become the sacrificial lambs of Democracy. It would seem lucky for Trump and his cronies that the Feds are going to walk away from the pandemic as if it’s over, and force us to go back to work, because the economy is the only thing, besides corruption, Trump has going for him. So, we will be forced to go back to the daily tasks that barely pay us enough to live decently or provide proper health insurance. For this is a capitalist society, and the wheels of the machine don’t stop for viruses. If you want to survive in this country, you’re going to need a few bucks for bread and water, and to pay that outrageous cell phone bill you’ve accumulated during this lockdown, and to buy all the drugs you are going to need just to deal with the reality that has been foisted upon us. It’s almost as if we have no choice in the matter. We will have to risk our lives and go back to work. And when we do, more people may die.  And, despite the death, or maybe because of it, the economy may get going again. And if it does get going again, Trump may very well get the credit. He will certainly take it regardless.  And it just might happen in time to usher him into a second term, God help us.  And then once again, Donald J. Trump, like some reverse-Midas freak show, will have squandered another fortune just to come out the other side unscathed, while everybody else in his wake is left holding the remains of his destruction and the tab that comes with it. It’s a dark and likely scenario so predictably American, F. Scott Fitzgerald himself could have written it a hundred years ago. 

But what if, my fellow stoners, slobs, and deplorables, what if, for once, WE had the upper hand in the fight? You see, the presidency of Donald J. Trump, and his own self-worth for that matter, ride on the idea that the economy and stock market are symbols of his successes.  And now that it’s all in shambles, he is afraid that if people don’t go back to work and the economy doesn’t rebound quickly and sufficiently, his electoral goose may be cooked. You can see the cheap bronzer caking up and running down his protruding frontal lobe from all of the nervous sweating, revealing his slightly green, translucent skin, a product of a diet that involves only overcooked grade D beef, oceans of ketchup, and Diet Coke. The Donald desperately needs us to go back to work. More importantly, the Ringleaders that fund this Circus of Incompetence and Terror, the real ultra rich people, the kind of people who own private armies, need us to go back to work so that they can keep lining their fur pockets with the blood of the workers. It’s Economics 101. 

But what if we stood together in solidarity?  What if we stood together and told the ruling class pigs to go fuck themselves? What if we demanded, for the first time, some goddamn respect for all the work that we do to make this whole entire clusterfuck operate? What if we refused to go back to work until our simple and reasonable demands were met? Perhaps this pandemic is some kind of strange, twisted, and demented sign with a really fucked up sense of humor, telling us that THIS IS THE TIME TO FIGHT? After all, it is the perfect time. Perhaps having this ego-driven Oompa Loompa and his incestuous family (yes, it’s probably true) running wild in the White House will finally work out in our favor. After all, this is the man who’s only real qualification to be President stems from his stint playing a fake Billionaire on a reality TV gameshow. This is the man who is constantly bragging about his ability to make a deal. His expertise, according to his own books, is the Art of the Deal, is it not? 

So here is what I propose: We, the tired, overworked, and underpaid citizens of the United States (and working non citizens), hold the economy hostage by refusing to go back to work. And like any good hostage takers, we make a list of demands. Hell, maybe every working person can  contribute a letter or two from their favorite magazines to produce a ransom note that calls for the following: 

1) A living wage for every worker. And a huge raise in the minimum wage. 
2) Health insurance for every human being 
3) Paid child care and family leave 
4) Paid sick leave 
5) Free education for every American who wants to better their lot in life

You see folks, these are not insane demands. They are, actually, quite reasonable and quite doable. They offer similar plans in nearly every “civilized” country in the world, except for America. We have been fighting for these rights for years, only to see our candidates called “socialists”, our advocates called “freeloaders”, and our concept of caring for each other wholly “UnAmerican”. 

Well, fuck that. We now hold the key. What do we have to lose? The economy is already in the shitter. Our jobs are already gone. We couldn’t have a worse President. And if we give in, we might all die from an insidious virus that probably could have been contained by an even slightly more competent administration. Let’s take this chance now. Let’s stand up for ourselves,  and for our children (at least your children), our future, and god fucking damn it, our entire way of life! 

Think about it. I’m going to smoke this joint.