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1987 Fair and Loathing

by H.B. Koplowitz


Before entering journalism grad school in 1987, I took a summer job writing press releases for the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, and by extension, the administration of Gov. James R. Thompson. It gave me pause, because in a few months I would become a news intern, reporting on the administration I was accepting a paycheck from. Worrying about a potential conflict of interest or appearance of impropriety may seem quaint today, when a Republican political consultant like Roger Ailes can claim the cable news channel he runs, Fox News, is “fair and balanced,” or a civil rights activist like the Rev. Al Sharpton can organize a protest rally for the family of Florida “stand your ground” shooting victim Trayvon Martin, and then “report” on the rally on his MSNBC show. In my case, I wasn’t overly concerned that a temporary state government job would compromise my objectivity. But maybe I should have been, because it did change my perspective on the difference between being objective and, well, fair. Dedicated to Jim Skilbeck, 1949-2002.

Patronage Flack

There must have been 500 people packed around the railing of the stinky smelly Swine Barn show arena at the Illinois State Fair. Waving my press pass, I pushed through the crowd and entered the media area, joining about 30 reporters lugging notebooks, microphones and cameras. Everyone was focused on a swarthy suburban Chicago man, who was down on all fours in the straw and dirt, snorting like a pig. The Hog Calling Contest was but one of the many “stories” I covered during my brief tenure as a press officer for the fair. In addition to the hog callers, I got to see the Biggest Boar, Pork King Cook-off and Sale of Champions. Not to mention the harness racing and Grandstand shows. Or backstage hot tub.

Not that everything was bucolic. The hours were long, the pay minimal, and there were also the ethical considerations. Two terms generally at odds with the journalistic profession are “patronage” and “public relations,” and my job was both. Having been a reporter and freelancer, I figured I was well qualified to write for the fair. But I never would have gotten the job if it weren’t for my friend Jim Skilbeck, whose title was special assistant to Gov. James R. Thompson. Jim and I met in 1976, when Thompson was first running for governor, as a moderate Republican. I was a student reporter at the Daily Egyptian, and Jim was an assistant press secretary for the former Chicago federal prosecutor who had shined his star by putting away some big names, including a former governor, and early in his career, “sick” comedian Lenny Bruce.

Jim had orchestrated a campaign swing through southern Illinois, and had invited the DE to send a student reporter to ride in the candidate’s RV from a cafe in Herrin to an American Legion hall in Anna, about 40 miles. I drew the assignment, and during the ride, I asked the candidate whether he favored decriminalizing marijuana. I thought I had him in a bind — if Thompson said he was against easing pot laws, it could turn off SIU students, but if he said he was for it, he might piss off the law-and-order folks in Herrin and Anna. But he casually batted my question aside, saying sometimes leaders should lead and other times they should follow the will of the people, which at the time was anti-pot.

When I got my first journalism job, at the Illinois Times, I saw Jim at a Springfield pub and started to introduce myself, but he remembered my name and what I’d asked his boss on the bus. Some years after that we ran into each other on the strip in Carbondale, tipped a few beers and took a shining to each other. He became my token conservative friend and I was his token liberal friend, though truth be told, our political views weren’t that far apart.

At age 38, Skilbeck had become Thompson’s “senior aide,” the staffer who had been with him the longest, and one of the perks that came with being the governor’s senior aide was the clout to use the patronage system to give friends jobs. In most cases, “friends” meant political friends, card-carrying members of the party in power, people who had donated money or worked for candidates. Having never donated a dime nor lifted a finger to help any politician, and having voted against Thompson in 1982, I didn’t fit into the category of political friend. But there is a subcategory of patronage, also frowned on by journalists, called nepotism, in which non-political relatives and friends of people in power get jobs, and it was my honor to be Jim’s friend.

Over the years we occasionally joked about him getting me a patronage job — I would be abandoning my journalistic ethics, and he would be using his clout to hire someone with absolutely no Republican credentials. But it wasn’t until I returned to Springfield to enter the Public Affairs Reporting graduate program at Sangamon State University (now University of Illinois Springfield) that either of us took the idea seriously. It was expediency, impulse and a bit of perversity that prompted me to ask Jim if there might be a temporary state job in Springfield over the summer to ease my transition to grad school.

His face lit up. “You could write press releases for the State Fair,” he said. Jim’s face always lit up when he talked about the fair. It was the part of his job that he loved the most, and he literally lived on the fairgrounds during the event. I had never shared his enthusiasm for the exposition, but I’d never been through the experience, either.

“I guess I’d be writing a lot of stories about livestock contests,” I said skeptically.

“That’s about it,” he said. “But you’d be at the fair.”

It was a tough call. Since in six months I’d be interning with a news bureau that covered the governor, I didn’t want to compromise my objectivity or credibility by taking a job in his administration. But I really needed the money, and besides, there was something irresistibly naughty about slipping over to the other side for a couple of months and having a fling as a patronage flack.

Ag Etiquette

The State Fair Press Office was a creature that came to life just two months out of the year. When I was there, it consisted of three other writers and an editor, who happened to be a former PAR grad student. In addition, there were two photographers and a photo editor, two messengers and two coordinators in charge of press credentials. The supervisor was Mia Jazo, a bright and energetic woman in her late 20s who had just taken over the job. Her boss was Mark Randal, the press secretary for the Ag Department.

As I became acquainted with my co-workers and those in other departments, I couldn’t resist asking them, “who got you your job?” Judging from the vague and guarded responses, I wasn’t the only one sensitive about being a patronage worker. But after some winking and prodding, it usually came out that if they didn’t know someone who was someone, their parents or someone else knew someone who was someone. Some I didn’t have to ask, like one young fellow with the same last name as a senior official in the Ag Department, who was briefly with our office until his nocturnal golf cart escapades got him transferred to another division.

Shortly after meeting the other writers — three intelligent and attractive females half my age — Mia asked us to write down which venues we wanted to cover and left us together in a room. Here it comes, I thought to myself. Livestock City. But I was in for a surprise. “I want to cover beef,” piped up one of the women. “No, I want beef,” said another.

“OK, then I get to cover pork,” said the first. “I wanted pork,” complained the third. “But that’s OK. I’ll take sheep and goats.”

My mouth dropped open. “You … like … livestock?” I blurted in bewilderment. “Sure,” they responded in unison

“Bless you my children,” I said.

Next came an icy pause. Finally, the one who got beef spoke: “So what’s the matter with livestock?” she demanded.

I bit down hard on my tongue. “Not a thing,” I said lightly. “It’s just that all you’ve left for me is the harness racing, so I guess I’ll have to take that.”

Covering the harness races mostly meant reporting the results at the end of the day, so when I wasn’t hanging out at the track, I helped cover events on the other “beats.” We reported on many of the same things as real reporters, but our jobs were mostly exercises in absurdity. Our press releases were sent to hundreds of print and broadcast media across the state and nation, but most got one cursory glance from a low echelon copy editor before getting tossed in the trash. Still, it was important that we got them right, because those that did get used sometimes were printed verbatim and unedited.

It hadn’t really sunk in for me before that the State Fair was under the Agriculture Department for a reason, and that most of the other patronage jobs went to people with an ag background who were far more qualified than I was to be working at the fair. Thanks to Jim, the Psychedelic Furs might perform for one night, but the meat and potatoes of the fair was the livestock show, one of the largest such expositions in the country. I might have known something about journalism, but my coworkers knew farm animals. They’d shown livestock in 4-H competitions and one wanted to become a farm reporter. They also knew about ag etiquette, and I soon learned to never call a hog a pig. I also learned that there are queens and there are queens. One of the writers had been a county Beef Queen, which was not a beauty contest, she emphasized, but a competition for a representative to promote the beef industry. She said she had also been an Angus Ebonette, whose job it was to go around to county fairs and hand out ribbons.

“Does the Angus Ebonette have to compete against other cattle princesses, like the Heifer Princess, before she can become the Beef Queen?” I asked.

By the way she glared at me, I knew I’d stepped in something again. “A heifer is a cow,” she corrected me.

Public Trough

There are two stages in the life cycle of a State Fair press officer. The first six weeks are slow and easy, with plenty of time to goof off, followed by a bacchanalian fortnight of nonstop workdays and all-night partying. The one major pre-fair event, or pseudo-event, that the Press Office was responsible for was a press tour, during which a couple hundred media representatives were given a ride-through of the fairgrounds on open air buses, with commentary from the fair superintendent, followed by a free lunch. Its purpose was to get reporters who usually cover crime and politics up to speed on what was new at the fairgrounds. The tour was also an attempt to stir up enthusiasm and good will among congenitally blasé reporters who thought that covering the fair was beneath their dignity.

The year I was there, the arrangements were more elaborate than usual. To promote the first year of parimutuel betting at the fair, a harness race was staged. The simulation included having the reporters place fake bets at a parimutuel window, and those who won got paid with oversized two-dollar bills with Gov. Thompson’s face in the center, which the media dubbed “Jim Bucks.”

The “Press Stakes” was Mia’s idea, and from a PR standpoint, it was a gem. The harness race gave the TV stations plenty of visuals, and subliminally, having the reporters place bets revved up their interest. The race turned out to be competitive, and as the six horses rounded the final turn in a pack and raced down the stretch, some of the normally laid-back reporters began to root their horses home. Even if most of the reporters didn’t bother to collect their Jim Bucks, they had not merely observed but experienced the emotional thrill of betting on a horse race, and that excitement came through in their stories.

Following the tour, the reporters retired to the Press Office patio for their free lunch, and I was accosted by reporter Tom Atkins of the alternative weekly Illinois Times, where I had once worked. He wanted to know if there wasn’t something improper about providing free food to people who were supposed to report objectively on the fair.

Airily, I told him that if the reporters were willing to go through the drudgery of the annual press tour, the least we could do was provide them with something to eat afterwards. But Atkins’ question had rattled me, because I still had qualms about being a patronage flack, and I was getting some bitter satisfaction from watching other journalists lining up at the public trough, albeit to a far lesser degree than I.

Tough Questions

The Press Office office was located on the third floor of the dilapidated Illinois Building, behind a giant statue of Abe Lincoln just inside the Main Gate. The third floor also provided workspaces for about a half-dozen real news organizations covering the fair, including the State Journal-Register, Chicago Tribune and Tribune Radio Network. It was also the scene of daily press conferences with venerable Fair Superintendent Merle Miller, where the first order of business was to announce the previous day’s attendance and speculate on whether total attendance would break the magic number of one million again.

Press Office employees were issued the same press passes as the real reporters, which gave us free access anywhere on the fairgrounds until 6:30 p.m., and free admission for ourselves and a guest to stand on the track during the Grandstand shows at night. Best of all, the passes granted us golf cart privileges, and golf carts were the most regal mode of transportation on the fairgrounds.

Flacks also have the pleasant but sometimes frustrating task of only reporting the good news and putting the best face on what few negatives pop up. For instance, as he had in previous years, Gov. Thompson showed up to eat the winning meal at the Pork King Cook-off. As he was stuffing his face with the winning butterfly pork chops and mugging for the photographers, Ben Kinningham of Tribune Radio poked his microphone through the throng and asked an unappetizing question: “Governor, what’s your reaction to the group in Chicago who want to chain themselves to the gate of your home to protest your stand on pending AIDS legislation?”

Between bites, Thompson said he would let them protest at his house or talk with them at his office, but not both. “I believe the private residence of public officials should remain private,” he said.

Next it was my turn. “I got another tough question for you, Governor,” I began. “How’s your lunch?”

The biggest hard news to come out of the fair was a Sunday night storm that blew down tents, stranded riders on the aerial lift and injured several people. The Press Office didn’t issue a press release on that incident. Nor did we touch the porta potty scandal. Seems a disgruntled bidder on the fair porta potty contract leaked a story, appropriately to a newspaper nicknamed the “Urinal-Register,” that the winning bidder’s potties were substandard and poorly maintained.

The newspaper’s ag reporter, Charlyn Fargo, “investigated” 30 of the potties and found some were without toilet paper, light bulbs or proper drainage. Her story resulted in a state hearing on the potties and a reprimand to the owner. But further investigation also revealed that more than 100 of the toilets had been vandalized, or sabotaged, casting suspicion on the bidder/leaker who stood to gain if the other portable toilet company lost its state contract.

Livestock City

About a million people a year visit the Illinois State Fair. So do thousands of horses, steers, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, rabbits, pigeons, barrows and gilts. Their owners cart them around to fairs all over the country, trying to earn premiums, stud fees and auction proceeds. It’s also a time for the owners to get off the farm, socialize with their peers and show off their products.

Livestock expositions may leave some city folk cold, or with allergies, but for the thousands of farmers who attend the shows it is a time to take pride in their industry. It’s also not a bad life for the animals, considering the alternative. Take Dallas, the winner of the fair’s Biggest Boar Contest. Dallas was destined to become sausage until his gross obesity caught the eye of Marvin Caldwell of Littleton, Illinois, whose hobby happened to be exhibiting heftiest hogs. The half-ton Yorkshire got a reprieve from the slaughterhouse and instead toured the county fair circuit, where adoring fans showered him with affection just for mugging in his pen like the world’s biggest ham.

The climax of the livestock show was the Sale of Champions, a choreographed auction of the junior champion steer, barrow, wether, market pen and pen of rabbits, i.e., champion castrated bull, similarly altered hog and goat, three chickens and three rabbits, whose registered owners are 4-H members under 20 years old.

The “auction” was another of those pseudo-events for politicians, and especially the governor. The year before, Thompson’s daughter Samantha had purchased the champion rabbits (with Thompson campaign funds), to the feigned chagrin of her parents. This time Samantha was supposed to buy the champion hog, but something went wrong. As the bidding began, Skilbeck whispered to me that Samantha would buy the swine for about $9,000 — with the money coming from Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka — and the hog would be used for a promotion at Ditka’s Restaurant in Chicago, which featured pork chops.

But things got out of control. Mother Jayne was sitting next to Samantha, cuing her to bid, but as the price neared and then cleared $9,000, Big Jim took over the coaching. And when the bidding reached $10,200, he physically restrained his precocious adolescent from raising her hand again. The victorious bidder was farm reporter Stu Ellis of radio station WSOY in Decatur, on behalf of the Friends of Macon County 4-H. “I thought Ditka was supposed to buy the barrow,” Ellis said, savoring the moment.

Typically, Skilbeck put a positive spin on the debacle. “It’s more money for the seller,” he noted.

Golf Cart Derby

Like a political convention, everybody who’s anybody at the fair has at least one laminated pass, and those who are really somebody accumulate handfuls of cards, pins and decals, which they dangle from neck lanyards, or in some cases shoelaces. The passes grant their bearers various perks, including free parking, golf cart privileges and access to press areas. With the exception of the yellow security pass, the most coveted pass on the fairgrounds was the orange “All Access” pass, which in addition to all the other privileges, provided free admittance to the reviewing stand at Grandstand shows, and most importantly, nighttime access to the backstage compound on the infield, where the entertainers hung out and the real partying took place.

Access to the infield was through a tunnel beneath the racetrack, which had a security guard at both ends. The tunnel came out beneath the stage, where there were dressing rooms, a modest dining area with picnic tables and catered food, and offices for the stage crew. Behind the stage and inside a rickety picket fence was the compound itself, where my friend Jim and some of the other fair organizers lived in three recreation vehicles and a travel bus. Each night a bevy of friends, sycophants and potential conquests trekked backstage to make merry.

There was a large and inviting Jacuzzi that created a minor flap. The official objection was that image-wise the hot tub appeared decadent, and would reflect negatively on the governor if it found its way into the newspapers. On a more visceral level, there was concern that the hot tub filters might become clogged with illicit ejaculates.

But backstage turned out to be pretty tame. The major diversions were free booze, watching groupies trying to board that night’s band’s bus, and intermittent displays of pyrotechnics. In earlier times backstage may have been more risqué, but as one backstage vet noted, “nothing goes on anymore because backstage has become a very public place.” But it was also an oasis from the franticness of the fair, both a command post and getaway, where fair officials, spouses and friends, including a few media people, could go off the record, blow off steam and talk out of school.

Without an orange pass, the only way to get backstage at night was to be escorted by someone who had one. My efforts to procure an orange pass were stymied because before being laminated, they had the names of the people they were issued to written on the backs. Toward the end of the fair, I told Jim it was getting to be a hassle for me to find an escort every night, and asked if there wasn’t a simpler way.

We were standing in an RV in the compound that served as his home during the fair, and he picked up an orange pass that happened to by lying on a table. “Take this,” he said and tossed it to me.

When I turned it over, it read, “Governor Jim Thompson 1-A.” I held the pass gingerly. “You sure about this?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” Skilbeck said. “He doesn’t need it.”

On the last night of the fair, the annual Golf Cart Derby took place on “the world’s fastest dirt oval mile.” The event had become quite competitive. The previous year, members of President Reagan’s Secret Service detail and staff participated, and someone broke an arm. About midnight, entertainment manager Mike DuBois appeared with a bullhorn and hummed the call to post. “Drivers, start your golf carts,” he crackled over the bullhorn.

About a dozen carts with drivers and riders lined up in front of the Grandstand and took off to the accompaniment of bottle rockets. In the minutes it took the carts to circle the track, a length of toilet paper was unrolled across the finish line, and spectators shook up beers to spray on the winner. That year’s race had a ringer in it, as a cart that had been a dog all week was surreptitiously souped up by the fair’s press secretary. Ridden by two female photographers, the fillies finished 100 yards ahead of the rest of the field.


The fair was over, and so was my job. I began taking journalism and government classes at SSU, where the subject of patronage came up periodically, causing me to cringe. But I didn’t feel like my interlude as a patronage flack had turned me into a partisan. Rather, it gave me a deeper insight into how state government works, and in many cases doesn’t work.

Besides, long before I accepted a favor from Skilbeck, my objectivity had been compromised by our friendship. I could no longer view him as a faceless news source, but as a flesh and blood human being, with feelings and a personal life that could be affected by what I wrote. And it occurred to me that maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. That when reporting on criminals, celebrities and politicians, instead of viewing them as grist for the daily news grind, they should be treated like human beings. That doesn’t mean pulling punches or fudging facts, but reporting on them fairly, without cheap shots. It means objectivity with a heart, and I make no apologies for that.

Democrats Boof Themselves Again

Just in time for the off-year elections, Democrats have managed to boof themselves again. By focusing on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s high school hijinks, rather than his bad advice and bad judgements as an adult, they have turned a sniveling, snarling, privileged prep school Yalie into a sympathetic victim. Even worse, they have allowed the Bully in Chief to look holier than thou when he in effect told reporters and senators that thee who be without sin cast the first stone.

To recap: During the Bill Clinton impeachment ordeal, Kavanaugh advised Special Prosecutor Ken Starr to ask the president sexually explicit questions, which was a perjury trap because everyone lies about sex. (Which is ironic, since Kavanaugh may have stepped into a perjury trap of his own design.)

During the George W. Bush administration, Kavanaugh was part of the administration’s legal department that claimed torture was a presidential prerogative. (He denies knowing anything about the so-called torture memos.)

During President Barack Obama’s administration, as an appellate court judge he ruled dozens of times against a presidential prerogative to issue environmental regulations, and he dissented in two cases that upheld the Affordable Care Act.

During President Donald Trump’s administration, he ruled against an illegal immigrant seeking an abortion (his decision was overturned), and he has what is called an “expansive” view of presidential powers, opining that sitting presidents shouldn’t be indicted and can pardon anyone, possibly even themselves. And if confirmed, he is likely to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Because of his pro-business, anti-union, anti-environment, anti-affirmative action, anti-gun control and anti-choice stances, and because he perjured himself multiple times during his confirmation hearing, there are plenty of policy and ethical reasons to oppose Kavanaugh. But Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee instead zeroed in on whether the Supreme Court nominee copped a feel in high school.

Before you go all #metoo on me, I believe Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and I believe Judge Kavanaugh owes her an apology, for which there is no statute of limitations. But beyond that… “Boys will be boys” isn’t a defense; it’s a fact of life. Alleged victims have a right to be heard, but not a right to vengeance, and the accused also have rights. There has been scant corroborating evidence of any of the sexual allegations against Kavanaugh, which doesn’t make him innocent, but it does make him presumed innocent.

Even though I don’t believe dishonorable behavior in high school or college disqualifies one from becoming a Supreme Court justice, “whatever it takes” to Bork Kavanaugh was fine with me. There’s also the matter of payback for the Republicans stealing the Supreme Court seat that should have been filled by President Obama’s pick, Merrick Garland. And since all the other objections to Kavanaugh have little persuasive power over conservatives — they are for that stuff — desperate Democrats tried to play the #metoo card. (Much of the feigned outrage over the timing of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s last minute ploy is disingenuous. Anyone who has seen a courtroom drama knows a clever lawyer, especially on the losing side, will wait to the end to spring a surprise witness.) Though ultimately doomed to failure, it achieved the goal of delaying the proceedings, and the public got to see another — some might say the real — Brett Kavanaugh.

But by obsessing over sex, drinking, yearbooks and calendars, the Dems overplayed their hand. They trivialized their opposition and turned Kavanaugh into a right-wing martyr. And if the latest NPR/Marist poll is accurate, the circus in the Senate also caused the enthusiasm gap Democrats enjoyed going into the November election to evaporate.

Trump voters are scary enough without getting them riled up (which is most of the time), and Kavanaugh will be confirmed anyway. At this point, instead of bitching and moaning that the FBI report was incomplete, the best thing Democrats can do is accept defeat and concede that elections do have consequences. They should also apologize to Judge Kavanaugh, whether he deserves one or not. He’s likely to be on the Supreme Court for decades, and right now he has a huge hard-on for Democrats, liberals, feminists and fellow travelers.

Politically, the worst thing for Democrats would be to win the battle over Kavanaugh’s nomination, because it could cause them to lose the elections in November. Conceding defeat might calm down conservatives and motivate progressives to have their own consequences at the polls.

— by H.B. Koplowitz, 2018

Ghosts of Carbondale Past

Some of Jim Bruno & Friends, from left: Terry Mueller, guitar; Mark Soljacich, guitar; Russ Ward, drums; Jim Bruno, guitar and vocals; Dean Milano, bass and vocals; Joe C Castrejon, harmonica; and Robbie Stokes, guitar.

“It’s great to be back in Champaign … just kidding,” Jim Bruno quipped at the start of his bittersweet reunion concert Sept. 17 at the Varsity Center in Carbondale.

Billed “Jim Bruno & Friends,” the lineup included surviving members of some of the hottest bands during the heyday of the Carbondale music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, including Devil’s Kitchen, Scuttlebucket, Pontiac Jones, and the Dixie Diesels. Bruno is a singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist who lives in the San Francisco area. But he got his start in Carbondale during the 1970s, performing with another aspiring singer and guitar player named Shawn Colvin.

Carbondale in the ’60s and ’70s had been a special time for a lot of baby boomers like myself — I was born there in 1951 and went to Southern Illinois University. (I’d also written a book, called “Carbondale After Dark,” about the protesting and partying during that era on the town’s notorious strip.) One of the best and most lasting things about the ’60s was its socially conscious rock music. The bands that played that music in Carbondale were a big part of what had made the town special, and the musicians performing at the concert had been in many of those bands. Attention must be paid.

Besides, my generation has reached an age that musician Paul Simon calls “A Hazy Shade of Winter,” and spending an evening basking in music and memories from the springtime of my life sounded downright cathartic. Alas, I didn’t think I’d be able to attend. I’d just been to Carbondale to partake in native rituals during a total eclipse of the sun. Then Irmageddon struck, and I, my brother, his girlfriend, and their Yorkie, fled South Florida in my car to Atlanta. We could have continued on to St. Louis, where I could have stayed with friends and family, looked up an old girlfriend, and gone to the concert. Instead, we languished in a hotel in Atlanta for nearly a week before returning Friday. The hurricane had spared our condos.

On Saturday, perhaps suffering from car lag, I got a bad case of the coulda shoulda wouldas. I began to kick myself for not having gone to St. Louis and the concert. That regret triggered an avalanche of other regrets, which are far too numerous, banal and excruciating for me to list here. As I sunk ever deeper into my funk, I actually tried to will myself back in time and make a deal with a God I didn’t believe in.

Earlier that day I’d written to my Facebook friends that I was sorry I wouldn’t be at that night’s concert. When I thought the show was starting, I decided to torture myself some more and got back on Facebook to see if anyone was posting photos or video from the event. Instead, high school classmate and Carbondale guitarist Bill Carter had sent a cryptic reply to my earlier message. He said the concert wasn’t until the next night.

Holy crap. If I hopped a plane, I could still make the show. I knew I’d simply made one of those “wrong day” errors that we all do sometimes. But given my agitated state of mind, it was hard for me not to read something more cosmic into the situation. Even if I hadn’t willed myself back in time, or a God I didn’t believe in hadn’t called my bluff, I had been given one of life’s most precious moments — a second chance. A do-over. I could torture myself for another day about what might have been, or I could take action to erase one small regret in my life.

I checked the airlines, and sure enough, there was a reasonably priced morning flight that would get me to St. Louis in time for the 7:30 p.m. concert. Around 3 a.m. I texted the same “team” I had watched the eclipse with. Mark Kerwath, a high school friend and guitarist who lives on the Merrimac River, provided the transportation. Ruth Ann Levinson, the widow of another high school friend, who plays bass, sings with a group called the Free Range Chicks, and lives south of Makanda, provided the place to stay. It was short notice, but they came through. Mark picked me up at the airport, and around 5 p.m. we met up with Ruth Ann behind the Varsity Center.

Terry Mueller, the author, and “Tawl” Paul Frederick. Photo by Ruth Ann Levinson.

There, we ran into Carbondale icon and blues singer “Tawl” Paul Frederick, who was sitting on a gas meter, sipping a drink and smoking a cigarette. When someone suggested he might blow himself up, he growled that he’d done a lot riskier things and was still here. True that. The former frontman for Pontiac Jones circa 1972 still performs with Slappin Henry Blue (including townies Bill Carter, guitar; T. Thomas, bass; and Charlie Morrill, drums), which over the past quarter century had become the unofficial house band at venerable PK’s on the strip. When I introduced myself to Tawl Paul, he enveloped my hand in a Trumpian grip, said he’d been following my exploits on Facebook, then something about Santa Claus and sitting on his knee.

“I see you made it,” Robbie Stokes, another relic of the Carbondale music scene, hollered when he rolled up in a vehicle. I think Robbie is the best guitar player in the world, but I’m biased. We both went to University High School (Pulliam Hall) in the 1960s, and I was smitten by his first band, the Viscounts, which played a combination of surf and British Invasion music. His next band was Om, and then Devil’s Kitchen, with Brett Champlin, Bob Laughton and Steve Sweigart. They fused folk and psychedelic rock into a sound that took them to San Francisco in 1968, where they played in legendary venues like the Family Dog, Fillmore, and Whisky A Go Go, opening for and playing with members of the Grateful Dead and other San Fran bands. After returning to Carbondale two years later, Robbie played in a gazillion local groups including Coal Kitchen, Vision, Dr. Bombay, St. Stephen’s Blues, Four on the Floor, and the Venturis. He also became a sound technician and founded Robco Audio, which mixes sound for Hangar 9, Shryock Auditorium and many other places.

Another old school chum, Terry Mueller, let us through a back door of the Varsity to have a look around. Terry is one of the unsung heroes of the Carbondale music scene. For many years, he and Bill Carter ran Golden Frets, the town’s primo music store and repair shop. He’s also played guitar and mandolin in a variety of bands, including the original Dixie Diesels.

The Varsity movie theater is a Carbondale relic in its own right. Built in 1940 as a thousand-seat auditorium with balcony for colored folks, it was later split into upper and lower theaters. The building also housed four storefronts and a corner grill. While installing a third screen that replaced the stores in 1981, a construction fire heavily damaged the entire building, and destroyed the main auditorium. Also, the building’s art deco facade was replaced by an ugly stone wall. The theater closed in 2003 and was vacant until 2008, when the nonprofit Jackson County Stage Company acquired the property and turned it into a performing arts center. The third theater is used to stage plays, and the balcony theater was recently renovated and reopened for movies as well as live performances. Some of the original features do remain, including inlaid glass tiles between the balcony steps, and the striking, V-shaped marquee. The theater’s board is trying to raise $3.5 million to rebuild the main auditorium and restore the exterior to its 1940’s art deco glory.

The Varsity Theater as it looked in 1979. — Photo by Karen Majewski.

Terry led us to the balcony theater, where Jim Bruno and Charlie Morrill were doing a sound check. Charlie is a veteran Carbondale drummer with many Carbondale bands, including the Dixie Diesels. Charlie plays drums like a good baseball umpire — he does his job so smoothly that you hardly notice he’s there. He was using the same burgundy drum set he’s had since high school, which was appropriate for the occasion.

We looked inside the ground-floor theaters and saw the three surviving members of Scuttlebucket/Pontiac Jones: Russ Ward, drums and banjo; Dean Milano, bass and vocals; and Mike Potter, guitar, mandolin and bass. Only the late Pete Special was missing. I knew Mike, a quiet, gentle and talented musician, from childhood — he went to Murphysboro High. I’d never met Dean and Russ, who now live and play music in the Chicago area, but in recent years we’d become Facebook friends.

In high school, Dean, Russ and Pete crossed paths playing in bands in the west suburbs of Chicago. Dean and Russ were in a high school band called Grope, while one of Special’s first bands included a drummer named John Belushi. After Dean enrolled at SIU in 1972, and inspired by groups like The Band, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the three moved into a dilapidated house in Carterville, their own Big Pink, where they became Pontiac Jones. They also played bluegrass as Scuttlebucket. After southern Illinois native Terry Ogolini (tenor saxophone), and Chicago Vietnam vet Tawl Paul Frederick (charisma) joined the band, it took off. In addition to playing downtown bars and out-of-town roadhouses, they opened for Paul Butterfield  and Leo Kotke at Shryock Auditorium, and Luther Allison at Kilo’s (Carrie’s), a rowdy roadhouse outside Murphysboro.

The band split up in 1975, partly because the bars, including Merlin’s (Golden Gauntlet/TJ McFly’s), went disco and replaced bands with deejays and recorded music. Dean returned to the Chicago area and became a folksinger. Russ and his wife, Diane, also returned to the burbs, where they started a family. Mike helped start the country swing band Dixie Diesels with Brad Davis, a former drummer turned guitarist and singer from the country music trio “Ronnie and the Bossmen.” When the Diesels, including Brad Valentine, Willie Wainright, Ralph “Radar” Hurst, and Shawn Colvin, moved to Austin, Mike went along. He still lives there, where he’s a musician and paints evocative pictures of music legends.

In the early ’70s, Special and Ogolini had discovered “300 pounds of heavenly joy,” Larry “Big Twist” Nolan, playing drums and singing in a three-piece country/R&B band at a rural honky-tonk called Lyin’ Sam’s; he was one of the few blacks playing the roadhouse circuit in southern Illinois. After Twist died in 1990, Special told the Chicago Reader, “When we saw Twist we said, ‘My God, that’s the real thing!’ … He was everything we admired and looked up to; he had that magic.”

Twist, who is believed to have been born in 1937 in Terre Haute, Indiana, had been living for many years in Murphysboro. He began sitting in on some of Pontiac Jones’ gigs, and when the band broke up, Special and Ogolini started a new band with Twist, drummer Denny Best, and a group of black musicians — including singer Martin “Big Larry” Allbritton, keyboardist Ronald West, Sr., and bass player Ron “Tango” West, Jr. — who called themselves the Mellow Fellows. In the 1950s, the Mellow Fellows had been the house band at the New Orleans Bourbon Street Night Club, a famed bawdyhouse in Colp owned by “Ma” Hatchett and her son Junior.

Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows became Carbondale’s premier band until they moved to Chicago in 1978, where they played at blues clubs, toured with The Band and released several R&B albums. After Twist died of complications from diabetes in 1990, the band continued for a few years with Big Larry out front. Then Special got to play with The Band and fronted his own band before his untimely death from a heart attack in 2014. Other Mellow Fellows, including Ogolini, now bill themselves as the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings.

Carbondale’s “honky tonk heroes” posing for the cover of nonSequitur magazine in the summer of 1976. 1st row: Larry “Big Twist” Nolan, Jackie “Slo-Jack” Soljacich, Ronny West, Sr. 2nd row: Robbie Stokes, Mick “Rock”, Terry Ogolini, Bob Valentine, Ronald “Tango” West, Jr., Shawn Colvin, Martin “Big Larry” Allbritton, Pete Special, Scott Koerting. 3rd row: Rusty “Radar” Hurst, Kirk Opyt (obscured), Willie Wainright, Mike Potter, Randy Bradle, Denny Best, Bill Desmond, Mark Kerwath and Steve Rodely. Photo by Chuck Fishman.

The reconstituted Pontiac Jones were doing some last-minute rehearsing, so after a brief conversation, my team headed up to Thai Taste in the historic Brush building at Main and Illinois Avenue, where we had a tasty meal despite the fact that days before a car had crashed through the wall facing Main Street. By now you are probably wondering if I’ll ever get around to reviewing the concert. But before I do, let me say that by this point in my mini odyssey, I had realized the show wasn’t going to be as epic as I had built up in my mind.

First of all, it was being held in the balcony theater, which was too small for there to be a mass gathering of Carbondale blasts from the past like I had imagined. Second, there had been a similar reunion show, organized by Bruno and with many of the same musicians, plus a few more, the year before, at the Old Feed Store in Cobden, so it wasn’t a singular event. (Many of the musicians also performed the day before at Blue Sky Vineyard in Makanda and Yellow Moon Cafe in Cobden.) And third, the quality and quantity of Carbondale band members from the 1970s who would not be there meant it could never be the ultimate harmonic convergence, so to speak.

The number of Carbondale musicians from that era who have passed on is enough to fill an Academy Awards Show obit reel, starting with Big Larry (1937-2017), who died just days before the concert. As mentioned, Twist (1937-1990) and Special (1952-2014), had been the soul and heart of Big Twist and the Mellow Fellows. Others no longer with us include the voice of the Dixie Diesels, Brad Davis (1952-2009); Skid City Blues Band guitarist Jack “Slo-Jack” Soljacich (1953-1999); and Coal Kitchen vocalist Carla Peyton (1947-2005), who would have added some gender as well as color diversity to the lineup.

Those still alive but not at the show included saxophonist Kevin Cox of Springfield, IL, who also performed with Coal Kitchen and just about every other Southern Illinois band since the Egyptian Combo; the aforementioned Bill Carter; T. Thomas, who had played with Katie and the Smokers; Greta Mitchell (Tristram), harmonica and keyboards for Skid City, among others (she still performs in New York City); and Billy Desmond, also of Skid City, who now fronts for Billy D and the Hoodoos out of Portland, Oregon. Also: Russell “Radar” Hearst (Dixie Diesels); Terry Ogolini (Big Twist, Pontiac Jones); Alfredo Jahn, (Vision); keyboardist and high school friend and keyboardist Gus Pappelis (oom pah music at Das Fass); and, of course, Grammy winner Shawn Colvin.

No matter. From the moment Bruno and his band walked on stage, he set a mellow mood with his Champaign quip and laconic patter. The smaller venue had great acoustics and provided a more intimate listening experience for the audience. In addition to Bruno, who sang and played acoustic guitar, his cousin, Mark Soljacich (brother of the late “Slo-Jack” Soljacich) played electric guitar; Brian Sandstrom, who was in the Shawn Colvin Band and Skid City, played bass, and on drums, steady Charlie Morrill.

The first set showcased several songs Bruno wrote for his latest album, “Long Short Story.” With a voice that’s not as hard as early Bob Dylan, nor as soft as Paul Simon, Bruno writes what I would call existential love songs. He started the set with a tune appropriate for the occasion, “We’ll Always Remember Tonight,” and later followed up with a song about regret, called “Don’t Listen.” Especially strong was a lyrical ballad called “Marie,” which was enhanced by Soljacich’s note-bending guitar work. Midway through the set, Bruno announced that the author of “Carbondale After Dark” was in the audience, prompting a smattering of applause as I slouched down in my seat, embarrassed and pleased beyond joy.

The reconstituted Scuttlebucket took the stage for the second set, with Russ Ward on banjo, Dean Milano on bass, Mike Potter on acoustic guitar, Terry Mueller on mandolin, and Charlie Morrill back on drums. They began with an old folk standard, “On the Banks of the Ohio,” but I got chills when they next performed “They Call the Wind Mariah,” with Terry’s nimble mandolin playing and powerful vocals by Dean. The song comes from the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical “Paint your Wagon,” but of course my generation remembers The Smothers Brothers folksong version best. To honor Brad Davis of the Dixie Diesels, they played a couple of Merle Haggard tunes, “White Line Fever” and “The Fugitive.”

For their Pontiac Jones tribute, Russ moved to drums, while Mike, Terry, and Robbie Stokes played electric guitars to compensate for the absence of Special and Ogolini. To excited applause, out strode Tawl Paul, and the band launched into “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Tawl Paul has a unique delivery style, which is part Cab Calloway and part Joe Cocker. Nowadays he sits for some of his performances, but this night he stood. The all-too-short set included two other Pontiac Jones standards, Howlin’ Wolf’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” and “The Weight” by The Band. (Later, Russ reminisced that “St. James Infirmary” had been their “show stopper.” “We started it slow, sort of like this impromptu version, but then kicked it up into a fast rocker. Mike, Pete Special and Terry Ogolini used to tear up the solos,” he recalled.)

Bruno returned with his acoustic guitar for the third set, which was a Carbondale all-star jam that included Mueller, Soljacich, and Stokes on electric guitars, Sandstrom on bass and Morrill on drums, plus “Joe “C” Castrejon on harmonica. Castrejon owns the current music store in Carbondale, Sound Core.

They limbered up with “I Ain’t Got You,” the much-covered 1955 R&B classic by Jimmy Reed, and then played the dance song “Hand Jive,” fittingly, because that had been the last song The Band played at their reunion concert in 1983. Some of the women in the audience began to freestyle on the stoop next to the projection booth, and when the band played another feel-good song, “Hey Baby” (I want to know if you’ll be my girl), a few danced to the front of the stage, to the delight of the crowd.

Next came the highlight of the evening for me. “All Along the Watchtower” was not only a Dylan song, but my favorite tune the Shawn Colvin Band played back in the day. It was the one song I had hoped to hear that night, but thought it would be too cheesy to request. When I recognized the opening chords, I grabbed my iPhone, which had about 7 percent battery left, and began to shoot video. Upside down. But I got it.

It had been a Trump-free evening, thankfully. No jokes and no allusions to 45. On the other hand, the times they aren’t a changin’. The country is as polarized now as it was in the 1960s, split over issues such as civil rights, foreign wars, and a president some say is a crook and a liar. Apocalyptic times. And when the band at the Varsity launched into a 7-minute rendition of the apocalyptic “Watchtower,” I was transported, if not in time, then in feeling, in passion.

Jim sang the verses and Charlie and Brian kept the beat, while Terry, Mark and Robbie traded guitar licks, and Joe C riffed on his harp. The players were loose and kept improvising, extending the song beyond its expected end. Soljacich said something to Bruno and they cracked up laughing. Then Dean Milano appeared on stage, whispered to Bruno, and stepped up to a mic. He raised his arms to get the guitarists to let him take a verse. They almost sputtered to a stop, but were immediately lifted as Dean growled, “All along the watchtower, Princes kept the view…” Sounding more like Hendrix than Dylan, he poured himself into the lyrics. And when he got to “the wind began to howl,” he let loose with an Old Testament howl that brought down the house. Reinvigorated by Dean’s singing, the guitarists reached another crescendo that kept going until Charlie finally ended the revelry with a crash of cymbals.

By the end of the concert, the performers had given their all. But I still wanted more. Throughout the evening, I had been inquiring, “where’s the party?” and nobody seemed to know. Then, I think it was Russ, said he heard where there might be a gathering, and I rolled my eyes at my own stupidity. Where else could an after party for a reunion of old Carbondale bands possibly be held except at the strip’s ultimate relic, the unsinkable PK’s? So my team toked up, I mean walked up, to PK’s, which was nearly empty on a Sunday night. Then the various band members and entourage trickled in, and we partied like it was 1969, if you can believe that.

At one point I was sitting at the bar next to Bruno, and we got to talking about Shawn Colvin. Back in the 1970s, he’d helped Shawn get her start. He set up her first gigs, played in bands with her and wrote songs for her, in Carbondale and the Bay Area, before she relocated to New York and began writing her own songs. They were also a thing for a while. Anyway, he told me about the first time he met Shawn, which was around 1975, at an annual musician campout at SIU ethnomusicologist and folk museum curator Dale Whiteside’s farm. “Lots of music around campfires,” Jim recalled. It got late and he found himself stranded on the farm without a coat or place to sleep. Shawn and her female roommate had a cozy tent, so he went up to her and asked if he could bunk with them for the night. And she said, “dream on.”

Dream on indeed. I reckon I’ll just have to live with my regrets, just as I’ll never be able to recapture my youth. But for one night I could wallow in some ’70s flashbacks, hear the music, share the memories, and mingle with other ghosts of Carbondale past. Was it worth the trip? Hell yes.

— by H.B. Koplowitz, 2017

My Inner Racist


I loved Obama and I don’t love Trump. I even liked Hillary. So when one of my fave raves, comedian Bill Maher, ad libbed the n-word on his HBO show, “Real Time,” I was conflicted. Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse had suggested Maher visit the state and “work in the fields,” and Maher had quipped, “I’m a house nigga.”

I was also conflicted the next week, when Maher did his obligatory apology tour, perp walk, self-flagellation, damage control, or whatever you want to call it. In lieu of Jesse or Al, black scholar Michael Eric Dyson appeared on “Real Time” to mete out the shame and absolution, street scholar Ice Cube bestowed his withering scowl, and former Bernie Sanders press secretary Symone Sanders added a black female perspective.

Using the language of the social justice movement, Dyson said a white privileged person who says the word in any context could trigger pain and suffering in vulnerable populations. Cube said that “when I hear a white person say it, it feel like that knife stabbing you even if they don’t mean to.” And Sanders informed Maher that many house slaves were women who were raped and abused. “As a white person in America, you would’ve been the master, the slave owner … that was a slap in the face to the black community, particularly to black women.”

Dyson and Cube both challenged Maher — and all Caucasians — to look within our lily white privileged souls to examine why we have what Dyson called an “unconscious reflex” to say the n-word. So I got in touch with my inner racist, and here’s what he said:

“First, I don’t think the white privileged unconscious reflex to say the n-word is any different from what causes other people to say it, sometimes in anger, sometimes in jest, sometimes appropriately and sometimes inappropriately. Which is why Bill Maher didn’t need to apologize. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote, ‘intent is important.’ But the comedian had committed the ultimate gotcha; he’d used the n-word. It was apologize or be branded a racist (as well as Islamophobe). So he apologized.

“As Maher said, it wasn’t worth spending his political capital on. But it’s time to end the white prohibition on the n-word. Not because we live in a post-racial society, but because banning the word has been about as effective at ending racism as the 18th Amendment was at getting rid of alcohol. The word is all over hip-hop and pop culture. Telling an ethnic group they can’t join in is not only unAmerican, but an enticement to break the rules. Like celibacy. Or sodomy. Or Michael Richards.

“But what about the pain the word causes African Americans?” I asked my inner racist. “Have you no empathy?”

“Sticks and stones,” my inner racist retorted. “Some blacks may truly be traumatized just by hearing a white person say the n-word, but most are merely offended or annoyed. I respect that, so it’s off my play list. But pretending to be traumatized instead of pissed off is trafficking in a culture of victimization.”

“Culture of what?” I asked.

“Playing the victim,” my inner racist replied. “Everybody does it. Not just blacks. Donald Trump voters as well.”

“You are one cynical bastard,” I told my inner racist.

“You saw Ice Cube display his patented Black Panther hate look, the one that melts the hearts of sado-maso liberals and causes cops to reach for their guns,” my inner racist continued. “You heard him say, ‘That’s our word, and you can’t have it back.’ It was great theater, but so 1988. You can say it but I can’t? How juvenile.”

I shook my head. “Well, what about the house slave reference being a slap in the face to black women?”

“Too soon?” my inner racist spat back. “The whole field-slave house-slave stereotype, whether accurate or not, is entrenched in American folklore. To give but one example, Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Django Unchained,’ during which the n-word was tossed around so many times it went from shocking to silly. By the end I had the giggles.

“The n-word thing is connected to another thing that Maher has railed against,” my inner racist added. “Political correctness, especially on college campuses, where unpleasant words and inconvenient ideas are being suppressed to spare the tender sensibilities of vulnerable races, nationalities, genders and immigration statuses. Just about everybody except us privileged white males.”

“Stop playing the victim,” I said.

“Let me put it this way,” my inner racist said. “The words ‘Black Lives Matter’ annoy me. They pain me. If I hear them enough, I may get traumatized. So by their reasoning, black people should be banned from saying the BLM-words.”

“The slogan simply means that black lives have been undervalued,” I said.

“But they are the ones who say the intent of the speaker doesn’t matter as much as the effect the words have on the listener.”

“Gimme a break,” I said.

“And then there’s the Oprah rule,” my inner racist said.

“Please don’t go after Oprah,” I begged.

“All I’m saying is that Oprah doesn’t care about the intent of the speaker or the effect on the listener. She thinks the word should be erased from the lexicon because of all the pain it caused people who are dead.”

“Makes sense to me,” I said.”

“Good or bad, the word is a part of our heritage,” my inner racist said. “Which is why I don’t see much difference between ISIS destroying ancient shrines and do-gooders tearing down statues of Confederate generals. We got rid of the battle flag, we’re changing the names of streets and schools that honor slave-owning presidents, so where does it end?”

“Slavery was wrong,” I said. “Inequality is wrong, and we shouldn’t honor those who stood for that.”

“We shouldn’t whitewash history either,” my inner racist interrupted. “We should remember our history. All of it.”

“Time to go back in your box,” I told my inner racist.

“But I want to talk about Trayvon and Ferguson,” my inner racist said.

“Let’s not go there,” I said.

by H.B. Koplowitz

Dick Gregory at 84: Feisty to the end

The writer and date having photo taken with Dick Gregory for $10. Gregory’s nephew, comedian Mark Gregory, is at top right.

Dick Gregory died Aug. 19, 2017, in Washington, D.C.

Before Richard Pryor, before Eddie Murphy, and before Chris Rock, Whoopi Goldberg and Dave Chappelle, there was Dick Gregory, who in the 1950s and ’60s smashed through the color barrier separating black comedians from white audiences. Once dubbed the black Mort Sahl for his political humor, he is one of the lesser-known pioneer black comedians — or, as he would say, comedians who happened to be black — in large part because he put activism ahead of show business.

On March 26, 2017, the 84-year-old comic, civil rights activist, author and holistic health advocate performed for one of the last times before his death, at a nearly full house at the Improv in West Palm Beach. It was kind of like going to see Bob Dylan, or back in the day, Lenny Bruce. You go to pay your respects, hope they do their best, but prepare for something less, which is what happened at the Improv.

Not that the audience was disappointed. We got to see vintage Gregory. Feisty, contrary, racial, cosmological and conspiratorial. Lots of MFs, b- and n-words. (His nephew, rising comedian Mark Gregory, who served as Gregory’s warmup act, chose to go with the anachronistic “Negro” instead.)

Black, or what in the 1950s were called Negro comedians, took two new paths to break into the mainstream  — the old path was self-denigration, as epitomized by Stepin Fetchit. Some of Gregory’s peers, like Bill Cosby, avoided controversial subjects and kept things folksy, similar to Will Rogers, Bob Hope or Jerry Seinfeld. Others, like Godfrey Cambridge and Gregory, took the riskier route of social satire, tapping into a strain of American humor that runs through Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. Actually, it’s more a matter of degree. To some extent, all comedians combine what might be called silly and serious humor. Like most people, entertainers try to find a combination of representing and assimilating that works for them, professionally and personally.

Richard Claxton Gregory was born into poverty on Oct. 12, 1932, in St. Louis, Missouri. He  became a track standout at Sumner High School, and in 1951 he got an athletic scholarship to attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, before and after being drafted into the Korean War. (This writer was born and went to college in Carbondale, and local lore has it that Gregory was the first black person to integrate the town’s Varsity Theater, by refusing to sit in the balcony.)

ABC Close Up Report – Walk in My Shoes (1961). Nicholas Webster’s documentary explores the state of urban black America, featuring what may be Dick Gregory’s first TV appearance. His segment begins at (15:16), but there’s also footage of Malcolm X, CORE founder James Farmer, and regular people discussing race and sex, among other issues.

Gregory left school before graduating and moved to Chicago, where he worked at $5-a-night comedy gigs and met his wife, Lil. They had 11 children, including one who died shortly after birth. Because of his busy schedule, he admits to having been an absent father. His stock line is, “Jack the Ripper had a father. Hitler had a father. Don’t talk to me about family.”

He got his big break in 1961, when Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner took a liking to his sardonic takes on race and current events, and hired him for an extended stay at the Playboy Club. Gregory’s disarming sense of humor enabled whites to laugh, sometimes at themselves, while being confronted with inconvenient truths. An example of one of his early jokes is on his website: “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?”

From the Playboy Club, he began playing better venues, like San Francisco’s hungry i, and got on Jack Parr and other TV shows. In 1963, his first autobiography, “Nigger,” was published and became a best seller. (In the book, he says he chose the title so that whenever his mother heard the word in the future, she’d “know they are advertising my book.”)

But then he pulled a Dave Chappelle and withdrew from the spotlight. Inspired by leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he joined the Civil Rights Movement and used his celebrity status to address such issues as segregation and voter registration. While contemporaries like Cosby, Cambridge and Nipsy Russell were getting their shots at stardom, Gregory was protesting world hunger and other issues. He went on dozens of fasts, sometimes lasting more than 40 days, and for two-and-a-half years he ate no solid food to protest the Vietnam War.

He ran against Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1966, and as a write-in candidate for president in 1968. According to his website, “After the assassinations of King, President John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, Gregory became increasingly convinced of the existence of political conspiracies.” With JFK conspiracy theorist Mark Lane, in 1971 Gregory co-wrote “Code Name Zorro: The Murder of Martin Luther King Jr.”

In 1973, Gregory moved his family to Plymouth, Massachusetts, where the once overweight smoker became a nutritional consultant. He says he first became a vegetarian after seeing his pregnant wife kicked by a cop, and not having the courage to fight back. He vowed that he would never “participate in the destruction of any animal that never harmed me.” In the 1980s, he founded a company that sold weight-loss products, and he drew media attention when he started a fat farm in Ft. Walton, Fla., for the morbidly obese.

In 1996, he returned to stand-up with a well-received one-man show, “Dick Gregory Live!” Also in 1996, he picketed CIA Headquarters to protest allegations that the agency had started the crack epidemic by smuggling cocaine into South-Central Los Angeles. He was arrested, as he has been many times over the years.

In 2000, Gregory was diagnosed with lymphoma, a deadly form of cancer. That same year, a three-and-a-half-hour tribute was held in his honor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., hosted by Bill Cosby, with appearances by Coretta Scott King, Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Cicely Tyson, and Marion Barry, among others. Refusing chemotherapy, he used alternative medicine to beat the disease, and became a lecturer on diet and ethics.

Wikipedia lists 16 albums and 16 books on his resume, but according to the IMDB website, he has never been in a major motion picture, although he has appeared as himself in several documentaries. His film credits include Rev. Slocum in “Panther” (1995), a bathroom attendant in “The Hot Chick” (2002), and a blind panhandler in the TV show “Reno 911” (2004). Nevertheless, in 2015 he received a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, for Live Theatre/Performance.

To the end, he maintained a grueling schedule of up to 150 shows, lectures and interviews a year, many of which are on YouTube, and he had an active Twitter account. Before coming to West Palm Beach, he was at the Improv in Houston, and from Florida he headed to New York City, for two shows at Caroline’s on Broadway.

At the Improv at West Palm Beach, Gregory was, in a word, grouchy. When introduced to the mainly older and black audience, the comedy icon didn’t appear for several minutes, apparently because he was in the restroom. Once he doddered on stage and slumped into a chair, he began muttering. When a woman sitting about 10 rows back shouted that she couldn’t hear him, he snapped back, “you shoulda sat closer,” which got a laugh.

He acknowledged his age but bristled at the term “elderly.” “I’m just old,” he said.

He talked about race, religion, sex and politics, including Obama and Trump. He said he was disappointed that Obama hadn’t gotten more done when he was in the White House, but that comparing him to Trump forever destroys the myth of white superiority.

He made many other wry observations, but like Lenny Bruce, he was less funny the more he indulged his obsession — for Bruce, it was his legal woes, in Gregory’s case, the many conspiracy and dietary theories he has accumulated over the years. He still thinks “agents” are out to get him, and that Oswald didn’t kill JFK.

He had brought along numerous visual aids, including newspaper clippings, magazine covers and photos of himself with MLK and Muhammad Ali, which he used to tell vignettes. He kept saying, “and finally,” but then he would move on to more stories. In an odd reversal, it was as if the performer didn’t want the more than two-hour show to end more than the audience didn’t.


This half-hour clip from Gregory’s March 3 show in New Orleans is similar to the one in West Palm Beach.

Despite the unevenness of his performance, it was great to see a comedy legend still pushing the envelope, still as controversial and incisive as ever. Every comedian who traffics in ethnic humor today — black, white, brown, yellow or mixed — owes a debt to Gregory for paving the way. On the same day as his show, he posted a tweet that described how much the world has changed, and not changed, over the course of his life:

© 2017 by H.B. Koplowitz

Why I’m voting for Hillary

39164252Dear Bernie or busters, basketed deplorables, third party flirts and other Hillary haters:

Some of you have challenged me to provide an affirmative defense for why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton for president, rather than mere disgust with her opponent. No problem.

First, let me admit my bias. I voted for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in 2008 because I thought she was more experienced, especially in regards to dealing with Republicans and the right-wing slime machine. But after Obama beat Clinton in the primaries, I voted for him, twice, and believe that despite a recalcitrant Congress, he moved the country in the right direction, including Obamacare and a less interventionist foreign policy. I would hate to see his legacy sullied by someone who wants to destroy it for reasons that are more personal than political.

As for Hillary, when Bill Clinton wasn’t being Philanderer in Chief, he was being Triangulator in Chief. Hillary is also a triangulator, so one way to think of her is to imagine Bill Clinton without a penis. It’s not sexy or inspiring, but one reason I’m voting for Clinton is because she’s boring.

Triangulate means taking a position on a political issue that is neither liberal nor conservative, but a balance or synthesis of both sides. Ironically, the term “triangulate” was coined in 1996 by then-President Bill Clinton’s chief political strategist, Republican political operative (and vociferous Hillary hater) Dick Morris. Actually, it’s a repackaging of an old idea that has also been called “the art of the possible,” “bipartisanship,” “deal-making,” “moderation” and “compromise.”

But in an age when compromise has become a dirty word, so has triangulate. Splitting the difference tends to alienate activists on both sides, and the more polarized a society becomes, the fewer centrists are left to create a winning coalition. As the oft quoted poet W.B. Yeats once put it, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Anarchy doesn’t hold the same allure for me that it once did. Neither does becoming part of a revolution, or a movement to “make America great again.” As a white male, I recognize the world is changing, and a reshuffling of the social order is not just inevitable but appropriate. Thus, I’m all for change, but I prefer incremental to disruptive change. America has many problems, but I don’t believe the apocalypse is near, so I’m not looking for a messiah, just a reasonably competent person with moderately progressive values.

And that’s the second reason I’m voting for Clinton. Love her or hate her (or somewhere in between), you know she’s a moderate progressive, or what was once called a liberal. She believes in capitalism, but she also believes that government should help those who can’t help themselves. She believes in personal freedoms, but she also believes in inclusion, diversity and equality. She believes in a robust but cautious foreign policy. She’s a champion for women’s rights, including a woman’s right to choose, and she will choose Supreme Court judges who will preserve personal liberties. And she believes in science.

She’s close to Bernie Sanders on economic issues. She wants to tax the rich more and the middle class less. She wants to raise the minimum wage and repair our decaying infrastructure. She wants to make a college education more affordable. And she’s for fixing, rather than repealing, Obamacare.

She’s for “comprehensive” immigration reform, meaning that in addition to beefing up border security and screening, she’s also for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants already here, and for taking in our fair share of refugees from Middle Eastern wars we helped start. She’s pro-trade, including trade agreements, as opposed to protectionism and tariffs. And she has worked across party lines as well as international borders to pound out agreements.

It’s hard to know what Clinton’s foreign policy might look like, since it will likely be shaped by unpredicted events. She’s far from perfect, but she didn’t order special forces to “stand down” at Benghazi, she’s not a serial killer, and she didn’t commit espionage with her private email server. It’s unclear what her opponent stands for because he has no track record, and except for the bit about building a wall, his message can change with his mood, audience and whether he’s using a teleprompter.

The third, and most visceral, reason I’m voting for Clinton is because she’s still here. Think about it. She’s been betrayed by her husband, abandoned by her party, especially its left wing, investigated by Congress, reviled by the media, and yet she’s still standing. Even her opponent said he respected that, “She doesn’t quit. She doesn’t give up.”

She was ridiculed in 1998 for describing the anti-Clinton forces as a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” But since then it has become an entire industry, spawning anti-Hillary books and movies, tabloid “news” on her health, marriage and sexual proclivities, and websites that keep a running tally of her associates who have been “found dead.” Radio and TV commentators have made careers out of Hillary bashing, while conservative foundations funded by conservative billionaires have spent fortunes filing lawsuits, pursuing records, exposing alleged corruption, and generally harassing and smearing the Clintons, especially Hillary after Bill became an ex-president, which was 15 years ago.

For standing by her husband she has been branded an enabler and accomplice. For creating a world-changing charitable foundation she has been accused of “pay to play.” And for being in charge when four people were tragically killed in Benghazi, she has been called a liar and a coward. Little wonder she has become a deeply guarded person, who wrongly but understandably used a private server to (unsuccessfully) keep her emails away from her many political enemies.

The so-called Clinton wars go back more than 30 years, to when Bill was the attorney general of Arkansas, and she was a private attorney who was once ordered to defend a rapist. After he became governor, and then president, his affairs and their involvement in a failed business venture called the Whitewater Development Corporation eventually metastasized into the Monica Lewinsky scandal and impeachment trial. Lewinsky has since described herself as one of the first victims of mass cyberbullying as well as public shaming, and anyone who lived through that spectacle knows what she means.

The Clintons have also been bullied and shamed ever since. Through Travelgate, Chinagate, Filegate, Pardongate, allegedly looting the White House, and now the unending so-called Hillary email scandal, all the accusations have been exhaustively investigated, and she has yet to be found guilty of anything. But over time the slanderous allegations and debunked stories of Hillary’s misdeeds have created a Cosby effect — so many claims pile up that it seems at least some of them must be true. Whole generations of people have grown up hearing that Hillary Clinton is nothing but a liar and a cheat who is just out for herself, and over time they have essentially been brainwashed into believing it. The unrelenting negative publicity has also created what is known as Clinton fatigue. Yet despite the amount of hate and derision that has been directed her way, and despite the fact that she and her husband have become wealthy through giving speeches and making personal appearances, she has remained in public service, becoming a senator from New York, secretary of state, and now presidential candidate.

Perhaps it is only fitting that someone who has had to survive such withering and often sexist attacks over her entire career would find that the last hurdle she must cross to become the first female president of the United States would be the most demagogic, divisive, snarling, insulting, sexist, crass candidate imaginable. The Don Rickles of politics. A man who would bring her husband’s jilted girlfriends, the grieving parents of Benghazi victims, and the woman who’d been raped by the man she had defended decades ago, to their debates. A man who would yell in her face that she should be ashamed, and whose minions would chant “lock her up.”

I admit it. As much as I want to see Clinton win, I want to see her opponent lose. And as much as I want to see him lose, I want to see the nativists, racists, sexists and other deplorables who have been trying to bring Clinton down for more than three decades to not just be defeated but repudiated. As her opponent noted, she’s a fighter. So another way to think of Hillary Clinton is to imagine Bill Clinton with balls.

Men are Assholes

trumps-clintonsMen are assholes. Can we at least agree on that? Less than a month before the election, The New York Times decides to waste ink on 30-year-old Trump groping incidents. Groping? If there’s a man who has never made an unwanted advance on a woman, or a woman who never got groped, they need to get out more often. Compared to the allegations against Bill Clinton, this is small potatoes.

Oh, but he lied about groping during the debate and it adds to the sticky media narrative that the Donald is a dirty old man. As was often noted when Bill found himself in a similar predicament, everybody lies about sex.

This isn’t election coverage, it’s jiggle TV. And if the media and Clinton campaign overplay their hand, voters are going to become numb to all the sex stories and, like Bill Clinton, they may start to feel sympathy for Trump for being ganged up on and shamed for brutish sexual behavior. For doing what rich and famous men shouldn’t do, but all too often do.

The media have made their point. Like many men, Trump is an asshole. Now, can we get back to the issues?

Thank you Donald Trump

debateAmerica’s apocalyptic nightmare may be over, at least for now. Exhibit 1 is Donald Trump, who was not generally perceived as the winner of his second debate with Hillary Clinton.

His performance was classic Trump, full of dark visions of illegal aliens streaming across the border, terrorists embedded with Syrian refugees, lawless inner cities, ISIS, Russia, Iran and China looming, while America had become weak, its nukes tired and exhausted. Yet this time he didn’t get the same frenzied response. The reason may be a change in the national mood, and ironically, we may have Donald Trump to thank.

When Trump descended from an escalator in his namesake tower in June 2015 to announce he was going to make America great again by building a wall to keep out murderers and rapists sent from Mexico, he was speaking to a receptive audience. Nearly 70 percent of Americans were telling pollsters they thought the country was headed in the wrong direction. People were frustrated with their jobs and insurance premiums. Cops were killing unarmed blacks, who were rioting in the streets. ISIS-inspired lone wolves seemed to be everywhere. The Middle East was screwed, Congress was gridlocked and the president was a feckless, Islamic Kenyan.

Trump did not create those feelings of fear, anger, hate, sexism, racism, xenophobia and scapegoating. They are always simmering below the surface. But he did bring them to a boil, as many a demagogue has done from time immemorial. His acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention was perhaps the apogee of his dystopian imaginings, which were also a large part of his stump speech — a constant drumbeat of death and destruction, weakness, bad deals and bad judgements. He also kept the sap rising by flouting political correctness and feuding with characters great and small, from Sen. John McCain to Miss Universe, Mexicans, Muslims and his own party. Not to mention crooked, lying Hillary.

Then something happened. The turning point may have been the notorious pussy tape a couple days before the second debate, which sparked one last orgasm of outrage, except this time the anger was coming from across the political spectrum. During the subsequent town hall, Trump pivoted from whatever question he was asked to repeat chunks of his bloodcurdling stump speech, a strategy that was simple and elegant and required zero prep. Yet as much as the prophet of doom huffed and puffed, sniffed and sniped, shamed and stalked — he even raised the specter of illicit sex — nothing seemed to work.

Why? Trump hadn’t changed, but maybe many of us had. He was like a violent video game that America had been playing for so long that we became desensitized to his end-of-days shtick. There’s only so many times he could cry wolf and people would believe him, and only so long that Americans could remain furious before the fever broke and sanity returned. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re not THAT bad, and believe it or not, neither is Hillary Clinton.

Of course, the calming of America does not extend to bigots, xenophobes and other irredeemable deplorables who were outraged long before Trump came along, and always will be. And it would take just one terrorist attack or October surprise to shock the rest of us back into a state of national hysteria. But if we can maintain our composure for just a few more weeks, we may not just defeat but repudiate the false messiah that is, or was, Donald Trump. So thank you Mr. Trump for scaring the bejesus out of us, and giving us a chance at redemption.

Praying for Hillary


If you believe in the healing power of prayer, you may also believe that negative thoughts can make a person sick. Even if you don’t believe in prayer, you might believe in the power of positive thinking, and that decades of being harassed, vilified and investigated could take a physical as well as emotional toll on a person.

You can see where this is going. Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton, 68, has been diagnosed with pneumonia and apparently fainted at a 15th anniversary 9/11 observance in New York City, causing her to take a few days off the campaign trail. Her age, “stamina” and the pace of the race all may have contributed to her illness. As might the constant drumbeat of hate directed at Clinton by legions of “deplorables” and other Hillary detractors.

The mainstream media have used Hillary’s illness to turn conspiracy theories about her overall health into a “real” campaign issue. Clinton made matters worse when she called Donald Trump’s racist, sexist, xenophobic and Islamophobic supporters a “basket of deplorables.”

While Trump fans have gleefully embraced the “deplorable” moniker, and his campaign events continue to look like Nuremberg rallies, many of Hillary’s so-called supporters have been holding their noses and talking about the lesser of evils. In politics, that’s what’s known as an enthusiasm gap. In real life, it means a lot fewer people are wishing Hillary well than are wishing her dead.

The media have declared Clinton’s fainting spell to be another blow to her campaign, and her withholding her medical condition another sign that she can’t be trusted. But as some have noted, Clinton exhibited strength, not weakness, by sticking to her schedule as long as she did, while suffering from walking pneumonia. Her illness also showed that rather than being a robotic “Clinton machine,” she is an authentic, flesh and blood, human being, who’s been under a lot of stress.

Yet outside of a few flower deliveries to Clinton’s Chappaquiddick home, there’s been no grassroots effort to include her in prayers, or just wish her a speedy recovery. No flood of get-well-soon cards, or hashtags like #GWSHRC or #prayingforHRC, and it remains to be seen how many of her so-called supporters will even bother to vote on Nov 8.

The idea that people can make things happen by believing hard enough is sometimes called the Tinkerbell effect. It is named after Tinker Bell, Peter Pan’s tiny fairy friend, who is saved by children believing in fairies. With less than two months to the election, Clinton’s recent illness should be a wake-up call to her supporters that their lack of faith in their candidate may be jeopardizing more than an election. Despite a vast right-wing conspiracy, a philandering husband and withering criticism from all sides, Clinton has soldiered on to preserve Obama’s legacy and become the first female president. Now that she is faltering, it is time for her supporters to do just that — support her.