Friday, January 15, 2016

Yesterday, I Witnessed Something Extraordinary--Finebaum Family, Phyllis from Mulga, Tiny Tide, and Love

You may have noticed yesterday that I republished a post I did several months ago regarding a wonderful story about Bama fan and Finebaum caller Phyllis Perkins

That's the first time I've ever republished a blog post, and that happened for a reason. 

As you know, Phyllis's husband Don was diagnosed with inoperable and terminal stage 4 lung cancer some months ago, and this family, being of modest means, has been struggling financially. After I wrote that blog post, a trio of Finebaum callers (Rich Johnson, Johnny Lynn, and Fred Somers) started a GoFundMe campaign on Phyllis's behalf. What you may not know is that both Phyllis and Don were concerned about the cost of paying for his funeral.

Funeral costs are staggering these days--averaging between $8-10,000 in most places. The Perkins family, with both Phyllis and Don on Social Security, and already struggling under astronomical medical and daily living costs, would have been incapable of meeting those costs as they are already sinking further into debt. Medical debt is no joke, as I am well aware personally. Even if you're insured and/or on disability, there are some expenses that are just not covered. Even disability and Medicare only cover 80%, and the price of even the most conservative cancer treatment is just ridiculous. Add to that utility bills, food, house insurance, car insurance, etc. and you're looking at a family living at subsistence level. 

So Rich and Fred and Johnny started the GoFundMe campaign to give both Phyllis and Don some peace of mind. While Phyllis wouldn't ask for anything for herself, for Don--she would. A goal was set to raise enough money to cover the expenses of a funeral, and to take that worry at least off the shoulders of a dying man. The campaign began on November 20. Fred asked if they could link to my blog post--which was obviously a no-brainer--and we began to try to stir up interest on social media. Using fan sites--in particular Crimson Tide sites where Phyllis is somewhat of a legend--slowly we began to see money start to trickle in. By 8 pm on January 13, the campaign had made $4500. 

But then, something amazing happened. 

First off, Paul Finebaum told the story on his show Wednesday afternoon. You've heard me mention Finebaum before--a longtime Alabama journalist who now has an extremely popular (and unpopular) call-in show on the SEC Network. His relationship with Phyllis goes back years, to when his show was a local gig on AM radio and she used to call him up and bless him out for criticizing her beloved Coach Gene Stallings. About the same time, an article came out in the Birmingham paper. You can read it on their website:

The article also referred to this blog. So obviously, being a writer with books close to release and a savvy blogger, I reissued the original blog post with updated links. And then Johnny, Fred, and I--Rich is out of town on a business trip--began to pelt social media throughout the afternoon with links, pleas, and updates. The Finebaum show social media was joined by the SEC Network as well as other media sites/personalities in generating a lot of Twitter traffic. Fred called in to the Finebaum show. Other callers and followers began to call/tweet with questions. Longtime Phyllis foe Danny Kanell donated a thousand dollars to the campaign And then--Phyllis called the show herself. 

By the time she called, her campaign had already increased to around $20,000--almost five times the amount it had raised the night before.  Her call was just amazing--amazing enough that I can't describe it. You guys just have to hear it. 

And after she called, a miracle happened. 

First, a wonderful couple donated $10,000 to the campaign. But hundreds of other people gave what they could, from SEC Network's beloved Marcus Spears' huge donation to a little kid that emptied his piggy bank and gave it all--eight dollars. The child actually added to that later when he found roll of pennies, bringing the total gift to $13. People from all walks of life gave what they could. Alabama fans were joined by fans from the SEC schools--all of them. Some folks donated on behalf of their schools not even in the SEC--like Red Raider Ed (Texas Tech) who donated a thousand dollars. And every gift, regardless of size, was a pledge of love for this tiny Alabama woman who had somehow touched their lives--not only because of the tragedy she was fighting through, but because of her unswerving, unquestioning love for college football and her Alabama Crimson Tide.

In the past few hours, I've watched the total ticker edge up over $45,000. Radio and sports personalities all over the country are calling for their listeners/followers/readers to help--like most recently Cole Cubelic, for example, just off the top of my head. Some fans, like Fred from Plano made videos in support, encouraging people to make videos and donate. 


This outpouring of kindness and generosity has not only restored my faith in humanity, but is going to make such an amazing difference to this family that has already dealt with so much. With Don so ill, he's constantly cold. The effort to keep him warm is resulting in utility bills over $450--a staggering blow to a couple on Social Security. This money doesn't mean new cars and clothes; it means survival, at its most basic level. But it also means peace. Peace for Don, who no longer has to worry how Phyllis will survive once he's gone, and peace for Phyllis, who can now concentrate her attention upon the man she loves who is slowly, incrementally leaving her behind. 

But at the center of the story, for me, stands Phyllis, who is no longer quite as alone as she thought. 

Last night I spoke with her on the phone, and amidst all the tears and laughter and overwhelming gratitude, she told me a story that encapsulates who she is down to the last detail.



Twenty years ago, she was in someone's home who raised exotic birds for sale. She went to the bathroom, and while in there heard a little whistle. She looked in the window and found a cage with a tiny, weak cockatiel in it. The cockatiel was deformed, rejected by its mother, and unsaleable. The owner had put the bird in a cage without food and water so it would die. 

Phyllis took that bird home. She bought vitamins and the top food. Patiently, she taught that bird how to eat--the mother had attacked the baby and destroyed part of its beak, so Phyllis had to coax food into its tummy seed by seed. One claw was deformed, and all the feathers on the undersides of the wings were gone. But Phyllis didn't give up. She lavished care on her little patient. She held it to her chest so it could hear her heartbeat and be soothed. And once the little guy grew strong enough to grip, she taught it to sit on her head while she went about her day. 

One day, she noticed that when the Andy Griffith show came on, the little bird--now named Tiny Tide--would whistle along with the theme song. So she decided to teach him how to whistle Yea Alabama! (Full disclosure: as a Volunteer, I'm not too fond of the song personally, but as a Tide fan she wouldn't have taught Tiny Tide how to whistle Rocky Top, now would she?)

Every night, Tiny Tide sat on her head and she would whistle bars of Yea Alabama! to him. And before long, he did it! He could whistle the tune. One night soon after, Coach Gene Stallings called to see how her son was doing. (Hear about that amazing relationship in my original post about Phyllis) Tiny Tide was sitting on her head, and during the conversation he started to whistle Yea Alabama! Coach Stallings stopped cold. 

"What was that?"

Phyllis told him the story.

"Do you mean to tell me that's a cockatiel whistling Yea Alabama?"

She confirmed it. 

"Can you videotape that? I'd like to see it."

So a few days later, they recorded Tiny Tide's Bama repertoire and sent the videotape to Coach Stallings. When he got the tape, he took it into the viewing room. All the coaches, players, athletic department staff, and even the president of the University were brought it to hear the story of the tiny, deformed cockatiel whose own mother had rejected it, whose owner had shut it away to die, whose life was saved by a redoubtable woman who would not give up on it. And the payoff?

"After everything that bird's been through, after everyone gave up on him, he can now sit on that woman's head and whistle Yea Alabama! And if that bird can do that, WHAT CAN YOU DO?"

Talk about a lesson in overcoming adversity. That seems to be the lesson Phyllis has for everyone--and it's a lesson few people are truly qualified to teach.

So you see, there's a reason why people have responded to Phyllis the way they have. There's something about a woman who, despite all the turmoil and challenges of her life, can inspire people like that. No matter what the odds are, she just won't give up...whether it's on a football team or a dying bird. Tiny Tide is now 23 or 24--still singing, still whistling Yea Alabama! and still clinging to his beloved owner's head like she taught him when he was an unwanted, unloved little bird marked for death. He now comforts her as she faces one of the darkest hours of her life. 

If you can help, please head over to Phyllis's GoFundMe page and give what you can. If you are one of the over 600 people who already have helped, bless you for your generosity. If you can't donate, then please spread the word to people you know. But more than anything, keep her and Don in your prayers and thoughts. 

Tiny Tide will thank you for it, and will sing. 


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Re-Release of Phyllis from Mulga's Amazing Story With Her Crimson Tide. Gene Stallings, and her Troubled Son

Writer's note--this is a reissue of an earlier blog post about Finebaum super Fan Phyllis from Mulga and her incredible story about Coach Gene Stallings and the Alabama Crimson Tide. This post was featured in an article today which you can read at http://www.al.com/news/birmingham/index.ssf/2016/01/hey_paul_phyllis_from_mulga_ge.html. 

Right now, Phyllis needs our help. Her husband, Don, is suffering from Stage Four lung cancer and the Finebaum Family (led by super fans Rich from Atlanta, Johnny from Cullman, and Fred Somers) have created a GoFundMe campaign to help the family deal with soaring medical expenses. If this story resonates with you, consider contributing what you can at https://www.gofundme.com/RollTidePhyllis

Sometimes, the element that changes a casual fan into a fanatic is not straightforward. That element can be intangible, sometimes even unidentifiable. But I've found though years of associating with fans who live, breathe, eat, and die with their football teams that there's always a story, a single moment in time that takes a fan from just simply enjoying of the sport to a psychological and emotional involvement with their team that elevates the entire experience for them. Today's post is actually the original Song of the South, the story that inspired me to write this series, because it involves ordinary people who found a way to make their indirect association through Alabama football into something really extraordinary.

This Song of the South begins with a feisty little lady named Phyllis from Mulga, Alabama. If you follow the SEC or watch ESPN, you know who she is.

Phyllis is perhaps the most famous caller on the Paul Finebaum show which, as pretty much all of you know, is a daily devotion of mine. I set up my writing sessions so that I can have that four hour block off every weekday--mostly because there's no way I can write when Finebaum's going on in the background. Phyllis is a big part of why I am addicted to the show. She is a die hard Alabama fan, known mostly for her rants against self-satisfied sports media types like Colin Cowherd. Last year, she sneeringly referred to him as Colin Cow-turd, and apparently that really bothered him because he hasn't stopped talking about that yet.

When a caller to a radio/SEC Network show makes it onto SportsCenter because Colin Cow-turd is butt-hurt that Phyllis from Mulga called him a mean name, you know that caller has some serious chops.

To tell Phyllis's story--and I'll try to do it justice--we have to start at the beginning, and that's fifty-odd years ago. Phyllis's father was a huge Alabama fan, and brought up his five sons and daughter to be the same way. Her dad was in the military, and throughout all the moving the family remained devoted to the Crimson Tide. Phyllis's father died at the age of forty-four, when she was just seventeen. But until the end, he commanded his children to carry on his love for Bama--and they did. At his funeral, all the flowers were crimson and white, and all six kids continued to cheer for the Tide. So through the Bear Bryant years of the 1960's and 70's, Alabama football was an important facet of life. The family came together for games, and as the kids got married and had kids of their own, they passed that love on to the next generation.

In 1978, Phyllis had a son, Jesse*. Unfortunately, there were complications with the birth, and when he was born he suffered from oxygen deprivation. Jesse was rushed to ICU so they could get him breathing on his own. The trauma of his birth caused mild brain damage, which for Jesse manifested in a neurological condition called familial tremors on his right side. Familial tremors are similar to Parkinson's disease and cause a patient to shake, uncontrollably and sometimes rapidly. The condition can worsen through emotional stress, or when the patient is trying to perform motor skills that require precision--like eating with silverware, for example. Such a condition is trying, but for a child it carries a special kind of hell. With Phyllis's son, that hell began when he started school.

Kids can be nasty little critters, unfortunately, and Phyllis's son learned that when he started going to school. As the days went on, Jesse grew to hate school because the people in it were cruel to him. The other boys would bully him, sometimes right in front of teachers who did nothing to protect the child. For example, when Jesse was nine, he was sitting in his seat on the bus and the bullies grabbed him by the hair and dragged him back into the next seat. Then they ganged up on him, making fun of his shaking.

The little boy had no friends, no hope, no outlet. And while Phyllis and her husband tried everything they could think of to help their son, Jesse sank into a serious depression. During that time, Gene Stallings was hired as the head coach at Alabama. Stallings was one of Bear Bryant's famous "Junction Boys" when he was the coach at Texas A&M, and had worked for the Bear as a defensive assistant coach for both the 1961 and 1964 national championship teams. So Stallings was familiar to Phyllis and her family, as he was to most of the Crimson Tide faithful.

One day, Jesse carried his lunch tray to the table where he sat, alone, every day. As he was opening his milk, his right hand began to tremble and he spilled his milk. So while he was trying to control the tremors so he could drink his milk, a table full of boys came over to make fun of him. One of the little monsters jumped up on the table and shouted, "Hey everybody! Come over here and watch Jesse make a milkshake!"

When Jesse got home, he was crying his eyes out. Phyllis sat him at the table trying to soothe her sobbing son. "What's wrong, Jesse?"

"Mom, I want to die."

Hearing a child say such a thing is the kind of thing that freezes a mother's heart. Phyllis instantly exclaimed,"Don't you say that! Don't you ever say a thing like that!"

"But I do, Mom. If life is going to be like this, I don't want to live it," the boy cried, and then he told his mother what had happened in the cafeteria.

That was the final blow. Phyllis and her husband knew their son was in trouble. They took him to the doctor, who immediately sent the entire family for therapy. Jesse needed help, not only learning to cope with his disability but also the crushing depression that was the natural after-effect of the bullying he endured at school. Their therapist recommended that they enroll their son in a school where he could receive full-time therapy, and they did. Jesse could only come home on the weekends, and they tried to make those visits home special. For this family, that naturally involved Alabama football. Every Saturday, the family would allow the familiar rhythms and excitement of football to draw Jesse back into the family fold. It was now 1992, when Alabama won the national championship, and Jesse's love for Tide football grew into a serious hero worship of Coach Stallings--like many of the boys his age in Alabama did that fall.

Jesse remained away at school for a year. When he returned home, he was coping better with his disability physically. But when he returned to school, the bullying started again. Phyllis was forced to watch as her son's depression intensified, and desperately tried to think of something--anything--to help Jesse get better.

So one day in March of 1993, she picked up the phone and called the athletic department at the University of Alabama. When she said she wanted to speak to Coach Stallings, they put her through to his secretary. Phyllis asked if it would be possible to send Jesse a signed picture of the coach. "My son needs a hero," she explained.

The secretary replied, "I will take this to Coach Stallings personally. I'll be praying for y'all." Phyllis hung up the phone and that was that. She had no way of knowing when--or if--the coach would grant her request.

Three days later, a poster tube arrived in the mail. The autographed poster was of Coach Stallings standing in the middle of the football field. Jesse was delighted with the poster. The autograph read: Jesse, thank you for being my friend--Gene Stallings.

A lot of stories like Phyllis's would end here. But not hers. This is where the story grows, entwining this woman desperate to help her troubled son with the Alabama head football coach--and, as any SEC fan knows, the head football coach of the Crimson Tide is actually the most powerful man in the state as long as he holds that job. Phyllis and Jesse were blessed, really, that Gene Stallings was that man. For Stallings, father of a son with Down's Syndrome, understood what mother and son were going through. And for him, a simple poster just wasn't enough.

A few days later, the coach's secretary called Phyllis back. Stallings wanted to meet Jesse. So Phyllis, along with her excited son, older daughter, and two of her grandchildren, drove from Mulga, a little town outside Birmingham, to the University of Alabama football office in Tuscaloosa. They waited in the office with the secretary. "All of a sudden, the door opened and the biggest man I've ever seen in my life was standing there. He was so tall I thought he'd hit his head on the top of the door. My mouth fell open and so did Jesse's."

Before anyone could say a word, Jesse bolted across the room and hugged Coach Stallings around the legs. He looked up at this tall, kind-looking man and blurted, "Coach, do you really want to be my friend?"

Coach Stallings looked down at the boy and said gently, "What are you talking about, Jesse? I already am your friend."

Stallings sat down with the entire family, "He sat there and talked about football and talked to Jesse like he was grown up," Phyllis told me. "I could see right then a relationship was born. We were there for over an hour. He'd brought Johnny, his son with Down's Syndrome, to meet all of us and he was the most precious person I’ve ever met. After we went home, I saw the lights go off in Jesse’s eyes."

"Mama, I want to be the kind of man Coach is. He's a good man," Jesse said.

"Yes, son, he is. But you're special too."

"Why?"

"Because you are who you are, I got to meet my hero today too," Phyllis told her son. "Because he wanted to meet you."

That spring day in 1993 was the beginning of a relationship between the big, kindhearted football coach and Jesse. "In my closet, there's a big gold envelope," Phyllis said. "In that envelope are fifty-seven letters that Coach Stallings sent to Jesse. They're not lengthy. Sometimes it was simple, like  Jesse, I was just thinking of you today. You keep your chin up and make today a good day! And Jesse would write him back, and Coach would answer every letter."

When Jesse went back to school, he told some of his tormentors that he'd met Coach Stallings, but none of them believed him. So in one of his letters, he asked the coach what he should do about the bullying. Stallings responded by sending another package. One of the pictures they'd taken the day Jesse and Coach Stallings met was blown up poster-size, and with it Stallings had written: Jesse,  I want you to take this to school and show them that they are wrong. I am your friend and this proves it.

He also sent him a copy of the newspaper article after Alabama had won the national championship. There were seven pictures in the paper--pictures of the entire football team. And every player on that team had autographed the paper for Jesse.  Here’s something to take to school!  Stallings wrote.

Jesse took the poster and newspaper to school, and all of a sudden his entire life changed. Now the other kids wanted to know him because--wonder of wonders!--Jesse knew the head football coach at the University of Alabama! They were friends!

And from that point on, they left him alone.

"Because of Coach, Jesse got through to those kids at school that were bullying him. They turned around on a dime. They never bullied him again," Phyllis said, and I could hear the smile in her voice through the phone. "Jesse would tell them, 'Coach don’t care if I shake.' And the kids said, 'We’re sorry. We shouldn’t have done that.'

"Even one of the teachers who'd stood by and let those boys bully my son said, 'I saw those posters. I saw that newspaper. Chris is a mighty special child for Coach Stallings to do this.'

"'He’s not just special, he’s important,' I told her."

And once the story is put into its proper historical perspective, Stallings's actions become even more amazing.

"He had the defending national championship football team about to start spring ball, but he found the time to take Jesse in his arms," Phyllis said, her voice breaking. "Coach Stallings gave my son self-esteem...self-worth. Jesse followed his example. Coach told him not to get into drinking, not to do drugs. 'You can become somebody,' he told him. 'I'm depending on you to be a good son, like you've always been.' Now Jesse's a happy young men. I owe all that to Coach Stallings. He wasn't just a coach. He was a lifesaver. My husband and I were lost; brokenhearted. We didn't know what to do. Coach stepped in and gave my son a hero when he needed one the most."

Not every child with difficulties like the ones Jesse faced has a happy ending. Coach Stallings's own son, John Mark, died of a congenital heart defect in 2008. The coach chronicled his relationship with Johnny in a book he co-wrote with Sally Cook entitled Another Season: A Coach's Story of Raising An Exceptional Son. (Which is, by the way, an amazing read. I highly recommend it.) Every time Phyllis took Jesse down to Tuscaloosa, Coach Stallings would bring Johnny to meet them. "Coach‘s son was important to us. When you got hugged by Johnny, you got hugged. When he walked into a room, it all just got mellow. I was so proud that Coach Stallings got him to come each time we were there. That was one of the most blessed things—that we got to meet him too.

"When Johnny died it just broke our hearts. I couldn’t even stand the thought of how Coach Stallings and his wife felt. I couldn’t fathom it. When I talked to Coach again I broke down telling him I was so sorry. He said, 'The Lord has plans for all of us. Johnny wasn’t supposed to live til ten, but he showed them. He had a good life.' But I could tell his heart was torn into pieces."

One common theme I've found while listening to these Saturday Songs is how these teams, these schools and the people who love them find ways to do extraordinary things. Gene Stallings is an honored and highly respected man who has done great things throughout his life. On the University of Alabama campus is The Stallings Center, which is the home of the RISE school and its program designed to help children with disabilities from birth to age 5. The Stallings Center, established in 1994, now serves as a model for similar programs across the nation--partially funded by the golf tournament Coach Stallings hosts annually. And the playground at the center is named after his son.

But that's a big thing, something that in and of itself demonstrates palpably the positive influence Gene Stallings has. What makes Phyllis's story so poignant, so important, is the fact that while a bundle of fifty-odd letters, a few meetings, and some signed pictures might not seem like a big thing to the rest of us, for Jesse it was a monumental thing--an important thing. For Jesse, meeting Gene Stallings opened the door for a miracle--and that's an impact that cannot be quantified or dismissed. That miracle kept Jesse from becoming a statistic, it taught him how to find and make friends, and showed him that you can stand up to bullies and walk away the better man. That miracle has resulted in the continuing relationship between Stallings and Phyllis's family even today. "I talked to Coach Thursday before last. First thing he said was, 'How’s Jesse? You tell him I think of him all the time.' When I told Jesse, it just made his day. How can you be a better man than that?"

When people hear Phyllis explode on the Paul Finebaum Show, they probably don't give too much thought about why she loves the Alabama Crimson Tide as much as she does. She's not the kind of fan who can dissect football down to the X's and O's, or who can debate whether a dual option quarterback is better or worse than a traditional pocket passer. In fact, I've intervened online when some truly ignorant cretin is rolling out some horrible comment about Phyllis on Twitter. (Yes, I know...don't feed the trolls. I just can't stop myself...) Phyllis is a bigger person than I am. She doesn't care what anyone says about her. All she cares about is that Bama wins, and the bigger the better. And woe betide--yes, the pun is intentional--the poor schmuck (famous or not) who disses her football team or its coach. In fact, her long-running on-air relationship with Paul Finebaum began when he was making Finebaum-esque comments about Stallings on his show, and she started calling to ''straighten him out."

"I’ve always been fiery for the Tide," Phyllis said. "A lot of people think it’s me cheering for the team. But it’s about what the University of Alabama gave to me, without even knowing that they did. Coach Stallings and Alabama football are what caused all that to happen. When Coach helped Jesse, he helped me. When he helped my son, my spirits lifted and I was a much better person for it."

So even though I bleed Tennessee orange and white, I have to admit--Phyllis's story has given me a small warm fuzzy spot for Alabama. But only for 51 weeks a year, and never during the seven days that include the third (or fourth) Saturday in October when we annually play.

But for Coach Gene Stallings, who took the time to help a young boy find his way out of a dark labyrinth of torture and teach him how to grow up into a happy, well-adjusted young man who is the absolute pride of his mother's life...well, that warm fuzzy is now huge, and limitless. Because of the love Gene Stallings bore for his own son with special needs, he was uniquely qualified to share that love with another youngster who desperately needed a hero. Stallings became that hero not only for his own son, but for Phyllis's son and for Phyllis as well.

Phyllis is right. How could anyone be a better man than that? Perhaps--just perhaps, Gene Stallings is a hero for all of us.

Roll Tide.

*The name of Phyllis's son has been changed at her request. So because  I was so moved by his story, I substituted the name of my year-old grandson, who also had a rough start to life.

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie, Iconographic Control, Blackstar, And Death

I knew there was a reason I couldn't sleep last night. 

For the past couple of days I've had a killer migraine--the keep one eye closed in order to see kind--and to say that my stomach has been upset is a major understatement. I used to have nasty migraines when I was young, but this is the first mega-migraine I've had in years. For some reason, around 5:30 this morning I randomly checked my Twitter--something I refuse to do before noon--and got gutted. 

David Bowie is dead. 

As I read the news that he'd been battling cancer for 18 months, all of a sudden a lightbulb went off in my head--and it was shaped like a Blackstar--the 10 minute jazz-pop fusion grotesque and yet enchanting title song/video of Bowie's latest...now last...album. If you haven't seen this video yet, you need to. 

Why? 

Because it's David Bowie saying goodbye to David Bowie...and demanding that we do as well.

Blackstar and its followup piece Lazarus share similar themes/iconography/images, and now that the news has churned its way into my writer's soul, I realize that Bowie, the chameleon before Madonna ripped her first fishnets, had not only reinvented himself once again but had done so with his own imminent death in mind.  


This video is vintage Bowie...without being vintage. From the beginning image of what could very well be a crash-landed and long dead Major Tom, through the bejewelled skull of the Thin White Duke to the blind prophet with button eyes (and I never thought button eyes could get creepier than in Gaiman's Coraline) to the three scarecrows being crucified as the sacrifice to a vicious and hungry entity--but particularly in Bowie's pronounced emaciation and the jerky, spasmodic movements of his acolytes the viewer is simultaneously horrified and entranced by the sheer artistic beauty and macabre power of Bowie's always haunting voice. 

From the day of execution
From the day of execution
Only women kneel and smile
At the centre of it all 
At the centre of it all
--your eyes
--your eyes

Bowie's acolytes--or are they his murderers?--repetitively engage in their stop-motion dance of death, and the song suddenly changes:

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside
Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)
How many times does an angel fall?
How many people lie instead of talking tall?
He trod on sacred ground, he cried loud into the crowd
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangster)

And when you follow that up with the video for Lazarus--

 
--the button-eyed prophet is now in a hospital bed, from which he rises to resurrect--literally--that thin white duke, jumpsuit, high heels and all. And then the lyrics--


Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now

Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below

Ain’t that just like me

By the time I got to New York
I was living like a king
Then I used up all my money
I was looking for your ass

This way or no way
You know, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now ain’t that just like me


My God. It hits you like a punch in the gut. David Bowie, who has had such an incredible influence over six decades of music, wrote his own Requiem. He starred in his own Passion Play--The Passion of Ziggy Stardust is encapsulated in these two songs and particularly in the videos for them. He not only creates his death iconography, but he demands that we accept his version of events as his reality because he leaves us no choice. But he is not the scarecrow on the cross of martyrdom waiting for his monster to consumer him, he is instead a visionary without vision--a priest without any religion save the religion of self-command, and he compels us to cede our control to him as well. 

All of this is merely speculation. As much as I would love to channel Bowie, I would never presume to say that i know what he was thinking when he came up with this. I can only speculate, as a lifelong fan of Bowie's who has spent literally decades trying to decipher the workings of his brilliant yet tortured artistic muse. But this morning, when the news that David Bowie was dead at 69 filtered into my sleep deprived brain, all of the deciphering I've done over the past few weeks of Blackstar and then a few days ago Lazarus slammed into my mind with the completion one usually feels when the last piece of the puzzle slides inevitably into its proper place. 

Two life events we, as human beings, are absolutely incapable of influencing--our births and our deaths. Only with the latter can we find a way to reconcile ourselves to the inescapable finality of our final hours. But an artist like Bowie, beloved by legions of people aged 70 to 7, has another opportunity to impact those unknowns who loved them--and that is the artist's individual perception not only of death, but their own death. Just as Mozart spent his last hours feverishly fingering orchestration for his great final masterpiece Requiem, so did Bowie spend his last year of life masterminding the iconography of his final masterpiece. For believe me--Blackstar is Bowie's Requiem, his farewell to all his incarnations, his fans, and, at the end, himself. 

I can’t answer why (I’m a blackstar)
Just go with me (I’m not a filmstar)
I’m-a take you home (I’m a blackstar)
Take your passport and shoes (I’m not a popstar)
And your sedatives, boo (I’m a blackstar)
You’re a flash in the pan (I’m not a marvel star)
I’m the great I am (I’m a blackstar)

It is, at the end, both a curse and a gift. A curse against the inevitability of time and disease, and a gift of a true artist's last, brilliant self-image. Whatever happened, David Bowie didn't die cringing and weeping for his fate. He screamed defiantly into the night, and soared beyond all the petty fears that drive so many of us when facing our own mortality. 

Godspeed, David Bowie, to whatever distant star is your Blackstar. 

@all lyrics-- David Bowie, Blackstar (2016) VEVO Music

Monday, December 14, 2015

Let's Bring Cursed: The Bell Witch to a Merciful Close



First off, let me apologize for not posting this blog earlier. I'm recovering (slowly)from strep and not only could I not blog about the show, I couldn't even watch the show.

Only so much crap one can endure when sick. 

Apparently, I didn't miss too much since the first thing that happened the final episode was a pagan ceremony to appease the 'sentinel' that started the curse because John Bell desecrated the land--a ceremony that goes back centuries and was even mentioned by Julius Caesar in his self-aggrandizing book Commentaries on the Gallic Wars. Ancient Druids used to burn actual people, but later ones, instead of burning a human (as we Christians would be doing only a few centuries later) constructed an effigy of straw or wicker and set it on fire on the summer solstice. Pagans, Wiccans, and other non-Judeo-Christian religions and/or groups still practice this ceremony today. In fact, the ceremony has evolved into a popular kind of festival such as the Burning Man Project in Black Rock City, Nevada.  And if you look closely at the straw man John sets on fire, you'll note its similarity to the little corn dolly that showed up dangling from a tree in an earlier episode as well as the ones that showed up randomly in The Blair Witch Project--and the universality of the figure is probably the only thing that is keeping the Blair Witch producers from suing A&E for copyright infringement. 

I have to wonder, though, if there's a tongue in cheek nudge involved from the producers of Cursed. Maybe the 'straw man' is representative of how we usually use the phrase--an argument or position that is offered as a deliberate red herring by someone to his opponent, and then defended by him in such as manner as to deflect his opponent's real interest away from something that he wishes to hide. A sham argument, in fact. An intentional and premeditated falsehood, used to completely obfuscate the originator's real purpose or vulnerability. 

At any rate, the burning of the straw man was touted as the way to appease the sentinel who was cursing the Bell family as a result of the desecration of sacred land. It is irrefutable that there are many Native American burial sites in and around Adams and on the old Bell homestead. There's even an empty grave in the Bell Witch Cave. Contemporaries of the haunting themselves believed that there was potentially a Native American tie to the entity, and I know for a fact that belief has persisted through the oral and written legends in the area.

But something doesn't quite ring true on that front for me. Remember when we discussed what type of haunting the Bell Witch was and I hypothesized that the entity was inhuman. Never having walked the earth as a human, that would relegate the spirit to a demonic-type haunting--something that I believe is borne out by the events of the Bell haunting and the torments employed against not just the family but neighbors, slaves, and even total strangers. In fact, John Zaffis appeared to share my opinion on the show--which makes me wonder something very basic.

They had a foremost demonologist on set and yet they still thought burning a Blair Witch effigy in a mockery of an ancient pagan ceremony was going to resolve the 'curse' aka/the haunting on the Bell land? I refuse to believe that Zaffis was standing behind the camera going, "Yeah, man--burning a six foot tall corn dolly will solve all your problems." And so, I have to believe that no one bothered to ask Zaffis what to do.

And the only reason they wouldn't have? Because there was never any intention of resolving the haunting, and because there was never any curse. So imagine my surprise when--shock!--the ritual didn't work.

I'm sure it has nothing to do with the fact that if someone is going to undertake 'magic'--and make no mistake, that's what this ritual was intended to be--then that person needs to

1) Believe in the religious/magical source of the ritual.
2) Know what they're doing.
3) Mean it.

I don't think any of those elements were in place.

Which brings us to Pastor James Vivian.

*sigh*

Folks, I've been in that cave countless times. I've explored the land. I've gone to the cemeteries both during the day and in the middle of the night. I've heard organ music in a field in the middle of nowhere, dodged creepy animals sitting in the middle of the road, and when I knocked on Mr. Eden's door while he was at the store heard the furniture shifting around inside the house. And believe me when I tell you, sitting in the Bell Witch Cave shouting "I break the curse!" isn't going to do a damn thing but make whatever inhabits that place laugh. A lot. Loudly.

Kind of like I did.

Keep in mind, too, that the Bells were devout Christians, and two of their staunchest allies and supporters during the haunting were the two local ministers. But that didn't affect Kate, because she not only could quote chapter and verse of the Bible, sing hymns, and argue theology but she actually attended church services both with and without the family. Facts which are documented both within and outside the family. So while I cannot dispute the power of prayer, I have to say with one hundred percent certainty that nothing has changed in Adams--or the cave.

Also, too, I seriously doubt that the current owners of the cave (who are turning it into a tourist spot) would permit anyone to exorcise their pet profit-making scheme. No way. Adams doesn't have much--a deserted pre-Depression downtown of crumbling buildings no bigger than a block, a Dollar Store, a community center. The annual Adams Threshers Show is awesome fun, but aside from that all that's there are farms and the Witch. That's it. So the idea that they would jeopardize that is ludicrous.

In the end, A&E's Cursed: The Bell Witch was nothing but...well...bullshit. It was obviously a (poorly) scripted show, that distorted the legend and the history in order to make spurious and patently ridiculous claims regarding this so-called curse that, according to John's own pre-show monologue, apparently only has affected what? Three guys in two hundred years?

Some curse.

And what's lost in Hollywood crapola like this is the REAL legend, the REAL human witnesses, the REAL toll upon the small frontier community of Adams. And not only that, but the absolutely ridiculous way the show portrayed the people of Adams, Robertson County, and Tennessee is grossly insulting and stereotypical. Showing people at a local diner as suspicious people who have it in for the two 'investigators' is just stupid. And throughout the whole affair, the two men--who are from Mississippi, after all, and should be careful about what they condescend to--acted as if they thought their lives were in some kind of danger, running around in the woods with their guns AS IF A BULLET COULD STOP A GHOST.

Almost criminally negligent, in my opinion, and the show's producer's should never be cut loose ever again in public to film any sort of *reality* show ever again.

So there you have it. We all wasted five weeks of our lives on a show that was a piece of garbage, with absolutely nothing to recommend it from beginning to end. If you are interested in the Bell Witch, I recommend that you get the books by MV Ingram and Charles Bailey Bell. They will tell you the real story. Go to Adams, and meet the wholly friendly and kind folks who live there. Go through the little museum and the restored slave cabin, check out the cave and the cemetery. And go in October, so you can check out the play that my old friends from the theater department at APSU put on there every fall. They are all much better actors than I ever was, and I had a nice little career on the stage for a full decade after leaving the area.

Because you'll find out everything you ever wanted to know about the legend that way, instead of wasting your brain cells on a farce like Cursed: The Bell Witch.

A&E should be ashamed of itself. This whole ordeal has convinced me of one thing at least.

I'll never watch another show on that channel, and I strongly advise you to do the same.

So let's toss this stupid straw man on the bonfire, watch it burn, and head to a bar. Much better way to spend our time.