Stuck with America
Last night I heard Dizzy play in a dream. He played slow, single blue notes, just touching his lips to the horn, and out floated a round bubble of a note that kept expanding, or so it seemed – then another, and another. I don’t remember who he was playing with, a small group, he was playing in the beyond, for the beyond, I heard only fifteen seconds max, unspeakably beautiful heart notes floating out and on. Even though he looked very much like himself he played like an angel. Not that he hadn’t occasionally played like an angel when he was alive in the body known as Dizzy Gillespie, but these fifteen seconds in that dream have stayed with me, now that I’m pondering how it is I got involved so deeply with America and how come I’m stuck with it, how come we’re all stuck with America.
I was born and grew up in Nazi-Germany through World War II but that basically never touched me. I mean, it was so dumb and boring I never needed to kick it. Germany never got under my skin the way America did. I mean what did Germany ever have for a kid that could compare with Dizzy, with Lionel Hampton, with Sugar Ray Robinson, with Ella? Or Ezzard Charles. Note all these people were black, that’s what America was for me when I was fourteen – beautiful black athletes and musicians. What else was there? Today you’ve got Barack Obama, what a bore. Black Americans like Barak (if they existed then, which I doubt) weren’t known. The only white American I ever noticed after the war in Germany was Norman Granz – because he brought Jazz at the Philharmonic over. Gene Krupa, too, and Gerry Mulligan. But I really have to strain my memory to come up with white Americans that meant anything to me, compared with a whole galaxy of black stars. After all, I’d seen the worst of white in Germany, and American whites didn’t look all that different to me.
Later as I was getting into literature some white Americans did emerge: Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, James Jones – not that I ever thought of blacks as black or whites as white when I was a kid. It was just that a certain type of great American later when I became aware of those differences turned out to have been black all along. That was America to me, great black stars – the Harlem Globetrotters. I was playing team-handball then, an aggressive game like soccer - using your hands instead of your feet, totally different from basketball - but I started playing it the way the Trotters played basketball, which earned me the nickname Globe. It didn’t make any sense, I was supposed to be rushing the defense, throwing the ball at a goal with all the leverage I could muster – instead I strutted up and down the penalty line showing the ball to the opposition players – now you see it, now you don’t – making it disappear and reappear, the way Reese Goose Tatum did. It was ridiculous. That was America to me.
Of course a person can have a lobotomy and still be all right afterwards – not the same, to be sure, but all right. It’s fairly unpredictable, actually, just exactly how a lobotomy will affect you. That’s the situation I’m in with America, and the world is too I’d say. When Hitler-Germany was excised, like a cancer, the world got better, started looking healthy again. You couldn’t do that with America today. If you cut out Bush-America like a cancer, or squashed it like a bug, that would be the end of the United States. It would be like a lobotomy performed on the world. Actually, for me personally, it would be not just like a lobotomy but a lobotomy combined with a heart transplant, the two done simultaneously. I might not survive that, nor might the world, besides I wouldn’t know where a fresh brain section and a new heart would come from. So we’re stuck with America. All we can do is hope for the best, with no idea what the best would be. We appear to have absolutely no control.
When Hitler went on his insane spree to conquer Europe, the United Nations didn’t exist. So individual countries had to band together to defend themselves. That took time but it had the advantage of allowing a more radical approach, which was certainly needed. From the start England fought as if her life depended on it, which it did of course. Today, a notion accusing the United States of crimes against humanity and calling for measures to stop America could never be formulated in the UN, let alone tabled for a vote in the Security Council. Thus the United Nations has become an instrument not only for keeping peace in the world but one for allowing war as well – the world’s hands are tied, even if it had the will to stop America, which it doesn’t. And why not? The answer is not only self-preservation; it is complicity.
Okay, before this turns into a diatribe, I’ll admit I’m complicit too. I grew up imbibing the mother’s milk of black music, black pugilism and Hollywood movies. Without knowing it I’d been starving for it, and once I’d found that teat, I wouldn’t, couldn’t, let go. I sucked it all in like a day-old babe. This was no conspiracy, there was no pusher, no dealer, no connection who hooked me on dope, I hooked myself on the best of America, and once hooked you stay hooked, any addict will tell you that. The problem is, nobody can tell you how to get unhooked, how to kick it. The world is hooked on America and nobody can tell it how to kick the habit. And since everybody is hooked there won’t, there can’t be an intervention. We’ll all have to stand by and watch America take us down the road to … who knows where and what. Our best hope is that it crashes on the way, that it implodes, whatever – the sooner, the better, so we can all start over again. Too bad a single lifetime won’t be enough to live through the whole cycle. It took the Roman Empire 500 years to collapse, and the United States is still chugging along after 230 or so. There’s hope: there are active secession movements in several US states.
I really pains me to have to blame Marlon Brando for pushing America over the subtle barrier of public emotional rectitude onto the slippery slope of nationwide corruption. Marlon Brando, that great eccentric, that incorrigible bohemian? Marlon Brando, the ur-beat? Yes. Him. In the 30s, Hollywood seriously started grooming crime as a cash-cow at the box-office. By the 40s and 50s actors like George Raft, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Richard Conte and others had made hundreds of millions of dollars for the studios portraying gangsters and gangster bosses. Still, in exploiting crime themes on the silver screen, Hollywood had always followed the bad-guy-good-guy formula – gangsters were always the bad guys. Finally, however, along came The Godfather, starring Marlon Brando in the role of Don Corleone, with a brilliant performance as the ultimate father figure, the sort of uncle you’d worship, a ruthless mafia don with a silly-putty heart who told America: It’s alright to be bad, as long as you’re good at heart, like me. The actor’s genius released Hollywood from the straightjacket of the good guys vs bad guys formula. From then on crime on screen was business as usual, the message to America simple as hell: Whatever you do to make money is good – just as long as it works and you don’t get caught. As the evolutionary end result we have Tony Soprano.
So the Tony Sopranos who run America today are perfectly respectable citizens and family men. They are the American Dream finally come true in the Corleone effect – genocidal killing sprees abroad combined with suburban family bliss at home. It’s the reality we’re stuck with - until we find a way to kick our addiction to the nasty habit known as the US of A.
©Peter Edler 2007