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My brain tends to behave like a .22 bullet: Thoughts ricochet around and wind up in weird places where they shouldn’t be. You’ve heard the stories: Guy gets shot in the right ankle and that little 40-grain pill bounces around and pops out his left eyeball; that’s how it works. This is NOT a systematic or efficient approach to the study of history and culture, but it does lead to some interesting places.
I’m going to lay down the thesis of this essay right here, not because I think you need to be spoken to slowly; just so I can find my way back out of the cave I know I’m going to end up in:
America has always been a weird, dark place, full of weird dark people doing weird, dark things.
Our current Dumpster fire is nothing new. We may be running out of the resilience required to roll with this stuff, but that’s a matter for another time.
Crime novelist James Ellroy said it best — or at least most pungently — in his epigraph to Volume 1 of his American Underworld Trilogy, American Tabloid:
“America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception. Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.”
I’m going to try to trace the bullet’s path here. This particular shot was fired by Lyndon Baines Johnson. Yeah, that guy. The 36th President of the United States. A Grade AAA, 100-proof sonofabitch.
It’s a helluva note when you’ve got a narcissistic sociopath for a president, a man for whom EVERYTHING is a transaction; whose associates are corrupt money-grubbing scumbags, mobsters and fellow sociopaths; a man who treats women as mere objects for sexual gratification and brags about it; a man who lies as easily as he breathes. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. I’m not talking about him; I’m talking about the scar-baring, beagle-abusing, obsessed-with-his-own-dick Texan.
Check this out, from biographer Robert Caro:
“He early became fabled for a Rabelaisian earthiness, urinating in the parking lot of the House Office Building as the urge took him; if a colleague came into a Capitol bathroom as he was finishing at the urinal there, he would sometimes swing around still holding his member, which he liked to call ‘Jumbo,’ hooting once, “Have you ever seen anything as big as this?” and shaking it in almost a brandishing manner as he began discoursing about some pending legislation.”
Johnson stole elections, is widely believed to have had several people murdered (not talking about JFK, but there are people who claim that, too. Former Trump advisor Roger Stone wrote a book arguing just that; make of that what you will). And he fatally escalated the Vietnam War on an entirely false pretext, which we’re still paying for in the coin of an irreparably damaged social fabric. Oh, and he pushed through the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the second-most significant piece of civil rights legislation in American History.
Point is, the way people act, you’d think post-2016 is the first time we’ve ever had a crass, self-dealing narcissist scratching his balls in the Oval Office. Johnson did more harm — and more good — than Donald Trump is ever likely to approach in the office.
Context matters, and the only way to get some is by practicing history (hat tip to Rullman for the Barbara Tuchman reference). There are at least couple of ways to look at this: Things ain’t so bad; they’ve been a lot worse before. Or, alternatively, we’ve always been a fucked up mess.
From there, the bullet ricocheted off into the realm of esoteric science. (Told you).
CBS All Access recently dropped Strange Angel, which is based on the short and profoundly weird life of scientist John Parsons. His biographer provided the elevator pitch: “By day he built rockets for the government, by night he emerged from a coffin to perform sex magick with his followers.”
How can you NOT run with that?
I was vaguely aware of Jack Parsons because he lived and worked (and performed sex magick) in my old Southern California stomping grounds. I lived not far from Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) — which, by the way, was right in the crosshairs of Soviet nukes. If the balloon had gone up, we’d have been among the first to go. When I sold guns at Pachmayr in Pasadena, I had a client from Cal Tech — an engineer — who bought multiples of every model of the then-new Glock because he was in love — and I mean sensual rapture — with the polymer construction.
Back to the show…
In the 1930s and ’40s, Jack Parsons worked on rocket science and contributed mightily to the development of rocket fuels. He also became obsessed with ritual magick, under the influence of the notorious British magician Aleister Crowley. That’s the same Crowley that obsessed Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page.
This was California counter-cultural weirdness 25 years ahead of its time. Thing is, there was a LOT of that seething beneath the wholesome surface sheen of post-War America promulgated by a complicit media. For a long, long time. Always.
From there, the bullet buzzes on over to Ellroy. The Demon Dog is not to everyone’s taste. Folks tend to love him or loathe him. I LOVED American Tabloid, and because I wanted to continue my present immersion in the wild and weird American Century, I’m reading it again for something like the fifth time. Take it, Demon Dog…
The real Trinity of Camelot was Look Good, Kick Ass, Get Laid. Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab.
Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.
They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American History would not exist as we know it.
It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here’s to them.
Ellroy is a fictioneer, not a historian, and his work can’t be taken for history. But he does offer that reckless verisimilitude that cuts down to the truth where mere fact is just not a sharp enough tool.
And that truth is that life and history are not a morality play. Decent men sometimes do terrible things out of fear, weakness, expedience or — worst of all — “for the greater good.” Bad men sometimes do good things, because they’re not ALL bad, or because they’re seeking redemption and a balancing of the scales, or maybe they’re just trying to burnish their legacy. People are strange, and nowhere stranger than when it comes to their secret kinks.
I will close with a piece of advice — something that works for me. Practice history. Don’t follow leaders. Watch your parking meters.*
* Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Bill Valenti says
As always, a good — and pungent — read!
Keith West says
Fascinating post, Jim, and with a title like that, how can I not comment. Some thoughts:
Your comment about the greater good reminded me of something I read yesterday. The writer Harlan Ellison passed away last week, and since then I’ve been reading (or reading depending on the story) some of his work. Yesterday I read the short story “Daniel White for the Greater Good”, in which a group of men do a horrible thing to save their community.
I fall somewhere in the middle with Ellroy. I love some of his novels (LA Confidential, The Big Nowhere) but find his later work too stream of consciousness for my tastes.
I’m going to find out more about this Parsons guy. I’d not heard of him.
Finally, Johnson. *spits* Not all Texans like to claim him. I think, though, that many people would be shocked at the behavior of some of our elected officials from previous times. The journalistic ethos was different. Some things just weren’t printed. I had a history professor in college whose brother was on the Secret Service detail for Kennedy. Kennedy’s SS code name was “Mattress Jack” for obvious reasons. My prof cited his brother as the source of this information.
Jim Cornelius says
Mattress Jack would make a great band name…
Always great to hear from you Keith.
Paul McNamee says
Keith, et al, this book has been on my radar for a while, if you want a deeper read about Parsons. (haven’t it read it myself, so many books …)
Sex and Rockets
Mattress Jack is no surprise. And yes, journalism was different. Just look a FDR. Never mind the affairs–the news corps all agreed never to show his polio braces or any other weakness — especially when became our leader in wartime. No one would honor such requests now.
I think part of life is coming to terms and even appreciating the weirdness of the world.
I wonder if the Parsons biopic will deal with his relationship with another strange American character: pulp writer and Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Parsons isn’t alone in being a scientist interested in the occult. No less than Isaac Newton had an interest in the occult and Apocalyptic Christianity. I always remember that when I read someone who is on think scientists are always some kind of die hard rationalists.
Parsons might have been a member of the Manana Literary society which also included Leigh Brackett. And Hubbard. And Ray Bradbury. And Robert Heinlein who claimed to have bet Hubbard that L. Ron couldn’t started his own religion in a bar at a SF convention. (There’s actual evidence to back up the claim.
Jim Cornelius says
The science/occultism thing is way more common than one might think. We tend to think of scientists as all left-brainy engineer types, but many of them are artists and seekers in their souls. Of course they are…
Wait, there are more scientists/mystics than Newton and Parson?
Traven Torsvan says
The former guitarist for Blondie, Gary Lachman, writes quite a number of pop occult books and he has a good bio of Swedenborg
Hadn’t known Swedenborg was a scientist.
Both Bacons would probably qualify.
john roberts says
According to IMDB, nobody is credited as playing Hubbard or, more oddly, Marjorie Cameron on “Strange Angel.” It seems odd because Cameron was the glamor queen of the Pasadena crowd. One thing that everyone remarked on was what a striking couple they were. Both Parsons and Cameron had movie star looks. She was a tall, statuesque redhead and there is a photo of her still in her Navy uniform where she looks amazingly like a young Katharine Hepburn. Only Susan, Parsons’ first wife, is listed in the cast. Maybe they’re saving that relationship for a sequel. Whatever, it was a doozy.
Jim Cornelius says
Wow — Cameron is a whole story unto herself. Thanks for that.
J.F. Bell says
For what it’s worth…
Life doesn’t get easier when you realize there’s no normal, but at least it starts halfway making sense.
Jim Cornelius says
I find that it alleviates a whole lot of stress when I accept that there’s just giant swaths of the human condition that surpasses understanding. So, in that sense, it is a little easier. The uptight folk seem to have a harder time of it. I know a lot of those from newspapering.
rohit aggarwal says
thanks for the information