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.”