Living in the USA

Photo courtesy of Patty BookerI'm so glad to be living in the USA. Anything you want, they got it right here in the USA.

—Chuck Berry

It's true, you know. Just the other night I was in a Big Kmart, or whatever they call their particularly bloated outlets, and they had the Billy Big Mouth Bass marked down to $6.99*. For all his riches and supposed divinity, Egypt's Ramses II never could have owned such a miracle, nor could Hitler, for all his evil power. Yet you, Mr. U.S. Citizen, can walk right into Kmart and walk out with a singing electronic fish that lip-synchs better than Ricky Martin. Lube up the mouth, and it could probably give you head. For $6.99!

Chuck Berry's song, redolent of jukeboxes and sizzling hamburgers, was written in 1959 upon his return from an overseas tour. He was 33 years old then, and his homeland had treated him like a nigger for 33 of those years. Berry had seen whites grow rich off the music he pioneered, while he was soon to be imprisoned on a racially motivated Mann Act charge. Yet there was no irony or cynicism in his song, just an unabashed love of his country.

His lyrics never fail to enter my mind when I'm homebound on an international flight, as I was on an interminable jag from France a few weeks ago. Aside from being a stunningly lovely place, France makes the U.S. look like one big Rollerball game. You hear conservative politicians here deride European “cradle-to-grave socialism,” when in reality Europeans aren't as helpless as we are at getting government to work for them, which is why they all have five weeks of vacation, medical care, splendid education systems, extended maternity leave and such, and public discourse on environmental concerns—such as mad cow disease —that our corporate media doesn't even allow on the radar screen here.

From their architecture to their stinky cheese, the French seem better able to pursue meaning and beauty in their lives. But I still love getting back to the nutty old States, and I don't think it's just because we have Trader Joe's.

If I feel rhapsodic coming home from a relative paradise, imagine how it felt for OC country singer Patty Booker and her band when they recently came back from a tour playing military bases in the war-torn former Yugoslavia.

“I swear, even LA looked beautiful when we got off the plane,” Booker said. “Just the everyday things seem special.” In the city of Sarajevo and regions of Kosovo, Bosnia and Macedonia, she and her band mates saw cows being driven into fields to find land mines; buildings so shell- and bullet-riddled that they looked like the proverbial Swiss cheese; and, inside one such building, charcoal devotional drawings made on the walls by the now-gone Muslim targets of the shells and bullets. Traveling much of the time by helicopter because the roads were unsafe, they saw a lot of lovely countryside that reminded Booker of the rolling hills of Tennessee.

“It would be an incredible place for tourism, if the country wasn't filled with land mines and people who hate one another,” said drummer Scott Nordell with a drummer's knack for understatement.

I met with Booker and most of her band as they had a photo and spaghetti party in Nordell's Costa Mesa home to reflect on their trip.

“I think it's going to take a long time to understand everything we saw over there,” Nordell continued. “Something I'm sorting out is that the people there were under totalitarian rule for so long that they don't know what to do with freedom, so they're falling back on retaliating for old grievances and grabbing as much as they can while they're at it. My feeling is that our forces are there to give them the time to begin to see that there's another way to carry out their lives. The locals we met seemed hungry to understand how the pictures they're now seeing from other countries can occur—how it is that people are dressed so well and living in buildings that aren't blown up. They've really been shut off from the rest of the world, so all they know are these 2,000-year-old battles. It's heartbreaking.”

For most of them, the biggest heartbreak of the trip was seeing the Gypsy babies.

“We learned that not all Gypsies are like Cher with a tambourine,” noted steel guitarist Gary Brandin with what I suppose is a steel guitarist's knack for understatement.

The babies were live props used by their parents to elicit sympathy and donations, left lying filthy, naked or in week-old diapers on cardboard on the ground at a bridge crossing. To a mother of three and grandmother of two like Booker, it was horrifying.

“One baby looked like it was dead, with flies crawling out of his nose and mouth,” he said. “The soldier escorting us told us the Gypsies drugged the babies so they'd just lie there for 10 hours at a time. The soldier said I could probably buy the baby from them for $200, but there would be no way to get it out of the country. I tell you, since I got home, I've been waking up in the middle of the night every night, my brain going overtime, trying to think of ways I could have smuggled that baby home.”

Guitarist Danny Ott, who seems a stoic Viking of a guy when he's onstage with Booker or Chris Gaffney, said, “It wrecked me, seeing that. I went back to the base, crawled into my bunk and lost it, crying. It was the worst thing I've ever seen. And when the kids graduate from bridge-lying, their parents have them mob you, begging. You just want to hug every one of them, but when you do, more come out of the woodwork.”

“I don't see why our government isn't trying to help them,” Booker said.

“It's against the Prime Directive,” Nordell suggested before saying that people there had told him what they saw was a way of life practiced by the local Gypsies for centuries, much as other folks there had practiced whacking one another out for centuries.

The band said troops there told them that, homesick though they were, they felt they were serving a purpose in keeping the aforesaid whacking from resuming. The week the band was there, troops had interceded to keep violence from escalating after a Muslim child had been killed at a school.

The soldiers made an appreciative audience, though the band members got the impression they would have liked Lynyrd Skynyrd songs better.

“It's funny,” Brandin said. “Americans seem to be the only ones who don't get their own roots music. We did a couple of shows where there were U.N. troops from other countries—Germany, France, Holland, Sweden—and they were the ones who really went for the music.”

In America, the thing that makes us nuts may be the thing that saves us. In Europe, for better or worse, people are surrounded by tradition. It's in the stonework, in the inflections of language, in the large and small rituals that make up the day. The late Joseph Campbell argued that humanity's rituals and myths are the incubators that make us complete, as other, more instinctive creatures are at birth. In Europe, citizens are practically smothered by ritual and history, which at once reminds them of the greatness of which humanity is capable while choking fresh invention.

They regard America with a bemused wariness, I've found, much as one might regard a precocious infant staggering around with a handgun. We are virtually rootless, to the degree that most kids don't even know who Chuck Berry is, much less the stuff of myth and ritual. Everything is cleared away for the next novelty, the next big-mouthed bass with a song in his heart. Who are we? We wake up every day on a stage with no script, with nowhere to go but the future.

* This was a sale price. The sale is over. There is no reason to go to Kmart.

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