Album #15: ‘The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983’

Johnny Cash was one of the coolest people in music. With that pompadour, that rugged face and that utterly self-assured manner, he projected authenticity and pure charisma. He was larger than life — the son of poor Arkansas farmers, outlaw, drug addict, Christian, family man, country music personified. Bob Dylan wanted to be him. Who didn’t?

One of my biggest regrets as a music aficionado is that I never got to see Cash in concert. My memories extend back to childhood, when my parents and I often watched “The Johnny Cash Show.” My parents didn’t like country music, and neither did I; but we liked Johnny Cash. Years later, on a long drive to Washington and back for a book project, I passed much of the time by listening to “The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983,” a three-CD set released in 1992.

Cash was a transformational figure, welding country music with early rock and roll and later, through his marriage to June Carter, uniting country music’s earliest roots with the present. His final albums, produced by Rick Rubin, are spare and heartbreaking, with each one harder to listen to than the one before as illness took its toll.

But it’s his peak that’s on display in “Essential.” What can you say about a song like “Folsom Prison Blues,” maybe his greatest and most emblematic song? It begins with a line that he ripped off from someone else (“I hear that train a-comin’ / It’s rolling ’round the bend”) and quickly segues to a line of his own that would justify any writer’s entire career: “But I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.” You’ve heard it hundreds of times. Pause and let it settle a bit.

That’s just one of the 75 songs on “Essential” — farm songs, gospel, songs that sound like they were someone’s idea of turning him into Buddy Holly (“Ballad of a Teenage Queen”), novelty songs (“A Boy Named Sue”) and social-justice songs. It’s this last category that seems especially relevant today — especially “Man in Black,” which you could imagine him and June singing in front of Donald Trump’s White House:

I wear black for the poor and beaten down
Livin’ on the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoners who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times

And the hits — good Lord, so many hits. Who doesn’t love “Ring of Fire,” with its crazy mariachi-band accompaniment, written by June as her marriage was breaking up and she was falling in love with Johnny? Or their duet on “Jackson”? Or his cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? The album’s also got one of the best Dylan covers ever (“Wanted Man”) and a pretty good Bruce Springsteen cover (“Highway Patrolman”).

He frequently sang off-key, and he wasn’t much of a guitar player. It didn’t matter, because he was Johnny Cash. What a life. We miss you, Johnny.

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COVID Diary #9: Commuting in the age of pandemic

A cyclist heads north on Mass Ave just north of Harvard Square.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

A little after 11 a.m. this past Saturday, I eased myself onto my bike and headed toward Boston. My destination was Northeastern University, where I teach in the journalism program. I wanted to see if it was realistic to commute by bicycle once in-person classes resume this September.

What prompted this experiment was a story in The Boston Globe. According to Steve Annear, even as ridership begins to recover from the pandemic, more passengers are refusing to wear masks — and the MBTA is taking a decidedly laid-back approach to enforcement.

“What I’ve been doing as a rider whenever I see people not wearing a mask is I’ve been getting off in between stations and running to the next car, hoping the people on the new car will all be wearing their masks,” a rider named Victoria Kroeger told Annear.

Terrific.

For more than 20 years, I’d commuted to Boston from the North Shore by car, a soul-sucking ordeal that grew worse every year. Then, in 2014, we moved to West Medford, returning to a neighborhood where we’d lived for a few years in the early 1980s. I discovered the joy of walking to the train station and then hopping onto the subway at North Station. Commuting became almost a pleasure. We all love to complain about the T, but it rarely let me down.

That doesn’t mean, though, that I want to get onto sealed trains and subway cars with hundreds of strangers, any one (or dozen) of whom could be carrying the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Especially if maskless morons are spewing aerosolized particles of disease into the air.

Which is why I was on my bike Saturday, maneuvering on side paths and urban streets. From the Alewife Greenway I picked up Mass. Ave, then headed toward Harvard Square. From there I followed the Charles River to Boston and back to Mass Ave. I turned right onto St. Stephen Street at Symphony Hall and from there pedaled to my office, which I couldn’t actually get into because of pandemic restrictions.

I’d covered 8.9 miles in 53 minutes, a little faster than it would take by public transportation. I was no worse for the wear; but it was a hot day, and I was sweating freely. If this had been an actual commute, I’d want to take a shower — but the locker rooms at the campus recreation center are closed for the foreseeable future because of the pandemic. (And I wouldn’t take the risk, anyway.)

I’d proved that I could do it, but I hadn’t convinced myself that I would do it. After shattering my elbow in an encounter with a wet speed bump 10 years ago, I didn’t ride a bike again until last year. So I’m ever wary about the hazards of urban biking. I’m also not going to ride in the rain or in the dark. For me, biking to work is a maybe option under perfect conditions, but hardly a comprehensive solution.

So what am I — what are all of us — supposed to do?

A couple of years ago, we decided to become a one-car family. My wife takes it for her short drive to work, and she has no other options. I’ve thought about trying to lease a car until V (Vaccine) Day. But I’ve heard from many of my colleagues that they’re also thinking of driving because of concerns about the T, so it seems more than likely that parking will be a nightmare. I’ve thought of relying on Lyft, but I’m not convinced that would be a COVID-free experience, either.

The message on the MBTA website is simple and direct: “All riders and employees are required to wear face coverings while riding the T.” But will the T start doing a better job of enforcing it? What about social-distancing? What about air quality? What happens when a subway car stops, the electricity goes off and air circulation is cut off?

These are things we all ought to be concerned about, especially when thousands of college students from all over the country — most definitely including states that are surging now — arrive in Boston a few weeks from now.

It had been a couple of months since I’d been on campus, so I spent a little time looking around. I was surprised by how many students were sunning themselves on Centennial Common — not huge numbers, but enough to make the campus feel at least semi-populated. Then I headed home, this time skipping the river route and taking Mass. Ave from Hemenway Street into North Cambridge, shaving a half-mile off my trip.

It was fun. But I couldn’t help but notice how light traffic was compared to what it will be like on weekdays after Labor Day. Maybe some hardier, younger folks than I could make the transition to commuting by bike. But I’m almost certainly going to have to depend on the T, and I’m not going to be alone.

Multiply my story, and my concerns, by tens — if not hundreds — of thousands, and you’ve got an idea of what challenges the region is going to face this fall. According to the T, there were 1.16 million trips taken in February, the last month before the pandemic hit. Safe public transportation is indispensable to our economy and to the well-being of our community.

We can’t let the T become a vector for a new COVID surge. We have to get this right.

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Album #16: Paul Simon, ‘Graceland’

One night in 1986, I tuned in “Saturday Night Live” to see Paul Simon, who back in those early years was practically a regular. He had a new album to promote. At the appointed hour, out he came with an enormous band of African musicians, launching into “You Can Call Me Al.” What the hell was that?

Soon enough, I learned that it was the first single from “Graceland,” Simon’s masterpiece, a deft and compelling blend of South African and American music. It’s hard to come up with enough superlatives for this album; 34 years after its release, it still sounds fresh. The title track, “The Boy in the Bubble,” “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” “Homeless” — these are all wonderful songs, a completely unexpected gift from a musician who was already a superstar on the basis of his ultra-polished folk-rock as half of Simon & Garfunkel and the gospel-, jazz- and even Bach-inflected pop of his early solo career.

“Graceland” was not without controversy. For one thing, by traveling to South Africa to record the album, Simon had violated the boycott called by many of his fellow musicians who were fighting against that country’s apartheid regime. (And let us pause here to watch “Sun City,” by Artists United Against Apartheid, one of the three or four greatest music videos ever.) For another, Simon was hit with charges of plagiarism that were not only well-founded but also completely unnecessary. Everyone understood that “Graceland” was a collaborative effort, and a number of the songs have co-writing credits. Why not be more generous?

Simon followed up with another album of world music, “Rhythm of the Saints” (1990), focusing on the music of South America — and damn if it wasn’t almost as good as “Graceland.” Throughout his long career, from the 1960s right up until recently, Simon has made a lot of great music. But “Graceland” will stand as his singular achievement.

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Rashida Tlaib and the perils of our first-across-the-finish-line elections

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Whoa!

I was reading a New York Times story about a serious primary challenge to U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib when I came across this sentence: “Had the 2018 primary been a head-to-head race, many believe Ms. Jones would have prevailed.” Jones is Brenda Jones, the Black president of the Detroit City Council, against whom Tlaib is running once again. I decided to look a little more deeply to find out what had happened.

Tlaib, as you no doubt know, is a member of “the squad” — four progressive women of color, all Democrats, who were elected to the House in 2018. (The others are Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley.) What I didn’t know was that Tlaib’s brief political career stands out as an example of what’s wrong with our first-across-the-finish-line method of determining elections.

Tlaib first ran in a special election to replace John Conyers, who resigned following charges of sexual harassment. She came in second in a multi-candidate field. Jones, the winner of the Democratic primary, received 37.7% of the vote, becoming the acting congresswoman. (In Tlaib’s district, winning the Democratic primary is tantamount to winning the election.) Tlaib came in second with 35.9%

A few months later, another primary was held to choose a regular replacement for Conyers. This time, in a five-candidate field, Tlaib finished first, with 31.2%, and Jones came in second, with 30.2% Note that Tlaib’s support had actually dropped nearly five points since the special election. About 69% of voters cast ballots for someone other than Tlaib. But she was declared the winner, which is how it works under our system.

According to Ballotpedia, the 2020 primary, which will be held Aug. 4, will feature just two candidates, Tlaib and Jones, thus guaranteeing that the winner will receive a majority. That’s the way it should be. If no candidate receives a majority, then there ought to be a runoff election between the top two finishers or ranked-choice voting. (I wrote about ranked choice, also known as instant-runoff voting, and other election reforms for WGBH News in 2018.)

In any case, this will be an interesting primary to keep an eye on. The outspoken Tlaib, who’s Palestinian-American, is, along with Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress. Jones represents a more moderate African American constituency.

At least this time, we’ll have a chance of finding out whom voters actually prefer.

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CommonWealth report shows that the state’s new public records law isn’t working

Following up on my WGBH News column about the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law, I want to call your attention to this excellent article (which predated mine) in CommonWealth Magazine by Colman Herman.

Herman took a look at the (slightly) improved public records law more than three years after it took effect — and what he found demonstrates the need to go back and reform the law root and branch. Among the lowlights:

  • Provisions aimed at toughening the penalties for compliance have been ineffective. Among the most egregious offenders are the State Police and the Boston Police, which, he writes, “take extraordinary measures to withhold documents in their entirety from public view.”
  • A provision that was supposed to make it easier for members of the press and the public to access public records without having to pay high fees has fallen short of that goal. Herman reports that when he asked for copies of disciplinary actions taken against massage therapists over a five-year period, “officials demanded $2,000 before it would turn over any records.”
  • Agencies regularly cite the multiple exemptions built into the law in order to deny access to such obviously public documents as MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak’s contract — which was turned over, Herman writes, but only after a considerable delay.
  • Turning enforcement over to Attorney General Maura Healey has had mixed results, with the attorney general’s office in some cases failing to uphold orders issued by the secretary of state’s office.

“The adages are many — information is the currency of democracy, sunlight is the best disinfectant, democracy depends on an informed citizenry,” Herman writes. “But in Massachusetts, these beliefs often still get shunted aside when it comes to accessing public records even under the new Public Records Law.”

Herman’s article is further evidence that open government in Massachusetts is more myth than reality.

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Album #17: Various artists, ‘The Harder They Come’

Like many people who went to college in Boston during the 1970s, I visited the Orson Welles in Cambridge one midnight to see “The Harder They Come,” the Jimmy Cliff movie that introduced us all to reggae. Oh, sure, Eric Clapton had had a huge hit with “I Shot the Sheriff” and Johnny Nash with “I Can See Clearly Now.” But this was the real thing.

The movie, released in 1972, stars Jimmy Cliff as an outlaw who tries to elude the police while a record that he made on a whim moves up the charts. Cliff is the focus of the soundtrack album as well as the movie, singing the title track and classics like “Many Rivers to Cross” and “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” But my favorite tracks are by Toots and the Maytals, who burn it up with “Sweet and Dandy” and “Pressure Drop.” Another favorite: “Johnny Too Bad,” by the Slickers.

Among other things, “The Harder They Come” is one of the greatest summer albums ever, along with Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” and the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer.” What’s odd, in retrospect, is that there’s nothing here by the Wailers, even though Bob Marley, one of the Wailers’ three front men, would soon emerge as reggae’s biggest star.

Unfortunately, I don’t think you can see “The Harder They Come” these days — but you can listen to it. Perfect for a socially distanced backyard summer cookout. And check out that album cover!

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Let the sun shine in: It’s time to end the legislative exemption to the state’s public records law

Photo via Good Free Photos.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It’s long past time to close a gaping loophole in the Massachusetts public records law: an exemption that allows the Legislature to conduct much of its business in secret. State agencies as well as cities and towns are required to turn over all manner of documents when members of the press and the public ask them to do so. Our elected lawmakers, though, operate under the cover of darkness.

With legislative business wrapping up during the next few weeks, it’s too late to expect anything to happen this year. But Robert Ambrogi, executive director of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association, said he expects bills aimed at rolling back at least part of the exemption to be filed next January. Unfortunately, he also expects those bills to die the same quick death that similar proposals have in previous years.

“The Legislature has no interest in changing the status quo,” Ambrogi said in an email. Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, added he was “fairly certain there is no appetite” on Beacon Hill for any serious effort at reform.

Spokespersons for the Legislature’s Democratic leaders, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, declined to comment.

What prompted this column was a tweet. Two weeks ago, WGBH News published the annual New England Muzzle Awards, which spotlight outrages against the First Amendment from across the region. Anthony Amore, a security expert who was the 2018 Republican candidate for secretary of state, posted on Twitter: “Somehow the Massachusetts Legislature and Robert DeLeo escaped notice despite the most glaring muzzle of them all, exempting themselves from public records requests.”

 

Sadly, the exemption Amore was complaining about is hardly a shocker given the sorry state of open government in Massachusetts. According to a 2018 survey by the nonprofit investigative news project MuckRock, Massachusetts is just one of four states that do not subject their legislatures to public records laws. The others: Iowa, Minnesota and Oklahoma.

“In our state’s constitution, it says that the Legislature should be ‘at all times accountable to’ the people,” Mary Connaughton of the Pioneer Institute told MuckRock. “How can they be accountable if they are hiding behind closed doors or shielding their records from the people?”

MuckRock also pointed out that the four outliers are merely following the lead of Congress, which is exempt from the federal Freedom of Information Act. But that’s hardly an excuse. Let’s not forget that, in 2015, the Center for Public Integrity awarded Massachusetts an “F” for its miserable record of failing to provide public access to information.

The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker did approve an upgrade to the public records law in 2016. But though some progress was made in terms of fees and enforcement provisions, the loopholes remain. Indeed, not only is the Legislature exempt, but so is the judiciary. And a string of governors, including Baker, have claimed that they and their immediate staff also need not comply.

As Boston Globe investigative reporter Todd Wallack noted on Twitter earlier this week: “Massachusetts remains the only state where the courts, Legislature, and governor’s office all claim to be completely exempt from public records laws.”

 

Ambrogi said that, during negotiations over the 2016 bill, it was made clear to reform advocates that their efforts would be derailed if they targeted the legislative and gubernatorial exemptions. The bill did create a special legislators-only commission to study further changes — but that effort, according to Ambrogi, has barely gotten off the ground.

In testimony before the commission nearly two years ago, Ambrogi said, a coalition of advocates called for removing the exemption for the governor and for modifying the exemptions for the Legislature and the courts. He emphasized that the advocates have not asked that the legislative exemption be repealed in its entirety. Rather, he said, “we proposed subjecting certain legislative records to the public records law, such as financial reports, bills and resolutions, journals, certain internal memoranda, internal manuals and policies, meeting minutes, and more.”

In a recent point-counterpoint feature in The Boston Globe, Lawrence Friedman, a professor at the New England School of Law, defended the legislative exemption. “It is not difficult to imagine state representatives and senators censoring themselves out of concern that their words might be taken out of context,” Friedman wrote. “Perspectives about proposed laws and their implications could go unshared and, therefore, unconsidered.”

Yet 46 state legislatures somehow manage to conduct business without such secrecy provisions. As Friedman’s sparring partner, Justin Silverman, argued, “These types of records are used by community watchdogs, journalists, and concerned citizens throughout the country to keep their legislators accountable.” Silverman added that with the COVID-19 pandemic reducing access to government officials, being able to obtain records is more important than ever.

If state agencies, city councils, school committees and select boards can comply with the law, then so, too, can our legislators — and our governor and our court system as well. The law already contains a number of common-sense exceptions for such matters as protecting the secrecy of contract negotiations and, when warranted, the privacy of government employees.

There are a number of clichés you could invoke here — sunshine is the best disinfectant, the government works for us, the public’s business should be conducted in public, and the like. The bottom line, though, is that democratic self-government is impossible if our elected officials are shielded from having to tell us what they are saying and doing on our behalf.

The moment has come to bring this outrage to an end.

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Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford

Last fall I asked the lone full-time reporter for the Medford Transcript if he would take part in the mayoral debate I was helping to organize for the Medford Chamber of Commerce. He told me that he would have liked to, but that he couldn’t because he’d be covering it. A reasonable answer, although it also spoke to the Transcript’s lack of resources.

Not long after, he left the paper. The debate was covered by a part-time stringer. And today, more than a year and a half later, that full-time position still hasn’t been filled.

The Transcript does assign stringers to cover a few stories. They do a good job, and nothing I write here should be taken as denigrating their work. But in a city of nearly 58,000 people, we have enough news for a staff of two full-time reporters. Or four. Even when we had one, the young journalists who filled that position managed to write some important stories before moving on to bigger and better jobs. Zero, though, is just untenable.

Today Medford is very close to being a news desert, joining hundreds if not thousands of communities across the country that have so little coverage that they lack the reliable news and information they need to participate in local affairs in a meaningful way. Instead, we rely on Facebook, Nextdoor, Patch (which does have a little bit of original reporting), email lists, messages from the mayor, texts from the police department and reports by citizens who have the time and the inclination to sit through public meetings on Zoom and write them up. (Update: Since publishing this essay, I’ve learned about a free paper called the Medford News Weekly. Despite its name, there’s a lot of Somerville news in it, and the content is mostly press releases. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on.)

As a longtime journalist and academic who studies the business of news, I want to share some thoughts on what might be done to solve the problem. Over the past few years, I’ve had several conversations with people in Medford about how to fill the gap created by the hollowing-out of our local newspaper. But solving the problem is a daunting task and, frankly, those conversations didn’t lead anywhere. First, though, a bit on how we got here. Continue reading “Together, we can do something about local news coverage in Medford”

Telling it like it is in Wenham

No need to recontextualize this one: “the War of the Rebellion.” In Wenham Center, on a bike ride earlier today.

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Album #18: Neil Young, ‘Decade’

I’m guessing that the idea behind the sprawling Neil Young anthology “Decade” was that his career was on an irreversible downward arc. Why not cash in while he still had some record-store cachet?

As it turned out, Young had a long way to go. “Rust Never Sleeps,” one of his best albums, was released in 1979, just two years after “Decade.” “Freedom,” another classic, came 10 years after that (“Decade II”?), and he remains active and relevant. Still, “Decade” is a great introduction to one of the most remarkable musicians of our time, taking us from his early years with the Buffalo Springfield to his long solo career, with and without Crazy Horse, with pit stops along the way for Crosby, Still, Nash and Young and, for a nanosecond, the Stills-Young Band.

Young has two modes: acoustic singer-songwriter and all-out rocker. I prefer the loud stuff with Crazy Horse, featuring Young’s cosmic guitar solos (definitely the triumph of feel over technique), but I’ll listen to either anytime. “Decade” covers both phases of his work; even though it comprises 35 songs over just 10 years, he was so productive during that period that it still manages to leave out some my favorites, like “Out on the Weekend,” from 1972’s “Harvest.” On the other hand, “Decade” includes a “Harvest” clunker, “A Man Needs a Maid,” anti-feminist claptrap with strings that may be the only song you’ll want to skip over. (Trust me on this, kids: Evolving sensibilities aside, he was criticized for it 48 years ago.)

On the acoustic side, there are so many great songs here that it’s hard to narrow them down. Some have suffered from too much radio time over the years, like “Sugar Mountain,” “Heart of Gold,” and “After the Gold Rush.” Try listening to them with fresh ears, because they are truly for the ages.

Of the rockers, again, the list is endless. My favorite is “Like a Hurricane,” among the loudest, longest, most guitar-drenched songs Young ever recorded. But it’s hard to go wrong with anything here other than “Maid.” It’s two and a half hours of love songs, drug songs, lost-youth songs, and songs that appear to be about everything and nothing.

Bob Dylan once sang: “I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound /
Someone’s always yellin’ ‘Turn it down.'”

Nope. Turn that sucker up to 11.

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