Not Insane

(behind the paywall)

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I spend a lot of time comparing the technology scene to the one at the beginning of my role as a tech journalist. In those days, everything seemed to sparkle with promise and dynamism. All the elements of epochal change were there: the emergence of a global communications network, the Internet, and the look and feel of the television set, the World Wide Web. Various people populated the leading roles at the corporate level — Jobs, Gates, Larry and Sergei, who placed big bets funded by the enormous economic power of the personal computer and its evolutionary child, the phone. At the architectural level, the tension between market and open standards drove much of the drama. Though the tech press focused on antitrust, monopoly power, and the moats that protected the haves from the have nots, much time was expended on the private story of the personalities or what we were fed as the details.

Remember the context of this media framing: the explosion of popular culture as typified by the Kennedys, Citizen Kane, Miles Davis, Coltrane, the Beats, James Bond, and eventually, the race to space. Test pilots and movie stars struggled with suborbital flights, the sexual revolution, and the relentless retreat to the status quo and raw political power of the silent majority. The Hollywood culture produced a succession of dark reminders of the disparity between winners and glamorous losers. Chinatown talked water politics, Midnight Cowboy, Clockwork Orange. Happy endings yielded to murder and grinding loss of religion, heroes, and relief from a racial and emotional disconnect. Music appeared to fight back for a time, but drugs and cynicism took their inexorable place at the margins.

By the end of the Beatles in 1970, Nixon was consolidating power, the Godfather was nearing production, and the Apollo flights were somehow close to reaching the moon. In California, I was working with the Firesign Theatre comedy recording group on a short film called the Martian Space Party. In a post-production meeting to plan the next project, the group effectively broke up, ending a run of four prophetic studio albums. Today, you can tell Siri to access an easter egg from the final record of that time, inserted at the request of Firesign fan Steve Jobs. Then, as we trudged down the hill with our proverbial tail between our legs, we had no idea what was coming next but nothing good. In retrospect, on this 50th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, while we didn’t know what we didn’t know, we knew a lot.

Watergate was where we first got an inkling of the possibility that nobody really knew what they were doing. At the time, it was delicious that the King of Nothing Good was digging a hole for himself he couldn’t get out of. I remember the hearings unfolding as some sort of kabuki dance, punctuated by the cancer on the presidency, and then the revelation of a taping system inside the White House. Before the tapes, there was no sense of a guiding force that protected us from the worst of our impulses. After the tapes, there was no rule more inviolate than “don’t make tapes.”

The current hearings have some tapes, but for the most part the narrative of Trump and Company’s assault on our democracy played out in public. Intent was a given, not to be proven or extracted by pressure from interrogation or threats. Of course they were doing what you think they’re doing, but the confession carried with it the persistent implication that they were only doing what they felt was right. As Hollywood moved from the silver screen to the home recorder, foreshadowing and cliffhangers took on a patina of inevitability, structure, an alternate universe of dubious but understandable amorality. The passion of Michael Corleone spoke more to our core than we realized. The tragedy was that we felt we understood. Fredo had to go.

Sometimes I have dreams where I hear a Beatle or John Lennon song I don’t remember. It happened a few nights ago, as I murkily recall, a song from the only record I never bought, Sometime in New York City. Full of polemics and the worst of counter culture politics, it was also some number of records after Lennon proclaimed the dream is over. The track had a great rhythm feel to it, a post I Want You (She’s So Heavy) aura — which strongly suggests this was a dream not a real memory. I’ll never know. I could find out, though, by going to Apple Music and playing down the record until I heard the track or not. I still remember getting thrown out of Phil Austin’s house as though it was last Thursday. Phil was the Paul of the Firesign, if there’s any point to it, but he had elements of all the Fabs. The Stones used to refer to them as the Four Headed Monster. Looking at pictures of the four, it’s George who seems like a time traveler from the future alongside the others.

Many years later, the Firesign did a 25th Anniversary performance in Monterey that Tina and I drove down for. I was worried about seeing Phil, who mutual friends had reported felt uncomfortable with me after that 1972 group falling out. I had continued collaborating with the others, on several records and a film, but Austin went his own way and that included me. (Eventually they reformed.) But when I saw him, I felt a change and tentatively approached him. After some moments, I was stunned to hear him say that it was nothing about me, that he was going through a divorce, and so on, and the years seemed to melt away. More than anything, the past was not forgotten, but the undercurrents were recognized and put into some context.


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