Wednesday, February 02, 2005

of nugent, seger, and the politics of the atom

ted nugent: is he a pion, a lepton, or a kaon?

I got badly scratched by the house feline yesterday. I was afraid I would come down with cat scratch fever, but luckily the incubation period passed without symptoms. Thank God. I try to avoid catching any diseases that share their names with Ted Nugent songs, which made last year’s crippling bout of Wango Tango particularly upsetting.

I'll ruminate on Ted today, but save my praise for Bob Seger. If you haven’t checked him out lately, you really should. He’s under-appreciated. And I’ll wind up suggesting how modern politics can be explained using particle physics. Can you guess which particle Don Rumsfeld is? Bear with me, and maybe it will make more sense that either you or I are expecting right now.

You may remember Ted Nugent, the marginally successful rock singer and guitarist from the 70’s. The Michigan-based Nugent, who is almost universally looked down upon by his fellow musicians, made a name for himself as an aggressively right-wing pro-meat eating hunter. He has been able to extend a languishing entertainment career by embracing these conservative positions, which I guess makes him the musical Dennis Miller. Or makes Christopher Hitchens the literary Ted Nugent.

But (and this is important enough to break the rules and start a paragraph with “but”) – I’m not going to go after “the Nuge,” as he is called. No. Hitchens was enough. Joseph Campbell used to quote the old Irish saying, “Is this a private fight or can anyone join in?” Nevertheless, there are some bar brawls even I don’t consider worth jumping into. (I shouldn’t end a sentence with “into”, either – but it doesn’t sound right to say “There are some bar brawls into which even I won’t consider jumping.”)

I admit to having at times been morbidly fascinated with Ted Nugent. I once saw him perform and, while I wasn’t moved, he seemed to induce a fist-pumping, beer-spraying, halter-top-removing response from the men and women (respectively) in the crowd. My fascination was with Ted, though – his extraordinary self-confidence in the absence of apparent musicianship was extraordinary to watch. And I mean that in (sort of) a good way.

is also the home of Bob Seger who, unlike Nugent, is highly talented. He is the author of the drug-bust masterpiece “Get Out of Denver,” with its speeded up Chuck Berry riffs and lyrics that update the literary narrative style of … well, Chuck Berry. “You look just like a commie and you might just be a member,” says a hostile cop to the hippie protagonist. “Get out of Denver.”

(click on "Permalink Page" to talk more Seger, analyze the Nuge, and help create the new field of politico-physics)

As a native blue-stater, Seger encountered the same anti-longhair violence I and others did in other parts of the country back in the day. In the mournful “Turn the Page,” his masterpiece description of life on the road, he captures the feeling we all had on entering a back-country diner in “counterculture” dress and facing the hostile stares:

Some times you can’t hear ‘em talk, other times you can
it’s all the same clichés, “Is that a woman or a man?”
but there’s more them than there are of us, no way to make a stand

No way to make a stand. To young, peace-and-music loving men who still needed to feel macho, that “fight ‘em if you can” stand felt like a battle cry. It apparently provided inspiration for Metallica, who later covered the song. Seger was a hard-rocker who finally hit it big late in his career when he switched to power ballads. He even sang “Against the Wind” with The Eagles, with its simple yet powerful line on the pain of aging, “wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

Seger’s crowning achievement for me comes in the last verse of “Night Moves,” an unfortunately overplayed but still powerful ballad. The song starts as a relatively shallow reminiscence on his first sexual experience. It has a strong melody, and builds up in intensity before dropping away to a near-whisper for these final words, made even more powerful by the way they seem to appear as a complete non sequitur:

Woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off? I sat and wondered
started humming a song from 1962

ain’t it funny how the night moves
with Autumn closing in?
It has a powerful, haiku-like feel and structure, even down to the seasonal reference traditionally required for that form of poetry. I said it felt like a non sequitur, but of course it’s not. Its elegiac tone summons the loss of youth, the yearning for what’s gone, and the sense of the nearness of death. It gives the recollections of backseats and breasts a much deeper meaning, and is the work of a very gifted writer.

So if the music doesn’t sound too dated to you, and you want to reconnect with Bob, you can buy his stuff here.

Back to the Nuge: I was a teenager, I think, when Ted began to “come out” as a conservative. I remember reading an interview in Rolling Stone where he espoused views about guns that were almost militia-like. Michigan, a state where I once briefly lived, certainly likes its guns. Hunting season was distinguished by the lines of cars returning from the Upper Peninsula on Sunday nights with deer tied over a fender or on the roof. That was not a familiar sight from my blue-state youth.

Something Nugent said in the interview fascinated me. Talking of his own importance, he said “I am the nucleus. I have life d**ked.” I was raised to be self-effacing, studious, and considerate of others. The fact that I lost many of these habits for many years never changed the fact that I assumed they were equally important to others. My reaction to “I have life d**ked” was to marvel that someone would consider life something to be penetrated, speared, and otherwise conquered like that. It was inconceivable to me.

I am … the nucleus?? As I say, I was raised to be self-effacing. As a younger child, the idea that I might be the center of anything seemed inconceivable. As a global statement of self-importance and indifference to others, this attitude was foreign enough to my thinking that it genuinely filled me with a sense of wonder that was greater than the repulsion I also felt.

I’m not trying to score cheap political points when I say that the attitude I get from this Administration – Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Ashcroft in particular – bas been very similar to Nugent’s. The famous smirk, Cheney’s parka at Auschwitz, Rumsfeld blithe “democracy is messy” dismissal of tragedy – seem to me to scream out that these actors feel they are the nuclei, and that they do indeed “have life d**ked.” I have them same amazed horror toward their actions that I did as a teenager reading the Nugent interview. It is foreign to me.

Is it a conservative thing? Not necessarily, and not with older-school conservatives. Tucker Carlson may have it, but Bob Dole certainly doesn’t. George Will may have it, but Pat Buchanan’s too “hot” (in McLuhan terminology) and doesn’t. These guys in Washington do, though. So naturally, my wife being out of town and me having time on my hands, I started to wonder: which people make up the other parts of the atom?

For example, is Bush alone the nucleus, or is Cheney kind of a co-nucleus with him? If they share, is Bush the protons and Cheney the neutrons or vice versa? Are the Cabinet members the electrons? Did Colin Powell have a negative charge, because he wasn’t “nucleus-minded” enough, and is that why he was repelled? Was he that electron you see getting expelled in those physics experiments? Is the reason Bush won’t fire anybody for incompetence because they are bound to him – the nucleus – by the “strong force”? Is the rule of law the “weak force”?

If the cabinet members are electrons, who are the other particles – muons, for example? Muons are in cosmic rays and crash into other particles, but they’re unstable and quickly decay into something simpler. They are sort of like Libertarians, most of whom seem to winding up taking a straight conservative party line. Neutrinos have very little mass and pass through most things without any effect. Plus they change a lot, although they always stay neutrinos. They’ve gotta be your Democrats, right?

Photons generate light, of course. They can also be two things at once (“particle” or “wave”), and in two places at once. They change depend on who’s looking at them, according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. They are, of course, the media., although not a lot of light is being cast these days.

Time is reversible at the subatomic level, which is we are un-signing the Geneva Convention, undoing Social Security and other New Deal reforms, and making a progressive tax code more regressive. You liberals ought to stop being so upset about all this. If you knew your physics you’d understand. Instead of fulminating about some right-winger tonight, I challenge you to assign particle identities to some politicians yourself.

And that’s what I have to say because I got scratched by a cat.