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Requiem for Decency: With country and friends in trouble, a time for music, the road, and prayer

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No Dead Kittens: Driving in to work this morning after dropping my son off at school (actually, having gotten his permit, he drove there), I listened to a pristine bootleg of about 20 songs that Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan cut in Nashville a couple of decades back. Rather than a focused recording session, this was more in the vein of sitting around, playing together, and enjoying each other while producer Bob Johnston ran tape. Although they recorded more than 30 cuts, only "Girl From the North Country" has ever escaped from the vaults (and I'm not even sure if the released version is from this session). Columbia decided that the recordings were too crude and unprofessional to release.

The very awkwardness of this casual, friendly, back-porch type of performance is a significant part of what makes it so enjoyable. Compared to the professional composition and cohesive presentation of most serious artists' music as released by major labels, the relaxed sloppiness found here is both foreign and friendly. The sheer fun the two are having playing together is intoxicating. They both forget lyrics (though Cash seems to need to cue Dylan more than vice versa) and, as they are playing, discuss who should take the first verse. They do an overly long version of "Careless Love" that could have kept on keeping on even longer without raising any complaints from me. The song is traditional, with authorship of various versions claimed by everyone from W.C. Handy, Lonnie Johnson, and Bessie Smith to Fats Domino, Dock Boggs, and Janis Joplin. One of the lines refers to a gun that Cash identifies first as a .44 caliber, then Dylan labels it a .38, and then a .45. By the end of the song, Cash has identified it as a .30-ought-6 (a rifle rather than a pistol). At one point, however, in order to hit a rhyme, Cash calls it a .41 (which doesn't exist). He's so pleased with this that, just a bit later, he again refers to a .41, and you can hear the absolute delight at this silliness in his voice.

Especially noticeable throughout the recordings is just how sweet and lovely Dylan's singing and harmonies with Cash are. Someone once asked Bob Johnston how much of an influence Cash had on Dylan's singing. In particular, they pointed to Nashville Skyline, the first Dylan album recorded in Nashville that was clearly rooted in traditional country. Dylan had already recorded Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding with Johnston in Nashville, but it's hard to think of the former as rooted – it's so of American music while being completely transcendent – and the second is so generously eccentric. Johnston pointed out how Dylan was always experimenting and had significantly changed his vocal style and tone on each of four albums in a row: Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, John Wesley Harding, and Nashville Skyline. Still, Dylan's singing on the bootleg offers a fullness and clarity of tone that complements Cash's singing while strongly reminding one of Nashville Skyline.

The car windows are down and the music is up loud, allowing its richness to really ring through. It's a moment of pleasure, the music, the road, and driving – though nothing definitive; it doesn't remind me of why I fell in love with music in the first place or nourish parts of my soul I thought long dead. The enjoyment is both more visceral and far less intellectual. I'm there in the music, and that's all right, mama.

Given our troubling and tumultuous times, I feel any column that doesn't focus on politics in some way or another is a lost opportunity. Still, I don't want to get into the complexity of local issues. On national and international fronts, President Bush and his administration's simplistic sloganeering, hypocritical scolding, overt lying, disingenuous baiting of political opponents, and continually misleading responses render logical, historical, and/or ideological arguments so beside the point.

This leaves me feeling like a tape loop of attorney Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings. Flabbergasted by the administration's actions and dishonesty, I find myself simply asking of it, over and over, in a helpless and deeply pained way, "Have you no sense of decency ... at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?"

More than anything else, the administration and its supporters find this question to be funny: Only limp-wristed, knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberal Democrats (i.e., Communists and traitors) care about decency. In fact, they maintain, concern with decency is just one of those left-wing obsessions that have so damaged this country and left it at such a disadvantage with its enemies. Decency, humanist concerns, the welfare of innocent civilians, and the rights of prisoners being held because the government suspects them of anti-American and terrorist activities are all, in their view, binding handcuffs placed by weak-willed Democrats on our country's domestic and international policies. The U.S. could have won in Vietnam and can win in Iraq, they continue, if only those of weak stomach or overly obsessive affection for constitutional guarantees are shut down. Torture, the most advanced destructive weapons possible, and a commitment to military power over all else would find the war in Iraq over quickly, they conclude.

The right has returned to a new American vision, based on traditional American values, in which nationalism, chauvinism, casual racism, xenophobia, self-concern, and convenience trump any of the founders' original intentions regarding rights, responsibilities, and the evenhanded rule of law. Well, at least they're imagining that they've returned – since in reality their ideas are really based on bad history, failed policies, bogus memories, fictional ideology, and constitutional disregard.

Unfortunately, not only is asking "Have you no decency?" the best argument left – but we also know, all too well, the answer.

So, for this morning at least, God grant me music, the open road, and a son now driving.

The unhappiest times I experience preparing this column are when I feel compelled to note tragic incidents affecting our community.

This morning in I was forwarded an e-mail containing this note about Daniel Johnston, written by his former manager and archivist Jeff Tartakov:

"Daniel Johnston ... could really use your prayers and kind thoughts. The day before Thanksgiving his father was unable to awaken him and he had to be rushed to the hospital where he remains today in critical but stable condition. ... [A]ccording to the nurses the diagnosis is acute kidney failure most likely due to lithium poisoning. As of today he's been unconscious for a week."

Daniel has been a friend since he first came to Austin in the mid-Eighties, though the relationship has always been complex and often difficult. In this case, I truly am at a loss for words, though not affection.

Former Austin Mayor Bruce Todd is also in the hospital and in bad shape, having recently suffered a serious bike accident. During his tenure as mayor, this publication was, at its kindest, harsh toward his administration. I bring that up, hoping not to be labeled a hypocrite when I note that, despite our differences on policy issues, Todd has always been the best and most committed kind of citizen. He is absolutely devoted to his community and willing to stand in the face of any criticism to do what he feels is right. Not only did he serve as mayor, but he has been, is, and, we all hope, will continue to be involved with an impressive number of nonprofit organizations, as well as being a ready volunteer for civic groups. As long as I've even known of him, Bruce Todd has always been ready and willing to devote his time, wisdom, and energy in service of the community.

Our hearts, our most heartfelt wishes, our souls go out to Daniel, his parents, and family, as well as to Bruce Todd, his wife Elizabeth Christian, and their families. In this hour of darkness, in this time of need, let us pray. end story

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