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THIS IS NOT A TEST with Michael Phillips

Rumors (not the Fleetwood Mac kind) – THIS IS NOT A TEST #42 (transcript)

Published October 10, 2015

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Carol and I were talking about the early web the other day, because I realized that it’s been 20 years since I registered my first two domain names, in October of 1995. We both had websites up very early on, and they were as primitive as you’d expect. But to us and to everyone who was on the Internet at the time, it was really like the most incredible thing. I can’t even adequately explain it. But I said something to Carol that I thought was kind of funny, and that was that us talking about the old days of the web was like a kid watching an old black and white kinescope of a Milton Berle show or something and just thinking, “What is this shit? Who could watch this?”

You know what a kinescope is? In the early days of TV there was no such thing as video tape, and there was no coast to coast TV network, the actual transmission cables didn’t go from New York to the west coast. So if they wanted to ship a show to the west coast, or try to save a copy for whatever reason, they had to aim a film camera at a video monitor while the live show was happening. I shit you not. They just made a film of the monitor screen. Even after they did get a real-time hookup between New York and Los Angeles, the west coast still filmed the live broadcasts to air them at the proper time, 3 hours later. You’ve probably seen some old TV show at some point that looks all blown out and weird. That’s a Kinescope. And that’s about how interesting the early days of the web are to the average kid running around now. Meaning, not at all. Not the least bit interesting. To them it’s just clunky and awful, and they can’t believe that people were ever so simple minded that they could be entertained by it. Kind of how we looked a the guy spinning plates on top of long sticks on the Ed Sullivan show. Knock the plates off the sticks and bring on the damn Beatles already!

I talked about my friend Trevy who died or was killed back in August, but I don’t think I mentioned another friend, and also a Boom Shaka band mate named Binghi-I. Binghi’s name is Vince Cornwall, but I guess Binghi trips off the tongue a little better. Binghi was the keyboard player in Boom Shaka for most of the time I was with them, and he and I hung out a lot and commiserated about various frustrations. He loved the music of Bunny Wailer and I had a lot of Bunny Wailer records so I was always making tapes for him to replace the ones he’d lose track of. Another guy, like Trevy, who I spent a lot of time with and got some bad news about. It was at the opening of Carol’s show in Venice back in April, was it? We got there early and Harlan Steinberger was there with his wife, they knew the gallery owner. Harlan started and has run Hen House studio in Venice for 20 years or so. Well, Harlan and I were talking, just catching up, and he said, “Did you hear about Binghi?”

Being the eternal optimist I immediately thought, “Oh, he must have got a good gig somewhere,” but I hadn’t heard anything, so I said, “No, what?” And Harlan said, “He died. Miles and Jelani told me.” Those are Trevy’s sons. Well that news hit me pretty hard. I loved Binghi. He was a guy who would never hurt a fly and always had a smile for his idren. I asked Harlan what happened and he didn’t know any details. Over the next few months I asked a lot of people who knew the band if they knew what happened to Binghi, and no one did, though some of them had also heard that he died. So when I got the news that Trevy had died I just thought, what the fuck? Is everyone from Boom Shaka going to disappear? Which, of course we are. Eventually. But I’d look at the picture that I use on my Google+ and Facebook accounts, that one where we’re all in Africa lounging on someone’s front porch or veranda or whatever they call it there, and I’m sitting between Trevy and Binghi with a bandana over my face, because the flies were so brutal, but every time I’d see that lately I’d wonder how the guys on either side of me could both be gone.

Noel, one of the guitar players from the band, was over at the house a few days after we got the news about Trevy and I asked him if he knew what happened to Binghi. He said he wasn’t sure, but he heard something about AIDS. It was all very maddening. How could nobody know what had happened? Well, a couple of days ago I found out. Noel was asked to sing a song at a sort of tribute for Trevy here in town, along with the surviving members of Boom Shaka. He went to a rehearsal and called to tell me that when he walked in, Binghi was there. What? He laughed and said, “I know, I was in shock and I was like BINGHI! And we hugged for a long time…” And the whole thing made me laugh, because I was so god damn relieved and happy. Wondering what the hell, but really glad to hear it. It was like someone rising from the dead. Like seeing a ghost or something, only I haven’t actually seen him yet.

Which goes to show you how rumors work. I have no idea who started it, or why they would say it, but I got the news from Harlan, and he got it from Trevy’s sons, so when I heard it I didn’t doubt it at all, because the sources were people I knew. The links were solid. Someone dying is a believable scenario, but if that chain of information is solid, if something comes from a friend, a lot of people will believe the most absurd and ridiculous rumors. Or phony news or quotes. Just look at your Facebook feed. Odds are there’s something in there right now that’s completely fabricated or untrue, but your friends are passing it along to each other as gospel. I don’t know if most people just lack a proper bullshit detector, or if they have one but just choose to ignore it at certain times. But there’s no doubt that no matter how ridiculous or obviously fake something is, there are people who will believe it. This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon, just look at P.T. Barnum or the bible, but the Internet just magnifies it, as it does with everything.

I heard an interview or a story on NPR recently about how people love to be the bearers of news, and especially bad news. It’s human nature, apparently. We like to be first, to be in the know. We used to spread rumors face to face, like with Harlan and Binghi, but now it’s much easier to do it. And we do it even if we’re not exactly positive about the truthfulness of the information. We still pass it along. And on places like Facebook things inevitably become contentious, especially around any sort of vaguely political “news.” because as much as we love to be the bearers of news, we love just as much to argue and bicker. I’d say debate, but it’s never a debate in the civilized way that we like to think about debate. It’s always vicious and stupid, because most people are relatively new to Internet arguing, so they haven’t learned the intricacies and nuances yet.

Personally I like a good argument. Whether I’m on the right side of it or the wrong side. Not that it matters, it doesn’t, but in the end I enjoy being proven wrong just as much as I enjoy being right. Though, come on, let’s be real – I’m usually right. Yeah. Aren’t we all. But if being proven wrong gets me closer to some kind of truth, I welcome it. I always thought that came from being in a band, since bands argue about everything. That’s how they reach agreements. But I see now that a lot of people like to argue. Especially over the most useless of things, like politics. Most of my family are political conservatives for some reason, and a few years ago I sat in a Las Vegas hotel room with my mother and a sisters while they went on and on about how evil every democrat and “liberal” news outlet were. I didn’t argue with them, exactly, I just continued to point out that every politician, no matter what banner they cower under, every last one of them are corrupt and useless. Then I’d hear, “Well, yeah, but that Obama…” I have to say though, the “liberal media” thing always makes me laugh. Half the news on cable or satellite TV is rabidly right wing, as is, I think the entire AM band of radio. Where is this “liberal media” you speak of?

But that’s the thing about arguing with most people. If I’m arguing a point and that point is effectively disproven, something switches inside of me and I think, well, that makes sense, you’re right. But that may be an unusual reaction, because I don’t think most people can ever be swayed or admit that something they held as a truth is no such thing. I’m not sure why that is, but it is, and it’s one of the many reasons the country is so polarized these days. There’s a more fundamental technical reason that I’ve talked about before and won’t bore you with again, but that’s the human reason. We just can’t accept that we’re wrong, no matter how much evidence we’re confronted with. Maybe we’re afraid. Afraid that if something we believe is wrong or untrue, what are we left with? Where’s our foundation?

I came to that point with religion. I don’t remember ever believing in a god of any kind. My family wasn’t religious, and the few vague memories I have of Sunday school, back when they were briefly trying to be good Lutherans, are mostly of coloring in pictures of an ark or Jesus holding that fucking lamb or some other religious scenery. Even as a little kid, I couldn’t buy the ark story. I new there was no boat that could hold two of everything. My dad had a boat, and we could barely fit me and three of my cousins on it. It seemed laughable to me even as a six year old, that ark. So I had no foundation, no religious foundation anyway. Then along came the Rastafarians into my life. I thought, here’s a philosophy I can get behind: live clean, let your work be seen. Made sense to me, and I thought, maybe this is it? Maybe this is my tribe. So I went along down that path and read and re-read the bible and dug into the Rasta interpretations of everything.

And it was all well and good, and the community around Rastafari was the only religious group that I’d ever seen that wasn’t completely hypocritical and full of shit. They were actually walking it liked they talked it. So I was there, I tried, but I continually ran into a couple of sticking points. First, Rasta philosophy is largely based on the old testament, like Judaism. And the old testament has some seriously fucked up ideas when it comes to women and men. Women are lesser beings, there’s no way around that and there’s no way to sugar coat it. Every Rasta man that I knew had the utmost respect for women, they call them queens, for Christ’s sake, but at the end of the day, they believed what the old testament said about them. That they were there to cook food, have babies and do whatever the man told them to do. I could never get on board with that. I grew up in the 60s and 70s and I’m a feminist. I though everyone from my generation was, but if you look around you can see that’s not really the case.

Secondly and most importantly, I couldn’t accept the divinity of Haile Selassie. Selassie was the emperor of Ethiopia, and the Rastafarians saw him as the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, and the conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah. In other words, god. The second coming of Christ, or as they’d say, “Christ in his kingly character,” descendent from Solomon and Sheeba – which he may actually have been, though any 2000 year old lineage has to be taken with a grain of salt. Selassie took the throne in 1930 and he lead Ethiopia in defending attacks from the Italians, and he spoke to the United Nations about peace in Africa, and what it would take to achieve that peace. But the bottom line, he said, was that until the those things happened, there would be war. He was going to defend his country. But he was an emperor, not a president. It was a totalitarian government, and he was essentially a dictator.

When I became interested in Rastafari I talked to a lot of people and read a lot of stuff, and one of the things I read was a book called “The Emperor, Downfall of an Autocrat.” The author of the book talked to a lot of Selassie’s aids and servants right after the emperor was overthrown by his own military in 1974, people who were very close to him, and it’s about as you would expect. He wasn’t a very cool guy. So as I was trying to accept Rastafari as a way of life I always had in the back of my head images from the book, of Selassie squirreling away huge amounts of cash in his palace while people were dying of starvation, terrorizing the people who worked for him, executing his rivals or anyone who, you know, disagreed with him. Stuff like that, things you would expect from any dictator. A dictator’s stock in trade, you might say.

So there was always that doubt, no matter how hard I tried to just accept the faith or philosophy, I just couldn’t do it if a character like that was the figurehead, the lord god Jah Rastafari. It was like the picture of the ark in the Sunday school coloring book. It just set off something in me that said, ‘no.’ When Rastas speak amongst themselves, they’ll often end a statement with a hearty, “Jah!” And then everyone around answers, “Rastafari!” The first keyboard player for Boom Shaka was a guy named Taharqua, and he was always schooling me on the proper way to do everything. And I mean everything. Once he came into a backstage somewhere after being outside and I brushed some pollen or tree droppings of some kind off his shoulder, figured I was doing him a solid, you know. He said, “How do you know I didn’t want those to be there?” That’s the kind of thing he’d say to me all the time. I think he was suspicious of me, even though half the band was white at that time, he singled me out. One day he said to me, “Michael, how come when I say ‘Jah,’ you never say Rastafari?” I just said, “Because I’m not sure.”

And that’s what it all comes down to, in religion or politics or believing a Bukowski quote on Facebook: faith. You either have it or you don’t. And having faith requires you to turn your back on reality. To accept as fact something that can’t be proven. I’ve never been able to do that very well. Try as I might. I’m too interested in how things work, what makes them tick. I’ve got to get to the bottom of shit, whether it’s Jesus or a broken clock radio. Whatever it is, I’m going to take it apart and see what I can see. I don’t know if that makes me a skeptic, but I think it might. Because I am a skeptical motherfucker too. But maybe I just think I’m skeptical and logical, because when I was told that Binghi had died, but the teller didn’t have any details, I believed him. Usually the “no details” part would give me doubt, but I trusted the source and took him at his word. I had faith. And obviously I shouldn’t have. At least not in that case.

So did letting go of Rastafari leave me shipwrecked and alone, without a foundation? No. None of the guys from the band cared. We were always friends, band mates, and that’s something that lasts forever, like being in a gang or a military platoon. You have a common experience that bonds you, like it or not. I suppose if I came from a traditional religion to Rasta then dropped it I might have felt like I needed something else to replace it, either the original religion or something new. But I had no religion, no faith, so I didn’t suffer any doubt or worry that I’d just fucked myself out of some promised eternity or reward. Not that Rastas necessarily believe in those things anyway. “If you knew what life was worth, you would look for yours on earth,” right? The Wailers told us that. And the Wailers music remains my faith, as does a lot of reggae music. I still love it, it still resonates with me. I still love to hear people who really believe sing about Jah. It moves me. I feel it. I shouldn’t say people who “believe” – Rastas know, they don’t believe. But I can listen to anyone sing about anything if they do it with conviction and guts.

But rumors and religion, are they two different things? I don’t think so. Religions are rumors. Rumors written in books, for purposes good or not so good. Every evangelical Christian will tell you what they believe is absolutely true because it’s written in their bible. And the bible is the word of God, so it has to be true. But what makes their bible – or anyone’s “holy” book – the word of God? because someone told them that it is. They heard that it was. And they choose to believe that particular rumor. Which I used to think was harmless, but not anymore. Not as the extremists of every religion become more extreme. As the governments of presumably secular countries absorb religious rumors and try to work them into legislation or law. As we fall apart here in front of our very eyes. At the barrel of a gun or a bomb or a bottle of acid, or through the oppression of people the various religions don’t like. And they all seem to dislike the same kinds of people. Praise the lord and pass the ammunition, indeed.

Hmm, all of that makes the Facebook rumor thing sound kind of harmless, doesn’t it. But it’s all the same barrel of salted fish. If you’ll fall for Jesus you’ll fall for Obama being a Muslim, or Donald Trump being President. It’s all the same. People who fear a President Trump are worrying about nothing anyway. It doesn’t matter if Ronald McDonald is elected President. Well, the school kids of the world would probably rejoice, because it would mean Big Macs in the school lunches, man. Or whatever McDonalds thing kids like. Maybe they’re not Big Mac fans. Cheeseburgers. Cheeseburgers and french fries. And don’t forget the 40 ounce soda to wash all of that down. I mean there’s already a Mayor McCheese, so if someone from McDonalds can be elected mayor, President can’t be far behind. Man, I would have taken that cheeseburger and fries in school every day. I used to use my lunch money to buy model cars and MAD magazines, so I’m not sure what kind of food was actually being served in my schools. Though I seem to remember cookies in Sunday School…at least I think they were cookies.

I said last week that I was going to talk about work soon, and I still think I will. There’s a kind of prevailing feeling among a lot of people that work is useless and soul crushing and we should all just lay under coconut trees and wiggle our toes. Not that I necessarily disagree with that philosophy, but I disagree that all work is shit. And there’s part of me, the stubborn, left over Minnesota part probably, that thinks we need to work. As humans. But anyway, that’s a story for another day. A pickle for another sandwich, as they say. Yeah, I know nobody says that. But just say it to someone randomly one day. When they ask you what the hell you’re talking about tell them you heard President Obama say it. It will be all over Facebook the next day, I guarantee it.

Jordan Hurder from Chance Press once told me, “I was looking for your blog post about your guitar but I couldn’t find it because your titles are all random, inside jokes that have nothing to do with the article.” He was right about that, and it’s something I’m trying to avoid here on the podcast blog, but I may still do it sometimes anyway. because it amuses me, and I figure if I get the reference, then there are ten other people out in the world who will get it. And those ten are the only people I’m trying to impress. Or just myself, I don’t know. I think I’m not trying to impress anyone, but if I look at it objectively, of course I am, otherwise I wouldn’t record these things and send them out into the world.

Which has nothing to do with anything, but I’ve been looking at guitar amplifiers on eBay and it has me a little dizzy, a little loopy. I already have three guitar amplifiers and I don’t even play in a band. Maybe that’s my religion. Band equipment. Music gear. I tried leaving that behind too once, and I couldn’t. I got rid of everything, every bit of gear, every cable, every guitar pick, all of it. That lasted about a year. Then in the 10 years or so since, I’ve re-amassed even more gear than I had before. More than I’ve ever had. So maybe we should start a band, you and I. What do you say?