Peripatetic Postcards


It's amazing the things one runs into in the neighborhood.

Wherever you are. Just open the door and step outside. Take a stroll, give it a little walkabout. You're bound to run into something extraordinary.

And informative. If not life-changing.

Okay, maybe that is a bit of an exaggeration. But, when I did, just the other day, I did. Take a stroll, that is; then find something out of the ordinary. something informative and well -- thought-provoking. What I found just down the street was: a bunch of banners, some angry voices raised in wrath at certain powers that be, a smattering of reporters, a few police tucked in the corner watching it all with a jaundiced, "can't-get-too-worked-up-about-this-it's-only-Pasadena-fer-chrissakes" eye . . .

. . . and a bunch of questions. Like:

  • What's going on here?

  • Why is everyone out here shouting and looking so distressed?

  • What does China have to do with this ole town in the southwest corner of California?

  • Are the silver-haired grandmas in their floral blouses with the oversized posters the good guys . . . or the bad guys?

  • What did Beijing do to Pasadena to create such a furor?

The answers were actually more than a bored afternoon walker with a little time on his hands could possibly have hoped for.

Pasadena, as you may know, is famous for its annual Rose Parade -- well, "Tournament of Roses" in official parlance. And, apparently, in this year's parade a float from China -- and specifically trumpeting the 2008 Olympics -- is slated to appear. And there's the rub. Pasadena -- and other nearby communities like South Pas and Alhambra and Sierra Madre and San Marino and Gardena and Monterey Park -- are home to thousands of Chinese. Some from Taiwan, others refugees from Hong Kong or recent emigres from China, itself. People presumably with money. And many of them have an ax to grind, it seems, with Beijing. And most of those axes seem to have amassed in front of the Wrigley Mansion, official headquarters of the Tournament of Roses Committee.

The banners propped up on the lush island of lawn swimming between Orange Grove Boulevard and the bright faux-Italian palatial estate speak of the oppression of Falun Gong members, in particular, along with complaints by Tibetan independence activists, groups from Myanmar, and advocates of religious and journalistic freedom. Many of the signs are written in kanji, with inelegant, at times abstruse, English translations above; but the pictures make up for any missed message: they are graphic in their depiction of torture, brutalization, and death. How true this all is, the peripatetic taking his casual promenade around a medium-sized American city about a third the way around the globe from the alleged scene of the crimes, cannot possibly know. But the earnestness of the protesters, coupled with vetigial recollections of the cultural revolution by way of Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China and Tiananmen Square leads one to imagine this could easily be so.

The protesters, themselves, are pleasant enough, their demeanor solicitous, if not upbeat and bright. A few pose for photos, chat excitedly on cell phones, hand out promotional literature, trying to gain a sympathetic ear.

Even if I am only a private citizen out for his daily constitutional.

The media do turn out, too, so the protesters also get a chance to make more public noise, through the vessel of the press.

And though the press plays their part -- each major outlet publishing at least one story -- in the end, the protesters' message falls on deaf ears. Despite allegations that Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard pressed for inclusion of the float due to his close association with China, the city council ultimately votes in favor of favoring Pasadena's newest national buddies. According to this account this will be the first time that China has ever had a float in the world-famous Rose Parade.

Another sign, one supposes, of the former isolated giant joining the community of nations. An active participant now in our gargantuan world of pop (thereby sealing the deal of joining the fellowship of consumer frivolity).

And the best part for China?: free pub. The $400,000 float will cost them absolutely nothing. According to the LA Times, the entry will be bankrolled "by 10 wealthy Chinese American donors, some of whom have business interests in China, and Pasadena-based Avery Dennison Corp., which has thousands of employees in China and assumed half of the float's . . . cost."

(And, no -- in case you were curious -- the float's message will not be about its great success in political oppression. In keeping with the parade's theme of "Passports to the World's Celebrations," it has been announced that the Chinese float will herald the 2008 Beijing Olympiad, via the Games' official cartoon mascots.)

And then came the report that, when I read it, I just had to laugh.

It was oh, so much like America, I thought, with its medium- and large-size towns captive to their small-town sensibilities. So much so that when you read comments like this and have to wonder: "where the who do we manage to get all this talent, anyway?"

I mean, imagine all the education, all the money that went into acquiring the pinache and polish to produce the subsequent expenditure of electrical activity in the nether reaches of his dithering noggin . . . according to this story, following hearings before Pasadena's Human Relations Commission, and prior to the city council vote, the following recommendation was tendered: that "the city council . . . formally look into the issue, and suggested that the Dalia Lama (sic), a Tibetan spiritual leader, be grand marshal of next year's parade."

Now, if there wasn't a better example of 27 years of education exposed as a sham in one simple utterace. They didn't even get the Supreme Spiritual Leader's name right!!! But they want to invite him anyway. Well, sure . . . I think he would go for that . . . don't you?

Or, I suppose if you wanted to be charitable (which is, after all, a key plank in the American philosophy), you could say that they were simply displaying the American penchant for treating politics as the art of compromise . . . As in:

"Well now . . . you all say that the Tibetans got an issue with this here Chinese entry? Hell, I can solve that. Just make their top guy the Grand Marshall next time 'round. That oughta appease 'em. Fair is square, you know."

But can you imagine this spiritual leader -- the one who, according to his web site is "recognized as the manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet, who has postponed his own nirvana and chosen to take rebirth in order to serve humanity" -- sitting for 3 hours in an open-air Lincoln waving to Okahomans and Arkansans and Iowans here on a seven-day westward swing in their flannel shirts, overalls and clodhoppers, while the 80-piece West San Antonio High School Marching Band strut to The Doors' "Light My Fire"?

Or perhaps that is the Dalai Lama's definition of human service?

Or might just could be his Nirvana . . .

Well, as I walked away from the site of this short-lived, and ultimately futile, protest-a-float, the thought came to me that "this America, it is the society of protest. Everywhere -- in every single nook and cranny, there is protest afloat." America is the land where all are allowed to give voice to their displeasure. A country where the first amendment provides people with the right to assemble, and the freedom to express their private thoughts publicly. That right is all around us -- embodied daily in certainly hundreds, possibly thousands, of organized activations of dissonance. One only has to scan headlines to find writers on strike in Hollywood, replete with picket lines and public expressions of disapproval by workers claiming that their bosses are cutting them out of a fair share of profits. This is only the most visible of the current vocal discord. All around us public expression percolates, extending to venues large and small, public, semi-public, and even private. Cars sport bumper stickers proclaiming:

"Make the world safe for democracy: impeach Bush"


"If you don't like how I'm driving . . . glad to hear it."

At the semi-public corporation where I am currently working, the University of California, when fee hikes are proposed, students protest by stripping off their shirts ("the shirt off our backs" -- get it?), and when the nuclear labs are up for review, hearings are disrupted by protesters whose outbursts result in their being dragged off to jail.

Not all of this is visible during a simple stroll out the door, for sure. More and more, public disagreements and private grievances are taken out of visible, shared physical space, and played out in the less obtrusive webbed world. A parallel universe unseen and unheard by many. This has produced a kind of paradox of sorts. Because while there is an increase in perceived power, there is, in actuality, an immense diminution of efficacy. Yes, discourse has multipled at an exponential rate -- thanks to the proliferation of chat rooms, message boards, and the blogosphere; yet, the voices have managed mostly to paint over one another -- to the point where almost none can any longer be seen, nor heard. Viewing protest today It would appear that the multiplication of opinion has managed only to generate noise; it is certainly doubtful that there is anything close to the core of criticality required to engineer effective dissent. For the most part, the new world of dispute amounts to nothing more than solitary howls sent up in the face of shrill, gusting wind, coursing through a long narrow tunnel, emptying into deepest outer space.

Reminding one of the tagline from the original Alien:

In space, no one can hear you scream

While that doesn't minimize the overall reality -- that anyone taking a step out into our world will find protest afloat -- it certainly mitigates the consequences.

As the Tibetan and Falun Gong protesters outside Pasadena's Wrigley Mansion recently discovered.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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