Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture.
Tags: 2015 grammys, Blues, bob dylan, folk music, grammys, music, music industry, musicares, randall roberts, rock and roll, roger hollander, song writers, songwrtiers
Roger’s note: you may not agree with everything he says, you may be put off by his petulance, defensiveness and critiques, but there is no denying that Dylan outspoken, blunt, acerbic, and — above all — folksy, is one of a kind, a genuine American (in the best sense of the word) phenomenon. Via his music he captured the ethos and spoke to a generation, a generation that found it hard to understand his primary commitment to his music over his message. Here he tells it like it is for him, an insight into the man, a folk genius if nothing else.
Former President Jimmy Carter introduces Bob Dylan as the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year with Neil Portnow, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, during the MusiCares concert at the Convention Center. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
By Randall Roberts contact the reporter
Transcript of Bob Dylan’s MusiCares Person of Year speech
Bob Dylan was honored by MusiCares, the charity organization that aids musicians in need, at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Friday night. After performances by artists including Tom Jones, Sheryl Crow, Neil Young, Beck, Jackson Browne and others, Dylan himself took a rare opportunity in the spotlight to deliver a 30-plus-minute acceptance speech.
Expansive, funny and insightful, Dylan didn’t pull any punches, calling out songwriters who had criticized his work while indicting Nashville and commercial country music.
He was introduced by former President Jimmy Carter, and walked out to a standing ovation. After thanking the organizers, Dylan referred to his notes and began by saying, “I’m going to read some of this.”
Because of moments of applause, and some echoey acoustics, a few of Dylan’s words were inaudible on the recording I’ve consulted, and I’ve noted as such. Though it upsets him to hear it (see below), Dylan does sometimes mumble and slur his words.
Bob Dylan’s MusiCares person of the year acceptance speech:
I’m glad for my songs to be honored like this. But you know, they didn’t get here by themselves. It’s been a long road and it’s taken a lot of doing. These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. And they sound like they’ve been on the hard ground.
I should mention a few people along the way who brought this about. I know I should mention John Hammond, great talent scout for Columbia Records. He signed me to that label when I was nobody. It took a lot of faith to do that, and he took a lot of ridicule, but he was his own man and he was courageous. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. The last person he discovered before me was Aretha Franklin, and before that Count Basie, Billie Holiday and a whole lot of other artists. All noncommercial artists.
Trends did not interest John, and I was very noncommercial but he stayed with me. He believed in my talent and that’s all that mattered. I can’t thank him enough for that.
Lou Levy runs Leeds Music, and they published my earliest songs, but I didn’t stay there too long. Levy himself, he went back a long ways. He signed me to that company and recorded my songs and I sang them into a tape recorder. He told me outright, there was no precedent for what I was doing, that I was either before my time or behind it. And if I brought him a song like “Stardust,” he’d turn it down because it would be too late.
He told me that if I was before my time — and he didn’t really know that for sure — but if it was happening and if it was true, the public would usually take three to five years to catch up — so be prepared. And that did happen. The trouble was, when the public did catch up I was already three to five years beyond that, so it kind of complicated it. But he was encouraging, and he didn’t judge me, and I’ll always remember him for that.
Artie Mogull at Witmark Music signed me next to his company, and he told me to just keep writing songs no matter what, that I might be on to something. Well, he too stood behind me, and he could never wait to see what I’d give him next. I didn’t even think of myself as a songwriter before then. I’ll always be grateful for him also for that attitude
I also have to mention some of the early artists who recorded my songs very, very early, without having to be asked. Just something they felt about them that was right for them. I’ve got to say thank you to Peter, Paul and Mary, who I knew all separately before they ever became a group. I didn’t even think of myself as writing songs for others to sing but it was starting to happen and it couldn’t have happened to, or with, a better group.
They took a song of mine that had been recorded before that was buried on one of my records and turned it into a hit song. Not the way I would have done it — they straightened it out. But since then hundreds of people have recorded it and I don’t think that would have happened if it wasn’t for them. They definitely started something for me.
MusiCares 2015 | Concert photos
The Byrds, the Turtles, Sonny & Cher — they made some of my songs Top 10 hits but I wasn’t a pop songwriter and I really didn’t want to be that, but it was good that it happened. Their versions of songs were like commercials, but I didn’t really mind that because 50 years later my songs were being used in the commercials. So that was good too. I was glad it happened, and I was glad they’d done it.
Pervis Staples and the Staple Singers — long before they were on Stax they were on Epic and they were one of my favorite groups of all time. I met them all in ’62 or ’63. They heard my songs live and Pervis wanted to record three or four of them and he did with the Staples Singers. They were the type of artists that I wanted recording my songs.
Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. These were the artists I looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she [inaudible] to me. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about.
Oh, and can’t forget Jimi Hendrix. I actually saw Jimi Hendrix perform when he was in a band called Jimmy James and the Blue Flames — something like that. And Jimi didn’t even sing. He was just the guitar player. He took some small songs of mine that nobody paid any attention to and pumped them up into the outer limits of the stratosphere and turned them all into classics. I have to thank Jimi, too. I wish he was here.
Johnny Cash recorded some of my songs early on, too, up in about ’63, when he was all skin and bones. He traveled long, he traveled hard, but he was a hero of mine. I heard many of his songs growing up. I knew them better than I knew my own. “Big River,” “I Walk the Line.”
“How high’s the water, Mama?” I wrote “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” with that song reverberating inside my head. I still ask, “How high is the water, mama?” Johnny was an intense character. And he saw that people were putting me down playing electric music, and he posted letters to magazines scolding people, telling them to shut up and let him sing.
In Johnny Cash’s world — hardcore Southern drama — that kind of thing didn’t exist. Nobody told anybody what to sing or what not to sing. They just didn’t do that kind of thing. I’m always going to thank him for that. Johnny Cash was a giant of a man, the man in black. And I’ll always cherish the friendship we had until the day there is no more days.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Joan Baez. She was the queen of folk music then and now. She took a liking to my songs and brought me with her to play concerts, where she had crowds of thousands of people enthralled with her beauty and voice.
People would say, “What are you doing with that ragtag scrubby little waif?” And she’d tell everybody in no uncertain terms, “Now you better be quiet and listen to the songs.” We even played a few of them together. Joan Baez is as tough-minded as they come. Love. And she’s a free, independent spirit. Nobody can tell her what to do if she doesn’t want to do it. I learned a lot of things from her. A woman with devastating honesty. And for her kind of love and devotion, I could never pay that back.
These songs didn’t come out of thin air. I didn’t just make them up out of whole cloth. Contrary to what Lou Levy said, there was a precedent. It all came out of traditional music: traditional folk music, traditional rock ‘n’ roll and traditional big-band swing orchestra music.
I learned lyrics and how to write them from listening to folk songs. And I played them, and I met other people that played them back when nobody was doing it. Sang nothing but these folk songs, and they gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.
For three or four years all I listened to were folk standards. I went to sleep singing folk songs. I sang them everywhere, clubs, parties, bars, coffeehouses, fields, festivals. And I met other singers along the way who did the same thing and we just learned songs from each other. I could learn one song and sing it next in an hour if I’d heard it just once.
If you sang “John Henry” as many times as me — “John Henry was a steel-driving man / Died with a hammer in his hand / John Henry said a man ain’t nothin’ but a man / Before I let that steam drill drive me down / I’ll die with that hammer in my hand.”
If you had sung that song as many times as I did, you’d have written “How many roads must a man walk down?” too.
Big Bill Broonzy had a song called “Key to the Highway.” “I’ve got a key to the highway / I’m booked and I’m bound to go / Gonna leave here runnin’ because walking is most too slow.” I sang that a lot. If you sing that a lot, you just might write,
Georgia Sam he had a bloody nose
Welfare Department they wouldn’t give him no clothes
He asked poor Howard where can I go
Howard said there’s only one place I know
Sam said tell me quick man I got to run
Howard just pointed with his gun
And said that way down on Highway 61
You’d have written that too if you’d sang “Key to the Highway” as much as me.
“Ain’t no use sit ‘n cry / You’ll be an angel by and by / Sail away, ladies, sail away.” “I’m sailing away my own true love.” “Boots of Spanish Leather” — Sheryl Crow just sung that.
“Roll the cotton down, aw, yeah, roll the cotton down / Ten dollars a day is a white man’s pay / A dollar a day is the black man’s pay / Roll the cotton down.” If you sang that song as many times as me, you’d be writing “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” too.
I sang a lot of “come all you” songs. There’s plenty of them. There’s way too many to be counted. “Come along boys and listen to my tale / Tell you of my trouble on the old Chisholm Trail.” Or, “Come all ye good people, listen while I tell / the fate of Floyd Collins a lad we all know well / The fate of Floyd Collins, a lad we all know well.”
“Come all ye fair and tender ladies / Take warning how you court your men / They’re like a star on a summer morning / They first appear and then they’re gone again.” “If you’ll gather ’round, people / A story I will tell / ‘Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw / Oklahoma knew him well.”
If you sung all these “come all ye” songs all the time, you’d be writing, “Come gather ’round people where ever you roam, admit that the waters around you have grown / Accept that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone / If your time to you is worth saving / And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone / The times they are a-changing.”
You’d have written them too. There’s nothing secret about it. You just do it subliminally and unconsciously, because that’s all enough, and that’s all I sang. That was all that was dear to me. They were the only kinds of songs that made sense.
“When you go down to Deep Ellum keep your money in your socks / Women in Deep Ellum put you on the rocks.” Sing that song for a while and you just might come up with, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too / And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through / Don’t put on any airs / When you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue / They got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess outta you.”
All these songs are connected. Don’t be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way. It’s just different, saying the same thing. I didn’t think it was anything out of the ordinary.
Well you know, I just thought I was doing something natural, but right from the start, my songs were divisive for some reason. They divided people. I never knew why. Some got angered, others loved them. Didn’t know why my songs had detractors and supporters. A strange environment to have to throw your songs into, but I did it anyway.
Last thing I thought of was who cared about what song I was writing. I was just writing them. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line. Maybe a little bit unruly, but I was just elaborating on situations. Maybe hard to pin down, but so what? A lot of people are hard to pin down. You’ve just got to bear it. I didn’t really care what Lieber and Stoller thought of my songs.
They didn’t like ‘em, but Doc Pomus did. That was all right that they didn’t like ‘em, because I never liked their songs either. “Yakety yak, don’t talk back.” “Charlie Brown is a clown,” “Baby I’m a hog for you.” Novelty songs. They weren’t saying anything serious. Doc’s songs, they were better. “This Magic Moment.” “Lonely Avenue.” Save the Last Dance for Me.
Those songs broke my heart. I figured I’d rather have his blessings any day than theirs.
Ahmet Ertegun didn’t think much of my songs, but Sam Phillips did. Ahmet founded Atlantic Records. He produced some great records: Ray Charles, Ray Brown, just to name a few.
There were some great records in there, no question about it. But Sam Phillips, he recorded Elvis and Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Radical eyes that shook the very essence of humanity. Revolution in style and scope. Heavy shape and color. Radical to the bone. Songs that cut you to the bone. Renegades in all degrees, doing songs that would never decay, and still resound to this day. Oh, yeah, I’d rather have Sam Phillips’ blessing any day.
Merle Haggard didn’t even think much of my songs. I know he didn’t. He didn’t say that to me, but I know [inaudible]. Buck Owens did, and he recorded some of my early songs. Merle Haggard — “Mama Tried,” “The Bottle Let Me Down,” “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive.” I can’t imagine Waylon Jennings singing “The Bottle Let Me Down.”
“Together Again”? That’s Buck Owens, and that trumps anything coming out of Bakersfield. Buck Owens and Merle Haggard? If you have to have somebody’s blessing — you figure it out.
Oh, yeah. Critics have been giving me a hard time since Day One. Critics say I can’t sing. I croak. Sound like a frog. Why don’t critics say that same thing about Tom Waits? Critics say my voice is shot. That I have no voice. What don’t they say those things about Leonard Cohen? Why do I get special treatment? Critics say I can’t carry a tune and I talk my way through a song. Really? I’ve never heard that said about Lou Reed. Why does he get to go scot-free?
What have I done to deserve this special attention? No vocal range? When’s the last time you heard Dr. John? Why don’t you say that about him? Slur my words, got no diction. Have you people ever listened to Charley Patton or Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. Talk about slurred words and no diction. [Inaudible] doesn’t even matter.
“Why me, Lord?” I would say that to myself.
Critics say I mangle my melodies, render my songs unrecognizable. Oh, really? Let me tell you something. I was at a boxing match a few years ago seeing Floyd Mayweather fight a Puerto Rican guy. And the Puerto Rican national anthem, somebody sang it and it was beautiful. It was heartfelt and it was moving.
After that it was time for our national anthem. And a very popular soul-singing sister was chosen to sing. She sang every note — that exists, and some that don’t exist. Talk about mangling a melody. You take a one-syllable word and make it last for 15 minutes? She was doing vocal gymnastics like she was on a trapeze act. But to me it was not funny.
Where were the critics? Mangling lyrics? Mangling a melody? Mangling a treasured song? No, I get the blame. But I don’t really think I do that. I just think critics say I do.
Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you [inaudible].
Times always change. They really do. And you have to always be ready for something that’s coming along and you never expected it. Way back when, I was in Nashville making some records and I read this article, a Tom T. Hall interview. Tom T. Hall, he was bitching about some kind of new song, and he couldn’t understand what these new kinds of songs that were coming in were about.
Now Tom, he was one of the most preeminent songwriters of the time in Nashville. A lot of people were recording his songs and he himself even did it. But he was all in a fuss about James Taylor, a song James had called “Country Road.” Tom was going off in this interview — “But James don’t say nothing about a country road. He’s just says how you can feel it on the country road. I don’t understand that.”
Now some might say Tom is a great songwriter. I’m not going to doubt that. At the time he was doing this interview I was actually listening to a song of his on the radio.
It was called “I Love.” I was listening to it in a recording studio, and he was talking about all the things he loves, an everyman kind of song, trying to connect with people. Trying to make you think that he’s just like you and you’re just like him. We all love the same things, and we’re all in this together. Tom loves little baby ducks, slow-moving trains and rain. He loves old pickup trucks and little country streams. Sleeping without dreams. Bourbon in a glass. Coffee in a cup. Tomatoes on the vine, and onions.
Now listen, I’m not ever going to disparage another songwriter. I’m not going to do that. I’m not saying it’s a bad song. I’m just saying it might be a little overcooked. But, you know, it was in the top 10 anyway. Tom and a few other writers had the whole Nashville scene sewed up in a box. If you wanted to record a song and get it in the top 10 you had to go to them, and Tom was one of the top guys. They were all very comfortable, doing their thing.
This was about the time that Willie Nelson picked up and moved to Texas. About the same time. He’s still in Texas. Everything was very copacetic. Everything was all right until — until — Kristofferson came to town. Oh, they ain’t seen anybody like him. He came into town like a wildcat, flew his helicopter into Johnny Cash’s backyard like a typical songwriter. And he went for the throat. “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad
So I had one more for dessert
Then I fumbled through my closet
Found my cleanest dirty shirt
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.
You can look at Nashville pre-Kris and post-Kris, because he changed everything. That one song ruined Tom T. Hall’s poker parties. It might have sent him to the crazy house. God forbid he ever heard any of my songs.
You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
You say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’re gonna say
When you get home
You know something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
If “Sunday Morning Coming Down” rattled Tom’s cage, sent him into the looney bin, my song surely would have made him blow his brains out, right there in the minivan. Hopefully he didn’t hear it.
I just released an album of standards, all the songs usually done by Michael Buble, Harry Connick Jr., maybe Brian Wilson’s done a couple, Linda Ronstadt done ‘em. But the reviews of their records are different than the reviews of my record.
In their reviews no one says anything. In my reviews, [inaudible] they’ve got to look under every stone when it comes to me. They’ve got to mention all the songwriters’ names. Well that’s OK with me. After all, they’re great songwriters and these are standards. I’ve seen the reviews come in, and they’ll mention all the songwriters in half the review, as if everybody knows them. Nobody’s heard of them, not in this time, anyway. Buddy Kaye, Cy Coleman, Carolyn Leigh, to name a few.
But, you know, I’m glad they mention their names, and you know what? I’m glad they got their names in the press. It might have taken some time to do it, but they’re finally there. I can only wonder why it took so long. My only regret is that they’re not here to see it.
Traditional rock ‘n’ roll, we’re talking about that. It’s all about rhythm. Johnny Cash said it best: “Get rhythm. Get rhythm when you get the blues.” Very few rock ‘n’ roll bands today play with rhythm. They don’t know what it is. Rock ‘n’ roll is a combination of blues, and it’s a strange thing made up of two parts. A lot of people don’t know this, but the blues, which is an American music, is not what you think it is. It’s a combination of Arabic violins and Strauss waltzes working it out. But it’s true.
The other half of rock ‘n’ roll has got to be hillbilly. And that’s a derogatory term, but it ought not to be. That’s a term that includes the Delmore Bros., Stanley Bros., Roscoe Holcomb, Clarence Ashley … groups like that. Moonshiners gone berserk. Fast cars on dirt roads. That’s the kind of combination that makes up rock ‘n’ roll, and it can’t be cooked up in a science laboratory or a studio.
You have to have the right kind of rhythm to play this kind of music. If you can’t hardly play the blues, how do you [inaudible] those other two kinds of music in there? You can fake it, but you can’t really do it.
Critics have made a career out of accusing me of having a career of confounding expectations. Really? Because that’s all I do. That’s how I think about it. Confounding expectations.
“What do you do for a living, man?”
“Oh, I confound expectations.”
You’re going to get a job, the man says, “What do you do?” “Oh, confound expectations.: And the man says, “Well, we already have that spot filled. Call us back. Or don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Confounding expectations. What does that mean? ‘Why me, Lord? I’d confound them, but I don’t know how to do it.’
The Blackwood Bros. have been talking to me about making a record together. That might confound expectations, but it shouldn’t. Of course it would be a gospel album. I don’t think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. One of the songs I’m thinking about singing is “Stand By Me” by the Blackwood Brothers. Not “Stand By Me” the pop song. No. The real “Stand By Me.”
The real one goes like this:
When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind and water / Stand by me
In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou who never lost a battle / Stand by me
In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / When I do the best I can / And my friends don’t understand / Thou who knowest all about me / Stand by me
That’s the song. I like it better than the pop song. If I record one by that name, that’s going to be the one. I’m also thinking of recording a song, not on that album, though: “Oh Lord, Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”
Anyway, why me, Lord. What did I do?
Anyway, I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I’m honored to have all these artists singing my songs. There’s nothing like that. Great artists. [applause, inaudible]. They’re all singing the truth, and you can hear it in their voices.
I’m proud to be here tonight for MusiCares. I think a lot of this organization. They’ve helped many people. Many musicians who have contributed a lot to our culture. I’d like to personally thank them for what they did for a friend of mine, Billy Lee Riley. A friend of mine who they helped for six years when he was down and couldn’t work. Billy was a son of rock ‘n’ roll, obviously.
He was a true original. He did it all: He played, he sang, he wrote. He would have been a bigger star but Jerry Lee came along. And you know what happens when someone like that comes along. You just don’t stand a chance.
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So Billy became what is known in the industry — a condescending term, by the way — as a one-hit wonder. But sometimes, just sometimes, once in a while, a one-hit wonder can make a more powerful impact than a recording star who’s got 20 or 30 hits behind him. And Billy’s hit song was called “Red Hot,” and it was red hot. It could blast you out of your skull and make you feel happy about it. Change your life.
He did it with style and grace. You won’t find him in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s not there. Metallica is. Abba is. Mamas and the Papas — I know they’re in there. Jefferson Airplane, Alice Cooper, Steely Dan — I’ve got nothing against them. Soft rock, hard rock, psychedelic pop. I got nothing against any of that stuff, but after all, it is called the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Lee Riley is not there. Yet.
I’d see him a couple times a year and we’d always spent time together and he was on a rockabilly festival nostalgia circuit, and we’d cross paths now and again. We’d always spend time together. He was a hero of mine. I’d heard “Red Hot.” I must have been only 15 or 16 when I did and it’s impressed me to this day.
I never grow tired of listening to it. Never got tired of watching Billy Lee perform, either. We spent time together just talking and playing into the night. He was a deep, truthful man. He wasn’t bitter or nostalgic. He just accepted it. He knew where he had come from and he was content with who he was.
And then one day he got sick. And like my friend John Mellencamp would sing — because John sang some truth today — one day you get sick and you don’t get better. That’s from a song of his called “Life is Short Even on Its Longest Days.” It’s one of the better songs of the last few years, actually. I ain’t lying.
And I ain’t lying when I tell you that MusiCares paid for my friend’s doctor bills, and helped him to get spending money. They were able to at least make his life comfortable, tolerable to the end. That is something that can’t be repaid. Any organization that would do that would have to have my blessing.
I’m going to get out of here now. I’m going to put an egg in my shoe and beat it. I probably left out a lot of people and said too much about some. But that’s OK. Like the spiritual song, ‘I’m still just crossing over Jordan too.’ Let’s hope we meet again. Sometime. And we will, if, like Hank Williams said, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Capitalism, History, Religion.
Tags: blasphemy, capitalism, christian church, Christianity, film, film criticism, Gramsci, holocaust, institutional christianity, luciana bohne, nazi germany, pier paolo pasolini, religion, roger hollander, st. paul
Roger’s note: I was deeply impressed when many many years ago I saw the great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s classic “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” where he employed a cast of Italian peasants as his actors and depicted a socialist revolutionary Christ utilizing only the text of the Gospel for his script.
This article will not be everyone’s cup of tea. With a year of theological seminary under my belt (a lifetime ago) and being a born-again Marxist Humanist, I can appreciate the confluence of a liberation theology brand of Christianity with a revolutionary socialist perspective.
http://www.counterpunch.org, Weekend Edition January 16-18, 2015
Signals for Persecution
The opposite of religion is not communism. The opposite of religion is capitalism (ruthless, cruel, cynical, purely materialistic), the cause of human beings’ exploitation of human beings, cradle of the worship of power, horrendous den of racism.
— Pier Paolo Pasolini
Supposedly an atheist, Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) said he was religious because he blasphemed. He intended to “blaspheme” in a film about St. Paul. His film would be religious, he said, because “in ancient sacred rites, as in all the peasant religions, every blessing amounts to a curse.” The script, which he composed between 1968 and 1974, was never filmed, partially because the Vatican, which had awarded him a prize for The Gospel according to St Matthew (1964), attacked his 1967 film, Teorema, the story of a god who descends on a conventional bourgeois family, near Milan. He physically seduces the members—father, mother, daughter, son, and the maid– and leaves them. The consequences of the seduction and abandonment are dire: suicide, promiscuity, madness, and a life-endangering miracle—the levitation of the maid off a high balcony. Radical ontological transformations. Set on killing himself, the father, naked, climbs a little hill, which the Milanese call “la montagnetta” (the “little mountain”). Covered in greenery now, the hill consists of rubble accumulated from the Allied bombing of Milan in WW II.
The Vatican was not amused. It wrote in its organ, L’osservatore romano, that in Teorema, the devil had visited the family and, therefore, beware of visiting Pasolini at the cinema. In fact, in his characterization of disrupting convention and loosening the passions, the divine had been a Dionysian god, in an apocalyptic manifestation—that is, revelation. You couldn’t blaspheme more unforgivably than to deliver the message of revelation through a pagan god. So, Pasolini’s St. Paul became a casualty of Teorema and was never brought to the screen.
Still from Pasolini’s “Teorema.”
But we have the screenplay. Translated magisterially with an excellent introduction by Elizabeth A. Castelli, published by Verso with a preface by Alain Badiou, Pasolini’s St. Paul: A Screenplay, is in Badiou’s words, “a literary work of the first magnitude.” The question at the heart of the work is this: can any revolutionary idea survive institutionalization? As Badiou aptly observes,
This scenario should be read not as the unfinished work that it was, but as the sacrificial manifesto of what constitutes, here as elsewhere, the real of any Idea: the seeming impossibility of its effectuation.
In a sort of spiritual testament, published posthumously, Pasolini wrote:
Every formal religion, in the sense that the institution becomes official, is not only unnecessary for improving the world, but it also worsens it [my translation].
For Pasolini, Christianity in its original context had been a positive social force, opposing slavery and challenging the Roman Empire, but, as the screenplay makes clear, it was a brief revolutionary moment between two laws, the old imperial law of Rome and the new imperial law of the Christian church. In the interregnum when “the old cannot die and the new cannot yet be born” (Antonio Gramsci) it is possible for a communitarian society of popular democracy to breathe.
It took forty years for the polemical idea of a subversive Christianity to emerge backed by scholarly authority. It is a pity that Pasolini never filmed his St Paul because his treatment of early Christianity undermining Roman domination is central to a revolutionary understanding of pre-institutional Christianity.
Today, Pasolini’s thesis of an anti-colonial Christianity, rising from its eastern dominions (Antioch was the third most important city of the Roman Empire) would have fit in among new perspectives on traditional Pauline studies. Over the last thirty years, researchers and theorists in postcolonial, feminist, and political-anthropology studies have insisted on the importance of context in reading Paul’s letters. Already in Pasolini’s time, the revision was brewing. In 1962, a Pauline scholar in Sweden, Per Boskow, had published a study, Rex Gloriae: The Kingship of Christ in the Early Church (Stockolm: Almquist and Wiksell, 1962), which suggested that hidden modes of resistance were to be found in early Christian worship and ritual. A Paul covertly involved in the politics of Empire ran contrary to the Protestant tradition, which saw Paul as the apotheosis of homo religiosus, the “man of faith,” ever since Martin Luther had found in Paul’s Letters to the Romans his own “justification by faith” for breaking from the Church of Rome.
The emerging interest in Paul in the post-war, however, could not be divorced from the question arising about the responsibility of Christianity in the horrors of the genocide of European Jews—the Holocaust. In the Protestant tradition particularly, Paul’s conversion had been constructed in antithesis to Judaism. Definitionally in Christianity, a Christian was not a Jew; therefore, Paul’s origin in Judaism had to be obscured in favor of highlighting a compelling individual quest for salvation in Christ. Did this Manichean version of Paul’s dual identity—and, by extension, of Christianity’s dual identity– contribute to the Holocaust?
The impetus for reading Paul against Pauline tradition had thus become a moral imperative and a historical task. Exegetic studies uncovering resistance in the New Testament took off in earnest and bore fruit in the 1980s. Starting with Simon R. F. Price’s groundbreaking work, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor, on the Roman imperial cult in the cities through which Paul travelled and preached and continuing through the work of political-anthropologist, James C. Scott, Erik Heen, et al., Pasolini’s idea of presenting Christianity as a political actor in the drama between the empire and its eastern, Greek-world subjects would have been validated. No doubt, catching up with the revolution in Pauline studies weighed in on the decision to translate and publish for the first time in English this decades-old text.
We cannot be sure that Pasolini was influenced by the theological turmoil simmering just beneath the surface of Pauline studies in the Protestant world, but we do know that for the years he worked on his St. Paul (1968-1974), he met and regularly corresponded with a sympathetic theologian in the Vatican, who must have been informed of such momentous moral crossroads traversing Christian theology as a result of the Holocaust. Question about the Vatican’s role in the tolerance to Nazism abounded, after all.
Throughout his mature writings, Pasolini faulted the Church for becoming, as recently as the 19th century, the toy of the religiously apathetic bourgeoisie, the instrument of its legitimacy—in a survival effort, perhaps, to continue to function as a viable institution by accommodating the values of the liberal democracies ushered in by the social struggles of the French Revolution. In Pasolini’s view, the Church’s compromise with a cynical, secular, acquisitive and counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie had taken the soul out of its body. Abandoning the side of the oppressed, the Church had become irrelevant. In fact, more than irrelevant: it had become criminally repressive. But was this compromise with the ruling class singular or constitutive of the evolution of Christianity? Was the worm that turned to eat the heart out of the Church there from its beginnings?
It is, of course, extremely risky to “close the text” on Pasolini’s volatile, self-deconstructing, deliberately unstable works. In an echo of Marx, they scream out, “question everything,” including, and especially, the author. The script appears to be tossing in a furious dialectical vortex of contradictions. No sooner does one think one has grasped Pasolini’s intention than that certainty evaporates. Suffering Paul, for example, tormented and debilitated by a mysterious malady, seems to be representative of the suffering body of humanity, constituting his religious side. His self-assurance in organizing the Christian communities, resulting from his high social class, his education, his professional (and rhetorical) training represents his active, energetic, worldly side. Who will rescue me from my split subjectivity? (St Paul, Rom. 7:14-25), Paul himself pleads, referring to his bodily needs and the duty to God. The mental and emotional turmoil the text creates with these contradictions (at least in this reader) derives from the purest and most provocative of Brechtian “alienation effects.” The film would have intensified this effect, placing the word and the image in a conflict of meaning on the screen.
Nevertheless, I will risk an answer: yes, the screenplay strives to confirm that the worm was there from the beginning. The account in Acts/ Luke-Acts of the founding of Christianity mystifies history. Pasolini chooses an example: the meeting of the evangelical leadership at an event known as “the incident at Antioch.” Not only had Paul earned the mortal enmity of the fanatic Pharisees for evangelizing the new religion but also the opposition of Peter and his adherents for converting the Gentiles without “judeiazing” them (that is transmitting the Law of Moses). During the “incident at Antioch,” the script depicts Peter and Paul in a face-off close-up nearly coming to blows over the issue of “judeizing” the Gentiles. Luke, the author of the Acts, a history of the founding of the Church, stands apart, patrician, ironic, amused as the cacophony of the mutinous meeting turns into sullen silence.
Later in his luxurious study, Luke, dispassionate, methodical, writes down, in his “elegant handwriting,” a sanitized version, a précis of an amicable resolution to this world-consequential dispute over the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, at the end of which he rises from his chair and gives a satisfied belch. Judaism lost. Luke is depicted as the consummate propagandist; Pasolini describes him as incarnated by Satan. To Satan, invisible, Luke will demure, “The Church is only a necessity” (the stress on “only” is Pasolini’s).
To further illustrate Luke’s unreliability, Pasolini gives him an accomplice: Satan. When the Church is all but founded, with the impending accession of Timothy to the bishopric of Ephesus, Luke and Satan (seen from the back only) toast to “their church” with a bottle of champagne:
They drink and get drunk, evoking all the crimes of the Church: a huge, long list of criminal popes, of compromises by the Church with power, of bullying, violence, repressions, ignorance, dogmas. At the end, the two are completely drunk and they laugh thinking of Paul who is still there, travelling around the world, preaching and organizing.
In a tone reminiscent of Christopher Marlowe’s iconoclastic, poetically splendid “blasphemies” in Doctor Faustus, Pasolini narrates Satan’s thoughts:
The Church is founded. The rest is nothing but a long appendix, an agony. The destiny of Paul doesn’t interest Satan: Let him be saved and go to Paradise anyway. Satan and his hired assassin [Paul’s eventual assassin, a fascist thug who despises Paul’s “anti-Israelite” ideology] laugh sarcastically, satisfied.
Not only the course of the official church but also Paul’s fate is sealed—there will be no more need for evangelizing; the church will assume “pastoral care” and manage its faithful from the pulpits of its now proliferating churches.
One of these is in Ephesus, which Pasolini resets in contemporary Naples. While in voice-over we continue to hear Paul’s voice composing his long letter to Timothy, bidding purity, modesty, prudence, continence, gravity, piety — all the virtues of humility that restrain pride — the camera is directed to showing us a scandal of pride, luxury, class-power, and excess:
In a grand pomp, there is Timothy, dressed literally in gold, crushed under the mitre, almost unrecognizable. And all around the multicoloured and magnificently carnivalesque chorus of other priests… A group of authorities: high officials, puffed up like turkeys in their grand uniforms; political men, in their black, double-breasted suits, with vulgar and hypocritical old faces; the throng of their bejeweled ladies and their servants, etc., etc. The altar encrusted in gold — a true and real golden calf — full of baroque affectations and neoclassical flourishes, work of total unbelief, official, threatening, hypocritically mystical and glorifying, clerical, of the master.
Ite, missa est. It is finished, except for disposing of Paul whose evangelical zeal seems to be unstoppable and institutionally embarrassing. St Paul, as noted, is set in the 20th century. The places are, therefore, altered: Jerusalem becomes Paris, mostly during the Nazi occupation (the Nazis stand for the Romans; the Pharisees are the collaborating Petainists and French reactionaries, of whom Paul is one); Damascus becomes Barcelona, in the aftermath of the fascist victory in Spain; Antioch is “rational” Geneva; Athens becomes modern, intellectually shallow, “dolce-vita” Rome; and Imperial Rome is relocated in New York, the belly of the new imperial beast.
After Paul’s conversion to the Word (analogously, to the anti-fascist Resistance), which almost coincides with the end of WW II, his evangelical travels take him throughout Europe, now reveling in post-war consumerism. His travels acquire a picaresque quality. In some of the most satirically comic scenes, he preaches to absurdly inappropriate audiences: in Bonn, he preaches to industrialists, causing a Neo-Nazi riot; in Geneva, he upsets the stolid Christian sympathizers and potential donors with his excessive emphasis on sexual continence; in Rome he bores his idle nouveau-riche hosts with his antique rhetoric of a Christian faith, whereas they anticipated hearing a pop-celebrity mystic, similar to Krishnamurti; in New York’s Greenwich Village, he preaches obedience to authority to an assorted group of black rebels, youngsters high on pot, anti-war activists, feminists, and desperate young refugees from suburban, middle-class emotional and mental entropy. Here, too, he causes a riot, in which the police intervene and arrest him.
So, in the end, if only for reasons of provoking the authorities and causing bad publicity, he has to be got rid of. Pasolini has him shot (by Satan’s assassin, the fundamentalist pro-Israelite fascist thug) like Martin Luther King—on the balcony of a shabby hotel on the West Side of Manhattan, the exact replica of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. His blood trickles down to the pavement below to form a “rosy puddle.” The events in the life of this cinematic Paul have stretched from the Nazi-fascist era to 1968, “the era of a false liberalization, actually desired by the new reformist and permissive power, which is also the most fascist power in history” (Quoted in “Afterword” by Ward Blanton; my emphasis). In other words, to the time of our own postmodernist liberal fascism (Pasolini actually used the term “liberal fascism” in the 1970s).
But what in the end does it matter to us—this ancient crime of the institutional Church? Even the death of suffering, zealous Paul—what does it all matter? For an intellectual like Pasolini and his generation of Italian anti-fascists, wasn’t there an alternative “faith” in scientific materialism—in Marxism? There are passages in the script that expose what Pasolini called the “hypocrisy of [institutional] Marxism,” a theme he had elaborated in Le ceneri di Gramsci (Gramsci’s Ashes) in 1957. For example, he complains that the Italian Communist Party’s culturally bourgeois intellectuals (of whom he was one), are generally divorced from the masses and from Pasolini’s beloved innocent rogues of the young petty criminals of the sub-proletariat (they don’t plunder the Treasury, after all, as do the respectable senators and politicians), from the peasants and laborers, who, unlike the bourgeoisie, still managed to live by the ministrations of human solidarity—by communism, religious or scientific. In fact, the critique of institutional Marxism, the “party,” etc., runs parallel and is analogous to the critique of the Church—both failed to nurture a proletarian, popular culture to oppose to the hedonistic, individualistic, consumeristic, and finally anti-human ideological perversions of neo-capitalist (his word) bourgeois culture.
And here, I must bring up Gramsci, one of the major and lifelong influences on Pasolini (one of the first was Rimbaud). Figuratively facing Gramsci’s grave he implores his tutor in Gramsci’s Ashes: “Will you ask me, you unadorned dead/ to abandon this despairing/ passion for being in the world?” (Mi chiederai tu, morto disadorno,/d’abbandonare questa disperata/passione di essere nel mondo?) Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), Marxist intellectual, political theorist, sociologist of culture, was a founding member of the Italian Communist Party and died in Mussolini’s prison. He is best known for his theory of cultural hegemony (from the Greek, meaning “leadership”), which explains how the class in power maintains its status quo and reproduces it through its cultural institutions. Lenin had used the term. It was an elaboration of Marx/Engels’ claim that “the ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class,” though the German Ideology, written in 1846-47, was not published until 1932 (and that in the USSR). If Gramsci’s claim was valid, how was a proletarian revolution ever to occur if the consciousness of the proletariat was shaped exclusively by the education of bourgeois institutions? Or, how, even, could a peasant or labor society sustain the onslaught of the market’s mind-numbing consumerism that was to lead, in his view, to an irreversible “anthropological cataclysm,” which would transform people into things, at once exploiters and exploited, victims and victimizers? The advent in the mid-50s of the “economic boom” in Italy, the affordability of goods, especially of television, caused the instant imborghesimento (metamorphosis into bourgeois) of Italian everyday life, chronicled satirically in Federico Fellini’s film La Dolce vita, Italo Calvino’s novel, La specolazione edilizia, in Alberto Moravia’s La noia (Boredom), and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura.
Written in the hedonistic years of the 60s and in the “years of lead” of the 70s, the campaign of terrorism carried out by the Italian secret services—“the parallel state”– in collaboration with the CIA to roll back popular democracy, Pasolini’s St Paul today reads like a prophecy. Eerily, as though seeing us in the mirror of a not-so-distant future, Pasolini describes a Paris gripped by the terror of Nazi “anti-terrorism.” Stephen, a young partisan in the budding resistance, hardly of the age of conscription (like Pasolini’s younger brother, Guido, partisan, killed at nineteen in an ambush in 1945) is executed by the Nazis. Paul, at this stage a zealous official, in fact, an uncritical collaborator with the Nazi occupation forces, witnesses the execution of young Stephen. He is distressed, haunted even, but does not withdraw his collaborating zeal from the Nazi occupiers. They are the law, and he’s a lawyer. His duty is to serve the law. “In the face of Paul,” the screenplay reads,
We see something worse than evil: we see cheapness, ferocity, the decision to be abject, hypocrisy that motivates everything in the name of the Law, of Tradition—or of God. All this cannot but render that face desperate, too.
What follows the discovery of Resistance activity and the execution of Stephen is an orgy of cruelty, stretching to the genocidal limits and beyond. Starting with a quotation, “There was as though a signal for persecution” (Acts 6:1-8:3), Pasolini describes how the obscenity of Nazi repression is to be represented:
New archival documentary material
But this time it must be found from among the most terrible, almost unbearable to watch: arrests, raids, shootings, hangings, mass deportations, mass executions, shootings in the streets and the plazas, corpses abandoned on sidewalks, under monuments, dangling from lampposts, hanged, hooked. Departures of the Jews for concentration camps; freight cars filled with corpses.
Add head chopping, bombs and poisonous bombs, bombed hospitals and schools. Killer drones. Bombed air-raid shelters. Medieval-style sieges, (called sanctions) exacting the lives of 500,000 children (on record). Two, three, many Abu Ghraibs: men turned into dogs, obscene sadism of the greatest democracy in the world. Add all this and more, and we see in the archival images of the fascist era the image of our own times.
Can anyone doubt that Pasolini’s St Paul was, indeed, a prophecy?
Luciana Bohne is co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and teaches at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at: email@example.com
Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Nuclear weapons/power, War.
Tags: cold war, dr. strangeglove, eisenhower, Eric Schlosser, history, jfk, los alamos, NATO, nuclear, nuclear strike, nuclear war, nuclear weapons, roger hollander, stanley kubrick, the bomb, war
Roger’s note: If you are just getting over your Halloween frights, here is something that should really scare you. Only in a world that is controlled by politicians who follow the dictates of generals and CEOs (as opposed to “the people.” which is what democracy is supposed to be about) could such a danger to the very existence of the biosphere and humankind be put in jeopardy. Of course, when I refer to generals and CEOs you know that I mean the capitalist economic system that will doom us if we don’t do something about it. I hope this does not cause you to lose too much sleep.
JANUARY 17, 2014
BY ERIC SCHLOSSER
This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible. An expert at the Institute for Strategic Studies called the events in the film “impossible on a dozen counts.” A former Deputy Secretary of Defense dismissed the idea that someone could authorize the use of a nuclear weapon without the President’s approval: “Nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth.” (See a compendium of clips from the film.) When “Fail-Safe”—a Hollywood thriller with a similar plot, directed by Sidney Lumet—opened, later that year, it was criticized in much the same way. “The incidents in ‘Fail-Safe’ are deliberate lies!” General Curtis LeMay, the Air Force chief of staff, said. “Nothing like that could happen.” The first casualty of every war is the truth—and the Cold War was no exception to that dictum. Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.
The command and control of nuclear weapons has long been plagued by an “always/never” dilemma. The administrative and technological systems that are necessary to insure that nuclear weapons are always available for use in wartime may be quite different from those necessary to guarantee that such weapons can never be used, without proper authorization, in peacetime. During the nineteen-fifties and sixties, the “always” in American war planning was given far greater precedence than the “never.” Through two terms in office, beginning in 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower struggled with this dilemma. He wanted to retain Presidential control of nuclear weapons while defending America and its allies from attack. But, in a crisis, those two goals might prove contradictory, raising all sorts of difficult questions. What if Soviet bombers were en route to the United States but the President somehow couldn’t be reached? What if Soviet tanks were rolling into West Germany but a communications breakdown prevented NATO officers from contacting the White House? What if the President were killed during a surprise attack on Washington, D.C., along with the rest of the nation’s civilian leadership? Who would order a nuclear retaliation then?
With great reluctance, Eisenhower agreed to let American officers use their nuclear weapons, in an emergency, if there were no time or no means to contact the President. Air Force pilots were allowed to fire their nuclear anti-aircraft rockets to shoot down Soviet bombers heading toward the United States. And about half a dozen high-level American commanders were allowed to use far more powerful nuclear weapons, without contacting the White House first, when their forces were under attack and “the urgency of time and circumstances clearly does not permit a specific decision by the President, or other person empowered to act in his stead.” Eisenhower worried that providing that sort of authorization in advance could make it possible for someone to do “something foolish down the chain of command” and start an all-out nuclear war. But the alternative—allowing an attack on the United States to go unanswered or NATO forces to be overrun—seemed a lot worse. Aware that his decision might create public unease about who really controlled America’s nuclear arsenal, Eisenhower insisted that his delegation of Presidential authority be kept secret. At a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he confessed to being “very fearful of having written papers on this matter.”
President John F. Kennedy was surprised to learn, just a few weeks after taking office, about this secret delegation of power. “A subordinate commander faced with a substantial military action,” Kennedy was told in a top-secret memo, “could start the thermonuclear holocaust on his own initiative if he could not reach you.” Kennedy and his national-security advisers were shocked not only by the wide latitude given to American officers but also by the loose custody of the roughly three thousand American nuclear weapons stored in Europe. Few of the weapons had locks on them. Anyone who got hold of them could detonate them. And there was little to prevent NATO officers from Turkey, Holland, Italy, Great Britain, and Germany from using them without the approval of the United States.
In December, 1960, fifteen members of Congress serving on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy had toured NATO bases to investigate how American nuclear weapons were being deployed. They found that the weapons—some of them about a hundred times more powerful than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima—were routinely guarded, transported, and handled by foreign military personnel. American control of the weapons was practically nonexistent. Harold Agnew, a Los Alamos physicist who accompanied the group, was especially concerned to see German pilots sitting in German planes that were decorated with Iron Crosses—and carrying American atomic bombs. Agnew, in his own words, “nearly wet his pants” when he realized that a lone American sentry with a rifle was all that prevented someone from taking off in one of those planes and bombing the Soviet Union.
* * *
The Kennedy Administration soon decided to put locking devices inside NATO’s nuclear weapons. The coded electromechanical switches, known as “permissive action links” (PALs), would be placed on the arming lines. The weapons would be inoperable without the proper code—and that code would be shared with NATO allies only when the White House was prepared to fight the Soviets. The American military didn’t like the idea of these coded switches, fearing that mechanical devices installed to improve weapon safety would diminish weapon reliability. A top-secret State Department memo summarized the view of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1961: “all is well with the atomic stockpile program and there is no need for any changes.”
After a crash program to develop the new control technology, during the mid-nineteen-sixties, permissive action links were finally placed inside most of the nuclear weapons deployed by NATO forces. But Kennedy’s directive applied only to the NATO arsenal. For years, the Air Force and the Navy blocked attempts to add coded switches to the weapons solely in their custody. During a national emergency, they argued, the consequences of not receiving the proper code from the White House might be disastrous. And locked weapons might play into the hands of Communist saboteurs. “The very existence of the lock capability,” a top Air Force general claimed, “would create a fail-disable potential for knowledgeable agents to ‘dud’ the entire Minuteman [missile] force.” The Joint Chiefs thought that strict military discipline was the best safeguard against an unauthorized nuclear strike. A two-man rule was instituted to make it more difficult for someone to use a nuclear weapon without permission. And a new screening program, the Human Reliability Program, was created to stop people with emotional, psychological, and substance-abuse problems from gaining access to nuclear weapons.
Despite public assurances that everything was fully under control, in the winter of 1964, while “Dr. Strangelove” was playing in theatres and being condemned as Soviet propaganda, there was nothing to prevent an American bomber crew or missile launch crew from using their weapons against the Soviets. Kubrick had researched the subject for years, consulted experts, and worked closely with a former R.A.F. pilot, Peter George, on the screenplay of the film. George’s novel about the risk of accidental nuclear war, “Red Alert,” was the source for most of “Strangelove” ’s plot. Unbeknownst to both Kubrick and George, a top official at the Department of Defense had already sent a copy of “Red Alert” to every member of the Pentagon’s Scientific Advisory Committee for Ballistic Missiles. At the Pentagon, the book was taken seriously as a cautionary tale about what might go wrong. Even Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara privately worried that an accident, a mistake, or a rogue American officer could start a nuclear war.
Coded switches to prevent the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons were finally added to the control systems of American missiles and bombers in the early nineteen-seventies. The Air Force was not pleased, and considered the new security measures to be an insult, a lack of confidence in its personnel. Although the Air Force now denies this claim, according to more than one source I contacted, the code necessary to launch a missile was set to be the same at every Minuteman site: 00000000.
* * *
The early permissive action links were rudimentary. Placed in NATO weapons during the nineteen-sixties and known as Category A PALs, the switches relied on a split four-digit code, with ten thousand possible combinations. If the United States went to war, two people would be necessary to unlock a nuclear weapon, each of them provided with half the code. Category A PALs were useful mainly to delay unauthorized use, to buy time after a weapon had been taken or to thwart an individual psychotic hoping to cause a large explosion. A skilled technician could open a stolen weapon and unlock it within a few hours. Today’s Category D PALs, installed in the Air Force’s hydrogen bombs, are more sophisticated. They require a six-digit code, with a million possible combinations, and have a limited-try feature that disables a weapon when the wrong code is repeatedly entered.
The Air Force’s land-based Minuteman III missiles and the Navy’s submarine-based Trident II missiles now require an eight-digit code—which is no longer 00000000—in order to be launched. The Minuteman crews receive the code via underground cables or an aboveground radio antenna. Sending the launch code to submarines deep underwater presents a greater challenge. Trident submarines contain two safes. One holds the keys necessary to launch a missile; the other holds the combination to the safe with the keys; and the combination to the safe holding the combination must be transmitted to the sub by very-low-frequency or extremely-low-frequency radio. In a pinch, if Washington, D.C., has been destroyed and the launch code doesn’t arrive, the sub’s crew can open the safes with a blowtorch.
The security measures now used to control America’s nuclear weapons are a vast improvement over those of 1964. But, like all human endeavors, they are inherently flawed. The Department of Defense’s Personnel Reliability Program is supposed to keep people with serious emotional or psychological issues away from nuclear weapons—and yet two of the nation’s top nuclear commanders were recently removed from their posts. Neither appears to be the sort of calm, stable person you want with a finger on the button. In fact, their misbehavior seems straight out of “Strangelove.”
Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, the second-highest-ranking officer at the U.S. Strategic Command—the organization responsible for all of America’s nuclear forces—-was investigated last summer for allegedly using counterfeit gambling chips at the Horseshoe Casino in Council Bluffs, Iowa. According to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, “a significant monetary amount” of counterfeit chips was involved. Giardina was relieved of his command on October 3, 2013. A few days later, Major General Michael Carey, the Air Force commander in charge of America’s intercontinental ballistic missiles, was fired for conduct “unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.” According to a report by the Inspector General of the Air Force, Carey had consumed too much alcohol during an official trip to Russia, behaved rudely toward Russian officers, spent time with “suspect” young foreign women in Moscow, loudly discussed sensitive information in a public hotel lounge there, and drunkenly pleaded to get onstage and sing with a Beatles cover band at La Cantina, a Mexican restaurant near Red Square. Despite his requests, the band wouldn’t let Carey onstage to sing or to play the guitar.
While drinking beer in the executive lounge at Moscow’s Marriott Aurora during that visit, General Carey made an admission with serious public-policy implications. He off-handedly told a delegation of U.S. national-security officials that his missile-launch officers have the “worst morale in the Air Force.” Recent events suggest that may be true. In the spring of 2013, nineteen launch officers at Minot Air Force base in North Dakota were decertified for violating safety rules and poor discipline. In August, 2013, the entire missile wing at Malmstrom Air Force base in Montana failed its safety inspection. Last week, the Air Force revealed that thirty-four launch officers at Malmstrom had been decertified for cheating on proficiency exams—and that at least three launch officers are being investigated for illegal drug use. The findings of a report by the RAND Corporation, leaked to the A.P., were equally disturbing. The study found that the rates of spousal abuse and court martials among Air Force personnel with nuclear responsibilities are much higher than those among people with other jobs in the Air Force. “We don’t care if things go properly,” a launch officer told RAND. “We just don’t want to get in trouble.”
The most unlikely and absurd plot element in “Strangelove” is the existence of a Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” The device would trigger itself, automatically, if the Soviet Union were attacked with nuclear weapons. It was meant to be the ultimate deterrent, a threat to destroy the world in order to prevent an American nuclear strike. But the failure of the Soviets to tell the United States about the contraption defeats its purpose and, at the end of the film, inadvertently causes a nuclear Armageddon. “The whole point of the Doomsday Machine is lost,” Dr. Strangelove, the President’s science adviser, explains to the Soviet Ambassador, “if you keep it a secret!”
A decade after the release of “Strangelove,” the Soviet Union began work on the Perimeter system—-a network of sensors and computers that could allow junior military officials to launch missiles without oversight from the Soviet leadership. Perhaps nobody at the Kremlin had seen the film. Completed in 1985, the system was known as the Dead Hand. Once it was activated, Perimeter would order the launch of long-range missiles at the United States if it detected nuclear detonations on Soviet soil and Soviet leaders couldn’t be reached. Like the Doomsday Machine in “Strangelove,” Perimeter was kept secret from the United States; its existence was not revealed until years after the Cold War ended.
In retrospect, Kubrick’s black comedy provided a far more accurate description of the dangers inherent in nuclear command-and-control systems than the ones that the American people got from the White House, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media.
“This is absolute madness, Ambassador,” President Merkin Muffley says in the film, after being told about the Soviets’ automated retaliatory system. “Why should you build such a thing?” Fifty years later, that question remains unanswered, and “Strangelove” seems all the more brilliant, bleak, and terrifyingly on the mark.
You can read Eric Schlosser’s guide to the long-secret documents that help explain the risks America took with its nuclear arsenal, and watch and read his deconstruction of clips from “Dr. Strangelove” and from a little-seen film about permissive action links.
Eric Schlosser is the author of “Command and Control.”