Categories
Favorite Songs

Outside a Small Circle of Friends

Considering that Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” has been one of my favorite folk-rock songs for years, it may seem a little strange that Phil Och’s “Outside a Small Circle of Friends” is also one of my favorite songs despite the fact that the messages of the two seem almost diametrically opposed.

While “Doctor My Eyes” points out how painful it is to see all the misery that exists in our world, “Outside a Small Circle of Friends” complains that people are too self-absorbed and ignore all the injustices going on around them. If we’ve already seen too much of the world’s misery, why would we want to be told that people are ignoring the injustices of the world and that we need to be more involved?

Beats, me. Perhaps it’s just because this little ditty is set to a snappy, Scott-Joplin piano arrangement or because the irony is just funny enough to keep us laughing when we might be crying. Or, perhaps because it’s true. Too few people want to get involved with the injustices of the world, one of many reason that such injustices continue to exist.

If more people got involved in solving these injustices there wouldn’t be so much misery in the world, and we wouldn’t have to close our eyes to so much of it.

OUTSIDE A SMALL CIRCLE OF FRIENDS

Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed

They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed

Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain

But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends.

Riding down the highway, yes, my back is getting stiff

Thirteen cars are piled up, they’re hanging on a cliff.

Now, maybe we should pull them back with our towing chain

But we gotta move and we might get sued and it looks like it’s gonna rain

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends.

Sweating in the ghetto with the colored and the poor

The rats have joined the babies who are sleeping on the floor

Now wouldn’t it be a riot if they really blew their tops?

But they got too much already and besides we got the cops

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends.

Oh, there’s a dirty paper using sex to make a sale

The Supreme Court was so upset, they sent him off to jail.

Maybe we should help the fiend and take away his fine.

But we’re busy reading Playboy and the Sunday New York Times

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends

Smoking marihuana is more fun than drinking beer,

But a friend of ours was captured and they gave him thirty years

Maybe we should raise our voices, ask somebody why

But demonstrations are a drag, besides we’re much too high

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends

Oh look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed

They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed

Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain

But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game

And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody

Outside of a small circle of friends

By beginning and ending the song with one of the most shocking incidents in recent history, a famous incident where a woman was killed while neighbors did nothing, not even calling the police, Ochs assured that he would begin with the listener on his side. No one would dare argue that these people were right to hide behind their smug, secure walls and allow an innocent woman to be murdered because “they didn’t want to get involved.” The refrain “outside a small circle of friends” underlines just how limited our concern for others has become in a “Christian” society where everyone is our “brother.”

It seems equally clear that people have an obligation to help each other. Some states have even passed Good Samaritan laws to require people to stop and offer aid.

While a few people may argue that poverty in the inner cities is the result of people being too lazy to get an education and get a job, most people agree that we have a social responsibility to, somehow, remedy these problems.

The last two stanzas, of course, are much more controversial, but they certainly point out the hypocrisy of doing something yourself and then allowing others to be convicted for doing the same thing. Certainly our drug laws, no matter how “moral” they may be, have done little to convince people that marihuana is immoral and worse than alcohol. At best, they have simply overwhelmed our criminal system with criminals who probably aren’t while allowing alcoholics to “legally” kill innocent citizens while continuing to drive our highways.

It’s no wonder we feel “guilty” that we’re aren’t doing more to improve our world, because the reality is that until everyone gets involved, which doesn’t seem likely to happen in the near future, there are too many problems that desperately need the attention and the money of those of us who are concerned about our world.

Categories
Favorite Songs

Doctor, My Eyes

When I returned from Vietnam years ago, I was uncertain what I wanted to do with myself. I spent two or three months at my parents’ home trying to sort my life out, usually late at night thinking about what had happened, what it meant, and what the hell to do about it.

Finally, with my savings running out, I had to decide how to get on with my life. Though offered training as a banker, I felt I needed to do something more for society to be happy. Learning there were openings for caseworkers, I took the written tests and scored high enough to be hired, even though I had a degree in English, not psychology.

Truthfully, though, I was totally unprepared for what awaited me on the job, as unprepared as I was for what I had seen in Vietnam. As an old-age-assistance caseworker I learned where Americans discarded their elderly. My middle-class upbringing had not prepared me for the hidden poverty and misery that hid in the very neighborhoods where I had been raised. America does a good job of hiding the poor that live among us.

When I started dating a child welfare worker, I was even more shocked. I had no idea of the extent of child neglect and child abuse that existed, no idea how common incest was. Yet, I had gone to school with these very children, unaware of the living hell that many of them existed in.

I had such a hard time dealing with these new insights that I gradually began to sink into a state of depression, probably accelerated by occasional drinking bouts as a way of getting happy and finding some temporary relief from the pain I was increasingly feeling.

I increasingly began to feel that the welfare system was more punitive than redemptive. I felt bad every time I had to ask an aged client whether they had received any cash gifts for Christmas or their birthday, because, if they had, the gifts had to be deducted from their next welfare payments. I increasingly began to feel that the system was putting band-aids on sucking chest wounds, that I was as much a victim of the system as my clients were, and that if I didn’t escape soon I wouldn’t make it.

By some form of faulty reasoning, and perhaps a great leap of faith, I decided the best way to solve these problem was to catch them before they ever got into the system. I decided I needed to become a teacher if I really wanted to make a difference in people’s life. Thank God the young are naive, or nothing would ever be done about society’s problems.

After a few years of teaching high school, it was obvious that saving the world was going to be slow work. Some people apparently didn’t want to be saved and were quite happy wasting this opportunity to improve themselves no matter how much you tried to help them. Even worse, spending the day trapped inside a room with students who didn’t want to learn could be excruciatingly painful.

About this time I discovered Jackson Browne’s:

Doctor My Eyes

Doctor, my eyes have seen the years
And the slow parade of fears without crying
Now I want to understand.
I have done all that I could
To see the evil and the good without hiding.
You must help me if you can.

Doctor, my eyes.
Tell me what is wrong.
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?

As I have wandered through this world
And as each moment has unfurled
I’ve been waiting to awaken from these dreams.
People go just where there will.
I never noticed them until I got this feeling
That it’s later than it seems.

Doctor, my eyes.
Tell me what you see.
I hear their cries.
Just say if it’s too late for me.

Doctor, my eyes
Cannot see the sky.
Is this the price for having learned how not to cry?

Now, the song didn’t actually transform my life or make teaching any easier, but it was comforting to realize that someone else felt the same way I did. Perhaps it even helped me put some distance between my situation and myself. At best, it could even alert the world to all the tragedy that was commonly overlooked.

Eventually I learned to take time for my children and myself, learned that you have to be happy if you are going to have enough energy to help others, and, perhaps most importantly, learned that you can only help improve the world one person at a time.

And, sadly enough, no matter how much you want to help someone, at times there is nothing you can do but let that person work out his or her own destiny.

Sometimes you even have to learn to look away so that you still have tears left to cry and so you can still see the sky.

Categories
Favorite Songs

I Ain’t No Fortunate One

It’s amazing to me how particular sounds have such a strong emotional effect on me. For instance, I still can’t hear the sound of a helicopter flying overhead without getting a sick feeling in my stomache and without ducking, no matter where the incident might take place.

Although I’ve developed a taste for Chinese cuisine, even Vietnamese, I still refuse to go to a Vietnamese restaurant because the sound of Vietnamese being spoken in the background affects me so strongly. There’s nothing more gut-wrenching than having your radio frequencies jammed at night with Vietnamese when your out in the jungle.

Maybe it’s not too strange, then, that when it comes to strong memories or feelings I almost always think of music. Maybe I’ve just seen one too many movies, but there it is. I measure my life and its emotions as much in songs as I do in stories or events

Fortunate Son

Some folks are born made to wave the flag,
Ooh, they’re red, white and blue.
And when the band plays "Hail to the chief",
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord.

It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no senator’s son, son.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me;
I ain’t no fortunate one, no.

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand,
Lord, don’t they help themselves, oh.
But when the taxman comes to the door,
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yeah.

It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me;
I ain’t no fortunate one, no.

Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes,
Ooh, they send you down to war, Lord,
And when you ask them, "How much should we give?"
Ooh, they only answer More! more! more!

It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no military son, son.
It ain’t me, it ain’t me;
I ain’t no fortunate one.

It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no fortunate one, no no no,
It ain’t me, it ain’t me,
I ain’t no fortunate son, lord no no
It ain’t me, it ain’t me.

Creedance Clearwater Revival from Willy and the Poor Boys

Considering my personal experiences in Vietnam, perhaps it’s not surprising that my favorite protest song is “Fortunate Son” by Creedance Clearwater Revival. I never joined the protests against the war after I got out of the Army out of deference to my friends who were still fighting there, but I never supported the war and to this day I still resent the rich Republican son-of-a-bitches who advocate war but who hid in the National Guard or Army Reserves while the rest of us did their fighting for them.

Now, lest you think that I was somehow retarded or overly patriotic (Isn’t that a redundancy?), I had joined R.O.T.C. years before in the naive belief that in a democracy everyone owed an obligation to their nation to serve. Besides, I had never even heard of Vietnam when I joined.

My unit was one of the first Armor units sent to Vietnam, so we got the top officers from Fort Knox to fill the empty officer slots. It was considered quite a coup to get combat duty in Vietnam because it was considered crucial to later promotions. Oh, lucky me, I thought, I who had never in this life time considered a career in the Army.

Before my unit was sent to Vietnam we drafted men from southern California to fill the unit up, trained them for six months, and took them off to fight. My platoon ended up with three whites in it: myself, my platoon sergeant, and an E5 from Canada. All the rest of the men were either blacks or Hispanic. Now, I know there were a lot of minorities in southern California, but statistically there’s no way that draft could have been handled fairly. There must have been a hell of a lot of colleges in California to hide in, or a draft board composed of middle-age whites who thought they needed to keep the white boys home to protect the home front.

Hell, I didn’t even think much of it then. I was much too busy trying to get these 18 year-olds ready for combat and trying to teach them enough to keep themselves, and me, alive. By the time I was relieved of my command in Vietnam I would have died trying to save each and every one of them. For a short time, I was closer to them than I have ever been to anyone in my life.

I even volunteered to extend my tour of duty in Vietnam so that I could stay with them until they, too, finished their tour of duty. When told that I would be assigned to duty in Saigon instead of staying with my unit, I quickly dropped that idea. The war meant nothing to me, but my men meant everything.

That tour of duty in Vietnam changed me in more ways than I could ever explain, probably for the better and for the worst, but I have never, unless for a moment or two, regretted it.<

Let me just say that I don’t have “star-spangled eyes,” and it would take a hell of a lot more than a cannon pointed at me to make me sing ”Hail to the Chief,” particularly if it were a Republican Chief.

Categories
Favorite Songs

I Pity the Fool

Don’t know about you, but I sometimes think I’ve spent my life two steps from the blues. I’m still trying to stay one step ahead of them, though I’m never quite sure if they’re behind me or ahead of me. Far as I know, they could be waiting just up ahead around the bend in the road. For sure, no matter how fast you walk, you can’t ever outrun the blues. Best you can hope to do is sing them away.

Being raised in a white middle class neighborhood, I’m sure I was introduced to the blues by white singers who “covered” black singles with their own hits. My favorite of these is “Hound Dog,” and it is still one of my all-time-favorite songs despite later discovering Big Mama Thornton’s version.

However, when I heard Bobby Blue Bland sing “I Pity the Fool” on The Dick Clark Show, I was immediately converted to a true blues fan forever. While my high school friends were listening to Elvis Presley,The Everly Brothers, Brenda Lee, Bobby Rydell, and Connie Francis, I was hunting down blues classics, starting with Bobby Blue Bland recordings.

By now my copy of Two Steps from the Blues is so worn, as the cover above probaly attests to, that I have to find copies of the songs on best-of CD’s that I’ve bought in recent years. But that album somehow got me through two disappointing “loves” in high school, a “dear loren” letter on my way to Vietnam, and a divorce.

In retrospect, when you look at the lyrics of “I Pity The Fool”

I pity the fool

I say I pity the fool

Whoa, I pity the fool,

Yeah.

I say, I pity the Fool

That falls in love with you

And expects you to be true

Oh, I pity the Fool.

Look at the people

I know you wonder what they’re doing

They just standing there

Watching you make a fool of me.

Look at the people

I know you wonder what they’re doing

They just standing there

Watching you make a fool of me.

Oh, I pity the fool

I pity the fool that falls in love with you

Oh, I pity the fool

I pity the fool that falls in love with you

She’ll break your heart one day

Then she’ll laugh and walk away

Oh, I pity the fool.

Look at the people

I know you wonder what they’re doing

They just standing there

Watching you make a fool of me.

Look at the people

I know you wonder what they’re doing

Yeah, they just standing there

Watching you make a fool of me.

Oh, I pity the fool

I say I pity the fool

Oh, I pity the fool

I say I pity the fool, baby.

there doesn’t seem to be much there. But combined with the driving arrangements of Joe Scott and the powerful voice of Bobby, “I Pity the Fool” will flat blow away your blues, if only for two minutes and 42 seconds. (You can find sound samples for the album’s reissue on Amazon.com) For me, at least, there’s enough irony, and insight, in the lyrics to help distance you from your sorrow. When listened in combination with the album’s blues ballads “Two Steps from the Blues,” “Cry, Cry, Cry,” and “I Just Got to Forget You,” you can almost imagine that you’re going to make it after all, at least until the next time you fall in love.

I’ve been buying Bobby Bland albums wherever I can find them for the last forty years, even replacing older albums with new CD’s. I’ve never been disappointed by one of his albums, pehaps because “I Pity the Fool” has been such a large part of my life.

A search on the web shows that others have been rediscovering Bland’s talents, as seen in this article in Salon: Bobby Bland