A: WHERE THE NAKED BODIES ARE BURIED
Coded messages whizz through the aether, over and under and through our heads, and the invisible trajectories of these secret signals form the flexible lattice-work of which Consciousness is merely a corner. Most of these signals are “natural” (ie, from before or beyond the work of humans) but many are (wo)man-made. The more of these signals you equip yourself to perceive, the richer your experience of Life; the better, in some cases, you will be situated to navigate those aspects of Life that resemble an Easter Egg hunt, Chess game, Kafkaesque labyrinth or gauntlet. In the spirit of Quod est superius est sicut quod inferius, et quod inferius est sicut quod est superius (which we paraphrase, commonly, as “As above, so below”) I always find it instructive and amusing to contemplate some of the hidden (apparent) messages in Pop.
The golden age of the hidden message in Pop had to be the mid-20th century, when recording technology and wireless transmission grew apace with the hyper-vigilance of puritanical censors. As late as 1970, the word “Christ,” in John Lennon’s “Ballad of John and Yoko,” was bleeped or reversed for use on the air, but Lennon, in the old tradition of Artists slipping one over on Official Repression, had already got the Beatles singing a back-up chorus of “tit tit tit tit tit tit” on his song “Girl,” in the year 1965. The Cat and Mouse game between Artist and Censor has always created gems of crafty invention, some cryptogenic pop gems being burlesque open secrets (see: “The Fuh King” or “LOLA”) and others so well-hidden that, still, to this day, few have picked up on the forbidden component of the double entendre. For example, consider this excerpt from the text of Millie Small’s hit from 1964:
My boy Lollipop
You made my heart go giddy-up
You are as sweet as candy
You’re my sugar dandy
Nothing in the lyrics as to whether Millie actually swallowed. Millie’s version of the song was not the first and Barbie Gaye’s first version (of those lyrics) was so good that Brill Building hit-writer Ellie Greenwich named herself “Ellie Gaye” when she started out. Greenwich, both of whose parents were of Russian descent, initially adopted the pseudonym “Gaye” to cover the obvious pseudonym “Greenwich” (which is not, as far as we know, a Russian surname) and went on to write (or co-write) the following lyrics for one of her biggest hits:
I knew what he was doing when he caught my eye
Da doo ron-ron-ron, Da doo ron-ron
He looked so quiet but my oh my
Da doo ron-ron-ron, Da doo ron-ron
Yeah, he caught my eye
Yes, oh my, oh my
And when he walked me home
Da doo ron-ron-ron, Da doo ron-ron
Wiki says: “The title “Da Doo Ron Ron” was initially just nonsense syllables used as dummy line to separate each stanza and chorus until proper lyrics could be written, but Spector liked it so much that he kept it.” But what are the odds that it’s just a coincidence that “doo” sounds just like “dew” and “ron” like “run” and that “the dew runs” makes perfect sense in the context of a girl feeling a powerful (vaginal-moisture-generating) sexual attraction to some fellow named Bill? Maybe both “Lollipop” and “Da Doo Ron Ron” are double-entendres hiding in plain sight (both “kiddy-friendly” songs could still be hurt, commercially, if sexual subtexts were authoritatively ascribed to them), or maybe one or both were artifacts of the composers’ subconscious… or of mine. With the deepest cryptogenic messages, one must remain Agnostic. But this next one, surely, is blatant:
‘Cause I live and breathe
This Philadelphia freedom
From the day that I was born
I’ve waved the flag
Took me knee high to a man
Gave me peace of mind my daddy never had
Elton John’s hit, from 1976. Remembering that the word “Philadelphia” itself is Greek for “brotherly love,” how can “Philadelphia freedom/ Took me knee high to a man” be anything other than a reference to the submissive activity I have just now suggested is immortalized in the Millie Smalls hit? But is Elton (or Bernie) telling us that Bernie’s (or Elton’s) daddy was closeted, too?
Some cryptogenic pop hits end up being demystified by their own creators: it was Mick who graciously revealed that the “losing streak” mentioned in “Satisfaction” refers to the menstrual event of the girl Mick (and/or Keith) is therefore unable to achieve Satisfaction with (which, I have to say, having been raised in the ’60s and ’70s, strikes me as rather prissy, from either side of the equation). And some (or maybe just one) song(s) appeared to be one long double-entendre and wasn’t, though “Louie Louie” kept getting itself banned from the airwaves, unfairly, nevertheless. I blame the para-cryptogenic singing of Jack Ely, who generated a kind of audio-Rorschach test, in singing Louie Louie, that any puritanical censor with repressed urges could read into, though Ely had an excuse: para-cryptogenic conditions: “To sound like a live performance, Ely was forced to lean back and sing to a microphone suspended from the ceiling. “It was more yelling than singing,” Ely said, “’cause I was trying to be heard over all the instruments.” In addition, he was wearing braces at the time of the performance, further compounding his infamously slurred words.” Such is the stuff of the enduring allure of the Obscure Mysterious. Scholars are still poring over Finnegans Wake (middlebrow spell check demands that I insert that apostrophe! ha!) and lots of stuff by Sam Beckett, and Monsieur Baudrillard, too.
Another, subtler, subcategory of the cryptogenic in Pop: songs with “obscene” or sexually indiscreet lyrics that aren’t hidden, in double-entendres, at all, but quite straightforward… yet glossed over by oblivious fans. There’s this:
I waited ’til I saw the sun
I don’t know why I didn’t come
I left you by the house of fun
Don’t know why I didn’t come
Don’t know why I didn’t come
A poignant aubade that says exactly what it means and is, as of today, still a favorite to play at all kinds of Funerals, Weddings, Christenings and Church Dances, alongside:
What’s really going on below
But now you never show it to me, do you?
And I remember when I moved in you
And the holy dove she was moving too
And every single breath we drew was Hallelujah
Well, now that the Sexual Revolution has finally arrived, and overshot the reasonable boundaries of its original remit by quite some distance, gentle single-entendres and naughtier double-entendres are no longer really a thing. How can they be when mainstream Pop now features lyrics like…. erm…
Now get your boots and your coat for this wet ass pussy
He bought a phone just for pictures of this wet ass pussy
Pay my tuition just to kiss me on this wet ass pussy
Now make it rain if you wanna see some wet ass pussy
Yes, no. The 21st century has (until perhaps the inevitable backlash; let’s not forget that Hedy Lamar was fully frontally nude in the 1933 film Extase and Jelly Roll Morton was singing the word Motherfucker in the early 1900s… both of which would feel unthinkable by 1950) put an end to the seriously encrypted sexual double-entendre in song, Lit and film.
Wouldn’t it be great if it turned out that “Now get your boots and your coat for this wet ass pussy” is a double-entendre of a coded message Trojan-horsing anti-Techno-fascist sentiments to Duh Masses?
B: THE BLACKEST WHITE LIES IN THE MIRROR
When I was a kid, Johnny Cash had hits on the A.M. radio, and I always got an ominous feeling when I heard his voice, or the voices of most country stars (with the exception of Ray Charles, whom I found rather corny). For me, at the age of c. 7-10 years old, Country Western music was the sound of Racism, and tokens like Charley Pride did nothing to dispel that impression. Yes, Charley Pride was a star… but so was Steppin Fetchit; so was Rochester, on the Jack Benny Show. Was Charley Pride using the same toilet facilities, at the Grand Ol’ Opry, in 1967, as the White janitor? Then in 2020 I got wind of the fact that Johnny Cash’s first wife, Viv, was Black, and so the Johnny Cash figure, in my imagination, changed in charge/value from “Racist” to “Hipster” . Which was nice. Though Life is always so much more complicated than “nice”.
It was just a few days ago that the “Johnny Cash’s First Wife was Black” meme passed through my Internet, again, and I looked more closely at it, being interested, and found several pictures of his wife, who was, as they say, “Mulatto”. Very pretty. Her father was Italian and her mother was partially Black. There are “octoroons” (one-eight Black) people out there who are indistinguishable from the people that all people think of as merely White, but Vivian Cash (who died in 2005) was clearly not one of those. Viv looked like a whiter Eartha Kitt, but not a much whiter Eartha, and since “Race” and “Beauty,” on this planet, are a largely hair and facial game of millimeters, one’s apparent Race can vary, in photographs, according to the time of day, one’s facial expression, summer exposure to the sun and, importantly (the nose is often key), one’s age and weight. Viv was “passing” until a fateful photo was taken on some courthouse steps. Johnny was in trouble for having caused a forest fire, but the shit hit the fans not because of the acres of charcoaled trees but because Viv looked pretty fucking unambiguously of Black descent in the photo.
The picture was taken in 1965 and The Klan went nuts. Cash (rather disappointingly but, hey, things were like that in ’65) issued a flat-out denial, asserting that his wife was Italian, and definitely White. Johnny and Viv look quite sexy together in that pic; Viv is almost Sci-Fi sleek in her black, high-collared outfit and royally big hair. It must have been frightening to live in the heart of the Cracker Imperium in 19fucking65 and be outed as a Country Western Couple doubling as Interracial Trailblazers. I’d have been terrified for the kids (of which there were four, Rosanne Cash being the most famous of them).
Here were Johnny and Viv as youngsters:
Striking, no? But how was Viv passing for anything other than Mixed? Johnny and Viv had a three-year betrothal, starting when they met at a skating rink, and stretched by his stint in the army, and his parents were there all along, accepting Viv as Johnny’s girl and then wife. How did that work in Texas in the 1950s? Were Cash’s parents hipster-cool or so provincial that they didn’t know what a Mixed person looked like? Did Johnny really not know or did he only know subliminally and did the subconscious drives of his libido egg him on?
I doubt that Viv could have “passed” if she’d been brought up in Mississippi or Georgia, with so many blatant Mulattos running around. On the other hand, invisible octoroons (Carol Channing from Seattle, Dwight D. Eisenhower from Kansas, J. Edgar Hoover from Washington, D.C.) were being fed into the pipeline to America’s Public Life from all over the country. Btw, here’s a picture of J. Edgar when he was young and closeted on two distinct levels:
While we’re at it, here are two pictures of relatives of mine (father’s first cousins) who were “passing” for White in the ’60s and ’70s and probably continued to do so until they died, although I can’t help feeling that many of their neighbors, in their all-White neighborhood, and many of their chums at their all-White cotillions, must have been rather sweetly humoring them:
The woman in the blue dress, in the photo above, is the mother of the children in the photo, and she and her husband and these children were the ones who “passed for White”. The bride-to-be in the picture, on the other hand, chose not to pass. The little boy is now passing for Jewish (but in an insinuated way: FaceBoot posts of his rhapsodize knowingly over the corned beef in various delis and he is wont to wish one a Happy Hanukkah). But check out this earlier photo of the lady in the blue dress, with her husband, on their honeymoon:
Cool pic, yes. But come on, how the Hell…? Were they claiming to be Italian, too?
But, back to the epic of Vivian Cash. I recently acquired her autobiography, written to “set the record straight” with Johnny Cash’s blessing, because I was curious about her family; curious about the pressures of “passing” (or trying to) she experienced, the wild twists and turns of her genealogy. My genealogy is full of wild twists and my photo collection is full of racially-ambiguous Mutts (and pretty much all the women in my family photos are stunning, though is that down to our genes or the selection process I applied to the photos?). The stunning Viv surely had a story to tell.
I began reading her book yesterday. I read: “I actually led a very sheltered life. Mother and Daddy were strict with me and my sister, Sylvia, and brother, Ray. During the school year I attended St. Mary’s Catholic School for girls, located by the river in downtown San Antonio. In keeping with school tradition, we wore uniforms of dark blue gabardine skirts, white blouses, and navy-and-white saddle oxfords. In most every respect, my life was disciplined and ordered.”
I wasn’t expecting Gertrude Stein but the banality was strong there. All the better to dramatize the trauma when Reality intrudes, I reasoned. Race-spiked memoirs usually feature a primal scene in Sunday School or Kindergarten when an innocent of more-or-less-color is, for the first time, disabused of the notion that he or she is just like all the other kids. I read on and no such primal scene appeared. “Odd,” I thought. Well, how about the Big Talk that Viv, or Viv’s parents, must have had with Johnny, or with Viv, regarding the special difficulties of raising an Integrated Family in hostile territory? No such moment appeared in the book. Impatient, I searched the text for the word “Negro” and got:
“Everyone in the world saw the photo, including the Ku Klux Klan, who decided, after looking at my picture, “Johnny Cash is married to a Negro woman.” Johnny and I received death threats, and an already shameful situation was made infinitely worse. The stress was almost unbearable; I wanted to die. And it didn’t help that Johnny issued a statement to the KKK informing them I wasn’t black. To this day I hate when accusations and threats from people like that are dignified with any response at all.”
This refers to the above-cited photo, on the courthouse steps, in which Viv is outed as obviously of Mixed descent. I noticed immediately the ambiguity of her sentence “To this day I hate when accusations and threats from people like that are dignified with any response at all“. Viv had nothing editorial to say about Johnny’s lie, or half-truth, or lie of omission regarding her “not-Blackness”. I read on and was astonished to find that the book says nothing (nothing) about Viv’s racially-interesting genealogy. All Viv says about herself: “I was a slender girl—skinny as a rail, actually—all legs and elbows, with hazel eyes and chestnut hair, and I was extremely shy.” I was expecting the brave narrative of an envelope-pushing couple’s battle against Racism but that’s not what I got and half of what I got was the opposite of that, in a way.
In short, in this autobiography, composed in the early 2000s with the help of a professional writer, Vivian Cash was still attempting to pass for White. Which only matters to the extent that A) only Racist Conditions provide the necessary excuse for “Passing” and B) the Psychology of the die-hard Changeling is fascinating. Who cares, right? Well, plenty still do. There is still a Racial Hierarchy, socioeconomically speaking, and the only change in that, as far as I can tell, occurs in the much-disputed territory of the battle for third and fourth place. For too many, “Black” is still a pejorative; a level-down on the Social Scale. Perhaps the pretense was maintained in part to protect the careers and social standing of Vivian’s daughters, especially Country Western star Rosanne, who recently appeared on the show Finding Your Roots, interestingly enough, and seemed to feign surprise at the whole business. To quote an entire article devoted to that episode of the show:
“It feels heartbreaking,” Rosanne Cash admitted through tears after finding out that an ancestor of her mother, Vivian Liberto Cash — the first wife of singer-songwriter Johnny Cash, who both received threats from the KKK — was enslaved. This ancestor was Vivian’s maternal great-great grandmother, a Black woman named Sarah Shields, whom Rosanne learned about for the first time ever during an episode of the PBS show Finding Your Roots that aired in Feb. 2021. At the time, only Vivian’s European background had been known, and this discovery in her ancestry resurfaced thanks to a profile on Johnny’s first wife in The Washington Post on May 16.
Before the PBS episode, the world only knew that Vivian was reported to be of Sicilian heritage on her dad’s side, and German/Irish on her mother’s side. However, in the ’60s amid the Civil Rights Movement, Vivian had been the target of attention from white supremacists since they believed she looked Black. “My dad got into a public battle with the KKK and so I knew about that, and it was scary,” Rosanne said during the PBS special. At one point, Johnny even told the KKK in a statement that Vivian was white.
How did Rosanne go for so long without knowing this part of her family history? Well, the father of Sarah (Vivian’s great-great grandmother) was white and gave his daughter and her eight siblings freedom in 1848, according to The Washington Post. This led Sarah to marry a white man, and their children and descendants “were listed as white” during a time when the racist Jim Crow laws were enforced in the Southern U.S. “That’s likely why to this day, many of her direct descendants have no idea that they have any African American ancestry,” historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., who hosts Finding Your Roots, explained to Rosanne.
Henry’s research also led him to discover a census** from 1870, which revealed that Rosanne’s great-great grandfather — a man named Lafayette Robinson* — was “mixed-race.” Upon learning this, Rosanne recalled the long-running rumors of her mother’s background and said, “So, it was, at least, a small part true.”
“A small part true”? MyGawd, how much denial was/is that family living in?
Ach, but it gets worse.
The bulk of Viv’s memoir consists of the love letters Viv and Johnny exchanged when they were young and he was cork-blowingly horny… and there are some shockers, from Johnny, in the bunch that Viv, most bizarrely, had no apparent problem publishing, though they might just as easily (or fortuitously, in fact) been left out… unless she meant to use these nasty letters as an alibi to prove that she “couldn’t” have been Black? Here’s one rather damning, chest-beating excerpt from Johnny:
I didn’t do anyone any harm except maybe myself. Although I nearly had a fight with some smart Negro at the club, which wasn’t my fault. He came in the door pushing everybody, and walked down the aisle jigging when he walked with his collar turned up. When he pushed by me, I pushed him. He finally calmed down and sat down after I asked him to go outside.
They’re not so mean and tough when it comes to actually doing something.
And here’s another we can’t brush off as mere young Cracker bravado:
To top it all off, we got a taxi and started back to the hotel at 1:00. We stopped at the train station for a few minutes and a Negro called me a bus driver. As soon as he saw I wasn’t afraid of him, he started walking off, and I called him every name anyone has ever given a Negro. The further he walked away, the louder I yelled, calling him “Coon,” “Nigger,” “Jig-aboo,” and a few others. I yelled for a full 30 minutes that I could whip any Negro that walked on the face of the earth. None showed up so we went to the hotel and went to bed after waking nearly everybody in the hotel with our noise.
People are nuts, aren’t they? Racist-Nuts, Self-Deluding-Nuts, Gullible-Nuts…
My ten-year-old’s-intuition regarding Johnny Cash was spot-on, I’m afraid. From “Hipster” right back to “Racist” Johnny goes, in my files, not that the two categories are mutually-exclusive.
C: NOTHING IS BUT WHAT IS NOT… STILL.
Why did “Mark Twain” (the mask on Samuel Clemens) argue that Shakespeare never wrote (nor could have written) Shakespeare? What are the problems with the so-called Droeshout Portrait? I had to read quite a bit of “Shakespeare,” in school (that’s how old I am), and one of the hottest bits of shrapnel, therefrom, lodging closest to the surface of my mind, has always been conspiracy theorist Macbeth’s “Nothing is but what is not”. I live by that motto, in fact. It is in the nature of Nature and the psyche of the Human (being itself Natural) to feature layers and levels and not all of these depths are of the same polarity. It is also in the nature of Power (in the context of human society) to forbid… and the forbidding drives Truth, too often, underground. Though perhaps underground is where some Truths, or their bearers, are safest.
Too few now know that Elizabethan writers who were considered enemies of the state were imprisoned, tortured, executed. Writer Anne Askew was tortured and imprisoned more than once, before being burned at the stake, for heresy. As horrible as Anne Askew’s martyrdom was, what adds to the horror, for me, is that Askew died defending metaphysical twaddle, which contradicted the metaphysical twaddle of the ruling regime that had her tortured: Askew was a Protestant, her torturers and killers were Catholic (this was before the religious power dynamic flipped, and flipped, and flipped again, etc, to whatever it is now). In any case, Anne Askew (was her surname apocryphal?) died after hours of great agony of stretched and broken and un-socketed limbs (someone sympathetic to her cause slipped enough gunpowder on to the chair, upon which her broken body was heaped, to ensure an explosion killed her before the flames could): this was 1546. The Reformation that would have spared her life was already underway.
“Shakespeare’s” First Folio was printed in 1623, seven years after “his death,” which would have put whoever actually wrote the stuff (Marlowe? Ben Johnson? Both? More…?) at his/her/their prime within living memory of Askew’s ordeal, though, by (for example) Christopher Marlowe’s time, the monarchy was Protestant. Marlowe (reputed to have been a spy) dabbled in heresies for most of his life and would have understood the convenience, and higher techniques, of skin-saving dissembling. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was “arrested and tortured for the political content of his work and was suspected of conspiring in the Gunpowder Plot”.
In 1929, Samuel Roth was jailed for publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses, a carceral blow job compared to what Anne Askew endured for denying the “truth” of transubstantiation: it strikes me that the more Power they can wield over the masses in general, the less cruelly they need to exercise Power on the bodies of individual heretics. No more breaking us on the rack: cancelling us on Twitter will do.
Stanley Kubrick, a master at making Art enriched with secret skeins of coded message, only had career repercussions (or, in the worst case, if some of the secrets he appeared to encode were as sensitive as we might claim, a silent visit from the CIA) to fear. But it’s clear he had something to hide and hid (most of ) it well.
What Heresies do we face, today, worth codifying our reactions to in cryptic messages whizzing through the aether, over and under and through our heads? How will today’s very particular Taboos enrich Song, Literature and Film? Will they? Is the Censorship So Strong and All-Permeating, now, that the Censor is now, literally, a Hypnotist and Heretical messages are fewer and fewer born because our minds are “right”? Or are there still among us the bold, aware or foolhardy enough to form coded responses to our various madnesses that Historical Hindsight is bound (one hopes) to reveal, in decades or centuries, as patently absurd or Evil?
To trace a path to the outline of whatever is being done most outrageously against us, I suppose the smartest first thing to do is to name the Forbidden.
What is it that we aren’t even allowed to debate?
D: A QUICK LESSON IN PHARMACOLOGY, MARKETING, SCIENCE, “SCIENCE” and MORALITY: THALIDOMIDE AS A METAPHOR
The last paragraph is the punchline, obviously (and the third paragraph is the twist), but the key question remains: did they, in fact, concoct this dangerous drug and (applying the principles of irresponsible guess work) come up with possible uses for it after the fact? Weren’t you (like I) always under the impression that powerful pharmaceuticals were designed as a result of lengthy research into very specific medical conditions and produced with those very specific medical conditions in mind… ? Apparently not. How naïve we were. The four paragraphs below are taken from Wikipedia:
—-Thalidomide, sold under the brand names Contergan and Thalomid among others, is a medication used to treat a number of cancers (including multiple myeloma), graft-versus-host disease, and a number of skin conditions including complications of leprosy. While it has been used in a number of HIV-associated conditions, such use is associated with increased levels of the virus. It is administered orally..
—-Thalidomide was first marketed in 1957 in West Germany, where it was available over the counter. When first released, thalidomide was promoted for anxiety, trouble sleeping, “tension”, and morning sickness. While it was initially thought to be safe in pregnancy, concerns regarding birth defects arose until in 1961 the medication was removed from the market in Europe. The total number of embryos affected by use during pregnancy is estimated at 10,000, of which about 40% died around the time of birth. Those who survived had limb, eye, urinary tract, and heart problems. Its initial entry into the US market was prevented by Frances Kelsey at the FDA. The birth defects caused by thalidomide led to the development of greater drug regulation and monitoring in many countries..
—-The precise mechanism of action for thalidomide is not known, although efforts to identify thalidomide’s teratogenic action generated 2,000 research papers and the proposal of 15 or 16 plausible mechanisms by the year 2000..
—-It was approved for use as a treatment for cancer in the United States in 1998. It is on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines. It is available as a generic medication.
I agree with the essence of what McWhorter has to say re: “Woke Racism” (despite his worrying track record of loafer-wearing corniness) but he falls down the same impossibly naïve well that any critic, of OUR PREDICAMENT, with even a little mainstream cred, like Russell Brand, falls down: they just can’t bring themselves to mention The Hidden Hand. They just can’t bring themselves to say that all this sudden WOKENESS gushing from the glands of Uncle Sam/ NATO/ DAVOS (et al) is simply LEFT COVER to camouflage deeply Neo-Fascist moves. Whenever Olde White Guys want to do some really, really (really) Bad Shit, they put obedient People of Color, and Women (and now LGBTQ persons) at the front of the parade. I knew it was ominous when W.H.O. got a POC as a figurehead, and the FDA did, too. They had Colin and Condi in the shop window for the blitzkrieging of Iraq; they had BHO in place to carry Dubya-era policies to fruition while hamstringing the anti-War “movement” with targetless gestures like OWS. The Nouveau Nazties are much slicker than their crude ideological ancestors… and far more powerful… and much more clever than McWhorter or Brand and co… unless, of course, it’s actually quite smart not to say things in public that can get one MeToo’d, cancered, car-crashed, plane-crashed or lone-gunmanned.
Yeah, that probably explains it…
*McFate is a cruelly witty prankster, eh? To put it bluntly, Lafayette Robinson is an especially Black-sounding name. I’m sure Viv would have preferred “Heinrich Jacob Trask,” or something like that, for a brown ancestor’s moniker, instead.
**Here’s a copy of a Census record of one of my ancestors:
I dedicate this essay to my maternal Grandmother, a writer and literary critic and sexually liberated master of pancakes