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Echo in the Canyon, a documentary Posted - Oct 12, 2019
The star of this documentary is not the glittering array of talented bands and singers who called Laurel Canyon their home, but the songs that emerged from Southern California in the years 1965 to 1967. Hearing these songs performed by a number of today's singers is to hear them anew, and to marvel at how great they truly are: songs associated with the Byrds ("Wild Mountain Thyme", "It Won't Be Wrong", "Bells of Rhymney", "Goin' Back"), the Beach Boys ("In My Room", "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"), Buffalo Springfield ("Expecting to Fly", "Questions"), the Mamas and Papas ("Monday, Monday", "Go Where You Wanna Go"), and by the Association ("Never My Love",). The singers are led by Jakob Dylan, who, with director Andrew Slater, dreamed up, wrote and produced this documentary. Other featured singers and musicians include Cat Power, Fiona Apple, Regina Spektor, Norah Jones, Beck, Jade Castrinos and Josh Hommel. All the girls have great voices. To hear them perform, particularly Jade Castrinos, who really cuts loose on a verse from "Go Where You Wanna Go," is stunning, and worth the price of admission.

A number of rock stars who resided in Laure Canyon in the 1960s are interviewed by Jakob Dylan: former Byrds Roger McGuinn and David Crosby; Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys; former Buffalo Springfield member Stephen Stills; John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful; and from the Mamas and Papas, Michelle Phillips and producer Lou Adler. Also interviewed are artists from more recent times but long associated with the Southern California music scene: Jackson Browne and Tom Petty; plus a trio of Englishmen who spent a lot of time in and around Laurel Canyon in the late '60s: Eric Clapton, Graham Nash, and Ringo Star. The interviews make this documentary highly worthwhile.

Interestingly, Brian Wilson says he used four Hollywood sound studios to record his magnum opus–"Good Vibrations": United Western Recorders, for drums, bass and guitars; Sunset Studio, for "tech piano"; Gold Star Recorders for its echo chamber; and the RCA Victor studio for vocals.

Producer Lou Adler gives a mini tour inside Studio Three for United Western Recorders, and with Michelle Phillips discusses the days when the Mamas and Papas recorded their hits there.

Interspersed with the interviews and music footage are scenes from the 1969 movie "Model Shop" starring Gary Lockwood, which was shot in and around Hollywood at the time this music was being made.

Given a lot of credit is Roger McGuinn, who was the first to see the possibilities of uniting folk music with Rock N Roll. And, of course, his name has long been associated with the electric Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, which readily identified the Byrds' unique sound. And while it was not discussed, it seems fitting that McGuinn and the Byrds should record their masterpiece "The Notorious Byrd Brothers" at the end of 1967, when the era of Southern California folk-rock was drawing to a close.

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The Pentagon Papers Case
Posted - Oct 05, 2019
It was among the most famous First Amendment decisions the Supreme Court would ever make–and they had very little time in which to make it. The case before the Court was New York Times v. United States, concerning publication of "The Pentagon Papers", classified memos detailing the U.S. government's controversial handling of the Vietnam War. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent the New York Times from releasing any more classified information. The Times then filed suit to have the restraining order lifted. The decision and the story behind it is the subject of "Fighting Censorship: New York Times v. United States" a 2017 book by D. J. Herta. The writing is clear, the story is well-documented, but the book is intended for a juvenile readership, therefore somewhat repetitive and tedious to read.

Background: at some point in the late 1960s, with American involvement in the Vietnam War going badly, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered a secret study of the Vietnam War from its inception in 1945, up to the present time. One of those involved with the study was a bright young scholar named Daniel Ellsberg.

After gradating with honors from Harvard University, Ellsberg served two years in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 1959, he joined the RAND Corporation–a research center (or "think tank") located in Santa Monica, California. In 1964, Ellsberg was recruited by McNamara to work for the Pentagon. The following year, as a consultant for the Defenses Department, he was sent to South Vietnam. While there he worked on a special team whose mission was to locate and identify enemy spies. Ellsberg returned to the U.S., and in 1967, he rejoined the RAND Corporation but remained active as a consultant to the U.S. Governments on matters concerning America's involvement in the war in Vietnam. During this time, he was asked by McNamara to help develop a secret study of the making of American policies concerning the war. Later, this became known as "The Pentagon Papers."

All the while Ellsberg became increasingly disenchanted with the war, particularly with how the government lied to the American people about how the war was proceeding. Particularly bothersome was the fact that as early as 1965, the Johnson Administration knew the war was not winnable; but continued calling up American boys to fight and die for what amounted to a lost cause.

Before leaving RAND in 1969, Ellsberg became involved in the anti-war movement. At some point, he made a photo-copy of the Pentagon Papers (a copy was located in a RAND filing cabinet) intending to give it to the national press–believing that once the American people learned of Washington's deception, they would demand an immediate end to American involvement. The first newspaper given a copy was the New York Times. They did not publish the entire document which was several thousand pages long, but rather wrote a series of reader-friendly summaries, which they planned to publish in installments. The first installment was published June 15, 1971.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post sought and obtained a copy as well, which like the Times they summarized for publication. By the time they published their first installment, the New York Times had been ordered to stop by a federal court order; to be in compliance, the Post stopped publication of its series.

By now Richard Nixon was in the second year of his presidency, managing the war with policies little changed from those developed by the Kennedy/Johnson Administrations. When the New York Times published the first installment of the Pentagon Papers, Nixon sought an injunction demanding the newspaper cease publication immediately. He was particular embittered because of what the Papers said about the American presidency. As Donald Rumsfeld (then counsellor to the president) put it: "To the ordinary guy, all this is a bunch of gobbledygook. But out of the gobbledygook comes a very clear thing.... You can't trust the government; you can't believe what they say; and can't rely on their judgement; and the implicit infallibility of the presidents, which has been an accepted thing in America, is badly hurt by this, because it shows that people do things the president wants to do even though it's wrong, and the president can be wrong."

Nixon's lawyers argued that publication of the Pentagon Papers would jeopardize national security. These were classified documents in the newspaper's possession that could damage the ability of the United States to conduct its operations in Vietnam. Some of the material might even prove harmful to U.S. workers stationed in foreign countries around the world. Should the wrong people read the documents, they might be able to unmask the true identity of some of the undercover operatives, thus placing them in extreme danger.

On June 16, 1971, at the request of the Department of Justice, Judge Murray Gurfien of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, issued a restraining order.

The Times agreed to comply, planning to present their arguments against a permanent injunction at a court hearing scheduled for that Friday. The basis for the newspapers' defense was one of the most basic concepts in American law–freedom of the press.

Just because the government claimed that some of the material was top secret, it is not necessarily so, they argued. There had been cases–and this was one of them–in which "classified" material had actually been kept from the public, not because releasing it might jeopardize national security, but because doing so might embarrass the government or make it look bad in the eyes of other governments and the American public. In time of war or national emergency, the government has the right to classify secret information, they acknowledged, but this was not one of them. The nation is not at war (at least not officially; as no war had been declared by Congress); and there was no immediate national security at stake.

In this case, ordering the national press to cease publication amounted to "prior restraint" and, in a 1931 Supreme Court decision (Near v. Minnesota), the Supreme Court had ruled for the defense, saying that "prior restraint" violated the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

After oral arguments, Judge Gurfien announced he would have a decision by the following morning. The next day, Saturday, June 19, Gurfien denied the government's motion for a permanent injunction against the New York Times. Within minutes of announcing his decision, the attorneys for the government appealed the case to Judge Irving R. Kaufman of the Second Court of Appeals. After reading the government's argument, Judge Kaufman granted a stay–or a postponement–of the lower court's decision until the following Monday.

On Monday, June 21, a panel of three judges heard the government's case, and decided to continue the stay, until the full eight-judge Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit Court could hear oral arguments for both sides. The hearing was held on Wednesday, June 23. Late in the day, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, in 5-3 decision–in light of new evidence introduced by the government–voted to send the case back to Judge Gurfien for further hearing.

The following day, Thursday, June 24, the attorneys for the Times filed a writ of certiorari–a request that would elevate their case against the government to the highest court in the land: the U.S. Supreme Court. At the same time, the High Court would also consider another First Amendment case under appeal: United States v. Washington Post.

The Supreme Court acknowledged the importance of both cases by scheduling a rare Saturday session to hear arguments. On June 26, attorneys for both sides met inside the main chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, to present their oral arguments.

The Court's final meeting for the 1970-71 term was scheduled for Monday, June 28. If the Court was going to issue an opinion during this term, it would have to act quickly. The Court did not issue its decision on Monday, June 28, as expected, but on Wednesday, June 30. On that day, at 2:30 p.m. in a hushed courtroom, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger read the Court's decision. In 6-3 split vote, the Court majority ruled as follows: "Any system of prior restraint of expression comes to this Court bearing a heavy presumption against its constitutional validity . . . The Government thus carries a heavy burden of showing justification for the imposition of such a restraint. . . . The District Court for the Southern District of New York in the New York case, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the Washington Post case, held that the Government had not me that burden. We agree."

In a separate and concurring opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free pass is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell.

"In my view, far from deserving condemnation for their courageous reporting, the New York Times and the Washington Post and other newspapers should be commended for serving the purpose that the Founding Fathers saw clearly. In revealing the workings of Government that led to the Vietnam War, the newspapers did precisely that which the Founders hoped and trusted they would to."

Further on he wrote: "The Founding Fathers gave the free press the protection it must have to fulfill its essential role in our democracy. The press was to serve the governed, not the governors."

And then there is the following quote by Thomas Jefferson (which I discovered while writing this piece). "A press that is free to investigate and criticize the government is absolutely essential in a nation that practices self-government. . . ."

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Lincoln's Confidant
Posted - Sep 29, 2019
Who was Abraham Lincoln? Who was the individual who wrote the brilliant Gettysburg Address, and the equally-brilliant Second Inaugural Address, who, earlier in his political career, wrote the nation-changing "House Divided" speech? Who, faced with a long and bloody civil war, addressed the South in his First Inaugural with these words: "We are not enemies but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passions may have strained, it shall not break, our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of Union, when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature." Gifted as a writer of English prose, and possessed with a firm belief in man's innate goodness, Lincoln was no ordinary man.

The man who knew him best was his friend and confident Noah Brooks, who is the subject of a wonderful new book, by Wayne C. Temple, entitled "Lincoln's Confidant: The Life of Noah Brooks".

The first time Brooks saw Lincoln, in 1856, he was anything but favorably impressed. It was in Dixon, Illinois, where Lincoln had come to address a gathering of Republicans. As Brooks recalled later: "Almost everyone was disappointed at the personal appearance of Lincoln." Brooks described him as "sallow in complexion . . . with long arms hanging awkwardly . . . his small head covered with short dark hair brushed carefully back." This ill impression vanished once Lincoln opened his mouth to speak. "There was an irresistible force of logic, a clinching power or argument, and a manly disregard of everything like sophistry or claptrap, which could not fail to arrest the attention and favorably impress the most prejudiced mind."

The two encountered each other again, at various political events in Illinois, including at least one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. The two had much in common and became friends. Both had little formal education, both had tried and failed in business, both loved art and poetry and the theater, and both made a living as wordsmiths. Indeed, when Brooks followed Lincoln to Washington, he did so as a reporter for the Sacramento Daily Union. However, when Brooks arrived in the nation's capital, in 1862, he neglected to call on the President. This surprised Lincoln, who summoned Brooks to the White House: "Do you suppose I ever forget an old acquaintance?"

Thereafter Brooks became a regular guest at the White House, as he and the President became fast friends–with Brooks as possibly the closest and most trusted friend of Lincoln's White House years. All the while, Brooks continued to write about Lincoln and the Civil War. During his 31 months in Washington, he sent 258 dispatches to his Sacramento newspaper, many based on his conversations with Lincoln. These were later collected in "Lincoln Observed," a 1998 book edited by Michael Burlingame, who also wrote the introduction to "Lincoln's Confidant."

In the 20th century, Brooks' journalism and his memoir became vital sources for Lincoln scholars. Indeed, if you've read a Lincoln biography, you'll recognize a number of his observations in this book, including descriptions of Lincoln's personal appearance and his comments on Civil War battles, and on various Union Generals, from McLeland to Grant. For example, when Lincoln learned of the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, Brooks recorded his response: "Never, as long as I knew him, did he seem to be so broken, so dispirited, and so ghostlike. Clasping his hands behind his back, he walked up and down the room, saying, 'My God! My God! What will the country say! What will the country say!"

Brooks also was something of a sounding board for Lincoln, answering a number of his questions, particularly with nautical terms, of which Brooks was well familiar. For example, Lincoln once asked him what the difference was between a "bark" and a "boat"? As the son of New England shipbuilder, which Brooks was, this was an easy question. On other occasions, Brooks served as an unofficial naval aid to the President, providing answers that may have spared Lincoln much embarrassment, especially when dealing with the Navy.

Surrounded by his good friends, such as Brooks, the President managed to joke and forget his cares. The problem Lincoln faced is that everyone who knew him wanted a favor. "I never asked any favor of him, nor allowed myself to be the bearer of the requests of others," said Brooks.

When Lincoln attended the theater, he often took Brooks along as his companion. Lincoln's "theater-going was usually confined to occasions when Shakespeare's plays were being enacted," Brooks remarked, "for, although he enjoyed a deep hearty laugh, he was better pleased with the stately dignity, deep philosophy, and exalted poetry of Shakespeare than with anything that was to be found in more modern dramatic writings." From Books we learn that "Hamlet" was Lincoln's favorite play.

Brooks was also a favorite of Mrs. Lincoln's, and it's probable that he would have joined the presidential staff in 1865, succeeding the departing John Nicolay as Lincoln's personal secretary. The murder of Lincoln ended those plans, and Brooks returned to his home in central California.

The last time Brooks saw Lincoln was on April 14, 1865, on the White House driveway. Because of Brooks, we know the president's mood was upbeat as he departed for Ford's Theater: "Lincoln was unusually cheerful that evening, and never was more hopeful and buoyant concerning the condition of the country."

Back in California, as a newspaper editor, Brooks published the letters of Mark Twain that Twain later revised into "The Innocents Abroad" (1869). He also gave political economist Henry George his first big break, printing his articles when George was a young typesetter. And, too, he worked closely with Bret Harte, the writer who helped create the western as a popular genre. Eventually Brooks moved to back to the east coast to edit newspapers in New York and in New Jersey. He died in 1903, at the age of 72.

Brooks's account is probably as close as we'll ever get to knowing Abraham Lincoln, which makes this book highly worthwhile. While I read it, I had the two-volume "Lincoln: Speeches and Letters" at my side, as a handy reference.

The author Wayne C. Temple originally wrote the biography of Noah Brooks in 1956. As an unpublished doctoral thesis, it was difficult for non-scholars to obtain. That is no longer the case. At 220 pages, the book is not long. Despite its scholarly association, it is not a difficult read. If you're an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, as I am, it's a must read.

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Posted - Sep 21, 2019

This book is a labor of love. The author, Timothy Garton Ash, a self-described “liberal internationalist,” spent several years writing and researching it. The result is a penetrating and exhaustive analysis of free speech, written for what he calls the “cosmopolis”—today’s “global city”, united by the internet (as opposed to McLuhan’s “global village”, united by Gutenberg’s printing press).

Ash offers ten principles that are distilled formulations of a modern liberal position on free speech. Says the author: “They have been extensively discussed with experts, and with anyone open to such a discussion, online and in person, from Oxford to Beijing and Cairo to Yangon, and then revised in the light of those debates. . . . I believe these precepts are as close to right as I can make them.”

Much has been written about free speech. The author quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Stuart Mill, John Milton, and George Orwell, among several notables on the subject. Here are a few phrases that caught my eye: free speech is a search engine for truth; freedom of speech is the lifeblood of democracy; free speech is the freedom to connect; free speech “tests our ability to live in a society that is necessarily defined by conflict and controversy; it trains us in the art of tolerance and steels us for its vicissitudes”; and (as Americans), “the freedom to express oneself is our preeminent constitutional value and a defining national trait.”

Free speech—true free speech, as enjoyed by Western liberal democracies—has not been around all that long, perhaps 200 years. Today, about half of the planet enjoys free speech, while the other half does not. China and North Korea are two prime examples where free speech is prohibited. “The struggle for word power is also a struggle for world power,” says the author. Later on, he writes: “It is important to remember that through much of the history of the West, both paternalism and moralism played a huge role in limiting free speech—and in much of the world they still do. The attitude of many authoritarian regimes, and all totalitarian ones, is quintessentially paternalistic. The state says to its citizens: "We know best what is best for you." In other words, the leaders of these regimes treat their citizens like children. In a democracy, where free speech and the rule of law prevails, the people are treated like adults.

Ash’s ten principles of free speech are as follows, each with a brief explanation I pulled from the text: (1) Lifeblood: Freedom of expression is not merely one among many freedoms; it is the one upon which all others depend; (2) Violence: Lift the fear of violence—except as legitimately exercised by a rule-of-law state—and all other limits on free speech . . . can themselves be freely debated; (3) Knowledge: One of the strongest arguments for freedom of expression is that it helps us seek the truth; (4) Journalism: We require uncensored, diverse, trustworthy media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life; (5) Diversity: Toleration makes difference possible, difference makes toleration necessary; (6) Religion: The faiths of others all deserve to be honored for one reason or another. By honoring them, one exalts one’s own faith and at the same time performs a service to the faith of others; (7) Privacy: We must be able to protect our privacy and to counter slurs to our reputations, but not prevent the scrutiny that is in the public interest; (8) Secrecy: We must be empowered to challenge all limits to freedom of information justified on such grounds as national security; (9) Icebergs: We defend the internet and other systems of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private power; (10) Courage: We decide for ourselves and face the consequences. The truly sovereign state will build its own sovereignty on that of each and every citizen.

Professor Ash is a very good writer and passionate about his subject. His book is unique. He can be tedious at times—he examines every issue in detail, and provides example after example to support his view—but he is never less than eloquent, never less than informative, never less than fully committed to his subject. Ash is the strongest of advocates for the dignity and freedom of man, and that alone makes his book important, worthwhile, and necessary.

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Work of My Sons

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.

Oh, Yeah...

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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