Ken Burns’s War Stories

[Original version at History News Network, 21 September 2017]

I began my first book on Vietnam (Masters of War) with a poem, Adrian Mitchell’s “To Whom It May Concern”:

You put your bombers in, you put your conscience out.

You take the human being and you twist it all about

So scrub my skin with women

Chain my tongue with whisky

Stuff my nose with garlic

Coat my eyes with butter

Fill my ears with silver

Stick my legs in plaster

Tell me lies about Vietnam.

When written in 1968, Americans were finally realizing and tiring of the lies they had been told about Vietnam. And the point of the poem was that, against that flood of lies, was some kind of truth, one that a majority of Americans began to understand as they opposed the American war on Vietnam.

“Triangulating” (or Teaching?) the War

Now, a half-century later, America’s best-known documentarians and teachers of popular history, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick have produced an 18-hour examination of the war for PBS (a “masterpiece” according to George Will, with sponsorship and promotion from the Koch Brothers, Bank of America, and Pentagon, inter alia) which is getting a huge amount of attention already. Like their documentary on the Civil War, The Vietnam War will surely become a major work of public history and be ingrained in our national consciousness. But what do Burns and Novick do, is it anything new, and what consequences will their work have?hochiminh

Burns and Novick, in their public relations blitz for the show (which debuted Sunday night, September 17th) have stressed that this documentary is different than the studies of Vietnam that have preceded it because they focused on the people who were involved in the war and especially representatives of the enemy (the “North Vietnamese” in their parlance, not the “revolutionaries” or “the NLF”). Their goal was to “triangulate” the telling of the war—speak to people from North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the United States. Their main purpose is to “honor the courage, heroism and sacrifice of those who served,” and “we have tried to do this by listening to their stories.” They add that they conveyed the tragedy of the war through “good storytelling.”

In addition to telling the stories of Americans who fought in Vietnam, Burns and Novick talk to partisans from the enemy, who talk of battles and tactics and their simultaneous respect and hatred of the Americans they fought. In fact, the documentarians seem to suggest that the Vietnamese were unaware of much about the war until educated by Americans. In Vietnam, Novick was surprised to see “a willingness, an openness” to talk about the war in a way “they never speak about it in Vietnam, which is the human story . . . . The war there is sort of a grand sort of victorious narrative without people in it.” And the people to whom Novick spoke “want the next generation to know how terrible it was, how difficult it was.” (Emphases mine).

diem on timeI haven’t been to Vietnam, so maybe they’re right. But I’m pretty certain the Vietnamese talk about the war and know how terrible and difficult it was . . . I’ve talked to a lot of Vietnamese about the war, in depth . . . the war fought for decades in their country. They lost 2-3 million people in the American phase of their long struggle, which means that virtually every family had an immediate member die. There are cemeteries and memorials all over, constant reminders of the war. There are museums to honor battles fought and soldiers and civilians killed. There is a museum dedicated to the dead at My Lai. A close friend who spent 3 months traveling in the area told me that remembering the war in general and its victims is “one of the most significant parts of their identity, more so than here.” There are tributes to the dead. There is a replica of the Washington D.C. Vietnam “Wall.” And if they’re somehow not aware of how terrible the war was, the continued loss of life, perhaps as many as 50,000 people after hostilities ended, from unexploded bombs, and the continued impact of Agent Orange in high cancer rates and countless deformed babies, would help them remember. Did the Vietnamese really need two Americans, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, to finally teach them about the bloodshed and devastation their own land suffered because of the Americans?

And therein lies the core flaw of the entire project—it’s a series of stories, but not really a history of the war. That’s the Burns-Novick trademark and it’s worked for a long time, making them famous and I suspect wealthy. But it substitutes vignettes for ideas, personal anecdotes for larger structural factors, bathos for analysis. And it ends up providing a misguided view of the war, one that has politically conservative consequences (ironic because Burns himself is openly liberal) by shifting attention away from the historical, material reasons for American intervention and focusing on 79 people interviewed who were directly involved in Vietnam. Instead of an exposé of aggressive militarism, they give us sentimental stories of survival and perseverance.

Burns and Novick, despite their claims of originality, provide a pretty boilerplate liberal examination of the war. It “was begun in good faith, by decent people.” The people of South Vietnam created a state, the Republic of Vietnam (RVN), which was invaded by “North Vietnam” and precipitated the war because of the American mission to prevent Communists from taking over “free” countries. After the partition of Vietnam at Geneva, the conflict became a “civil war” in which the U.S. became involved to save the “free” southern half of Vietnam according to Cold War logic. Americans made anguished decisions to invade and then escalate the war, they kept blundering further along and then couldn’t get out, there were decisive battles at places like Ap Bac and Ia Drang, Americans turned on the war, it was a tragedy, there are only victims, and so on . . . It’s not a bad history, but in no way original and in its pursuit of “all sides” it creates a false equivalency. The intervention into Vietnam was a war crime, and PBS isn’t going to fund a documentary saying that, and Burns and Novick don’t go beyond the liberal consensus to think about it.33 B52-vietnam

More Reconciliation and Healing

Burns and Novick talk a lot about reconciliation and healing, sort of a Vietnam War version of Dr. Phil and Oprah. “For more than a generation, instead of forging a path to reconciliation, we have allowed the wounds the war inflicted on our nation, our politics and our families to fester,” they claim. “ . . . alienation, resentment and cynicism; mistrust of our government and one another; breakdown of civil discourse and civic institutions . . . so many of these seeds were sown during the Vietnam War.” The war wracked American society, pitting generation against generation, even family against family. These are troubling issues to be sure, and Burns and Novick seem to easily pin them on Vietnam. But their explanation is facile and self-serving. Continue reading

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Vietnam: The Commodity

(Talk given at Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, for The Propeller Group exhibit, 13 September 2017)

I’m not an artist nor an art historian, yet art is necessary to any reasonable and meaningful examination of the past. The way people view and represent their past—culture, struggles, social relations, work, wars—is an essential part of understanding where the world has been and maybe where it’s going.ak47m16

I’ve also spent a lot of time studying the American war on Vietnam, which began after World War II and continued into the early 1970s. I know a good deal about the historical episode that we call “The Vietnam War,” but this exhibit isn’t about that . . . except when it is.

The Propeller Group [TPG]—an art collective-cum-ad agency—has created an exhibit that tells us something about the Vietnam War, something about Vietnamese culture, and a lot about the way ideas and indeed the past itself becomes contested and commodified. And that’s the immanent lesson I’ve taken from this collection of art, performance, and video.

At first look, I saw/experienced a recreation of a conversation between a Fedex worker and one of the collective members.

Fedex: The staging of history is happening around us all the time. We basically live in a staged version of the past . . . As if the past was a mall where you could pick and choose a lifestyle as easily as choosing a new wardrobe.

 Tung: I’m not sure . . . I don’t even care much about authenticity.

 Fedex: That’s exactly my point! You should care. Stop being so ironic and use something real for your show.

As soon as I read this exchange, a lot of thoughts came to me, ideas I’ve used in my classes and in my own writing. I thought of Guernica and Confederate statues, of internet memes that today constitute a large part of our public education. Of Antonio Gramsci and bourgeois cultural hegemony.  And I thought a lot about the intersection of art, politics, history, and revolutions and wars. What we call “The Vietnam War” was in the first instance “The Vietnamese Revolution,” in which nationalist/communist forces led by the Viet Minh (later Viet Cong) fought against the occupation of French and Japanese forces, and then fought a long war of revolution and liberation against the most powerful nation on the globe, the United States. The Propeller Group leaves this unsaid, and lets us see what the war brought—not why it happened or why it was fought. It’s up to us to fill in all those spaces.

I thought of Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, who in Revolution Betrayed wrote that “. . . a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.” Or the Dada idea of upsetting the bourgeois world created by affluent and artistic Europeans, and making us question the very point of art and what artists do, most relevantly in the case of TPG by incorporating everyday objects (like the Honda Dream) and happenstance into their work, making a mockery of the established hegemonic culture as a way of resisting it. Or Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapping the Reichstag or Pont-Neuf Bridge . . .

It especially made me think of the idea of the spectacle.   In all that I read about and by TPG, their videos and manifestos, they never made reference to the society of the spectacle, but they had to have been thinking about it. The Marxist philosopher Guy Debord, writing amid the global uproar sparked by decolonization but especially the massive resistance to the Vietnam War as well as the careening consumerism that had grasped control of postwar Western culture, developed the idea of “the spectacle,” his encompassing term for the way postwar capitalism created the cultural devices—advertising, television, film, celebrity, media, scandal, and others—to foster, and yet conceal, “the autocratic reign of the market.” The spectacle shifts our attention and soothes us from the reality of consumption, struggle, wars and so on.  Debord himself was a founder of the Situationist International, a collective of artists and others who opposed postwar capitalism and played a prominent role in the 1968 May uprising in Paris, where their motto, “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible” summed up their vision of the world they wished to create (and also helped create the Sex Pistols via Malcolm McLaren).

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Cuba, Race, and African Liberation


Twenty-six years ago, on May 25th, 1991, the last Cuban troops left Angola.  Beginning in 1975-76, Cuban forces (eventually numbering around 350,000) entered Angola in support of the the ANC’s struggle against apartheid and, more specifically, to support the Angola Revolution and help create an independent state in Namibia.  Today, as Cuban relations with the U.S. are  in a period of transition and the global Left in a far weaker position than it was in the latter 20th Century, the legacy of Cuban, and 3d World, global solidarity is worth remembering.


Mandela and Castro

For Fidel Castro, race played an important role in his analysis of Empire and Capitalism and South Africa’s apartheid government was perhaps the most visible example and symbol of the intersection of race, power, and global capitalism-cum-imperialism (though surely not the only one–Castro and the Cubans spoke in support of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers, and Black Lives Matters and at the U.N. helped sponsor a resolution equating Zionism with Racism). Castro and Nelson Mandela and the ANC had a long relationship, and he often cited the significance of Castro’s 1959 victory —“I read the report of Blas Roca, the general Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, about their years as an illegal organization during the Batista regime . . . I read works by and about Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro. . . .”

Cuba’s most important support came not inside South Africa, however, but in Angola, a Portugese colony when, in 1961, the Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) began a war of national liberation, which resulted in independence in 1975. The South Africans, supported by various U.S. governments and agencies, did not go away gently, however, and intervened with army, naval, and air force units, with arms provided by Washington, D.C. and other western governments as well as mercenaries funded by the CIA. The new Angolan government asked Cuba for help.

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Rope-a-Dope Trump (Don’t Get Rid of Him)

If you’re a fan of the Sweet Science, ali foremanor were alive in the 1970s, or even just heard of Muhammad Ali, then you’re familiar with “The Rumble in the Jungle,” his epic bout against then-Heavyweight Champ George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire in October 1974.  Ali may have been “The Greatest,” but he  stepped into the ring as a 3:1 underdog (not exactly Tyson-Douglas [42:1] or even the first Ali-Liston [8:1] odds but a risky wager by any means).  Ali was 32 at the time and had lost three prime years when he was suspended for resisting the draft, while Foreman, a big puncher, was 25 and undefeated in 40 fights, with 37 knockouts.

Ali, however, surprised, if not stunned, the boxing world by dispatching Foreman in 8 rounds (here).  Ali knew better than to wear himself down trying to outpunch Foreman, so he employed a much different strategy, known to the world today as the Rope-a-Dope.  Ali fought passively, often retreating to the ropes where Foreman would unleash a barrage of body blows that Ali, and the ropes, were able to catch and brush off.  By the middle rounds, Foreman was spent and Ali was able to finish him off and regain his Heavyweight belt.

So what’s that have to do with Donald J. Trump?  Well, right now there’s blood in the water, the sharks are circling, the vultures are overhead, the clock’s about to strike midnight, A Hard Rains’ A-Gonna Fall . . . well, you get the point–Trump is in trouble.  A series of almost-daily scandals, the most important which revolve around his relationships with Russian government officials, have set off a frenzy of political opposition unseen in modern times (yes, even the Clinton Impeachment ordeal wasn’t as intense as this).  It’s like Guy Debord’s society of spectacle, the use of commodities and information to maintain social control, has reached full maturation.  The United States, hell, most of the world, is transfixed by Trump.  This has led to calls in the media and among political rivals, particularly Democrats and Liberals, for his ouster, perhaps by DACDnzOXUAAoWRUImpeachment.  Indeed, Slate, something of a Better Homes and Gardens for the liberal elite, has even spared Congress the effort of writing up the terms of impeachment by doing it ahead of time for it.   Impeachment odds on PredictIt, a gambling book based in New Zealand, have soared in the past few days to over 30 percent, a four-fold bump in barely a week.

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Does Russia Matter?

Memes aren’t great ways to learn a lot about history or politics, though they’re used that Alan_Arkin_in_The_Russians_Are_Coming,_The_Russians_Are_Comingway a lot.  Still, some are funny and make a good point in a few lines in a way that might take paragraphs otherwise.  Today I came across one that I put up on Facebook:

“People in my community who are nervous about Russia:  0

People in my community who are nervous about next month’s rent: most everyone”

For months now Americans, especially Democrats and Liberals but mostly everyone who hates Trump–and that includes much of the establishment media and economic and political elites–has been obsessed with the Russia story.  I haven’t been.

So my comrade and colleague Clayton Lust, with whom I agree on almost every political issue, responded, “Are you suggesting Russia doesn’t matter? Are you?”  Despite the vociferous nature of his question (he’s an honorary Italian so doesn’t have an inside voice, even when he’s writing), I knew where he was coming from and figured he deserved an honest answer.  And since everyone has an opinion and a platform on Social Media to share it (and just how did Juan Cole and “The Mary Sue,” inter alia, become famous?)  I might as well share my thoughts with the world, or at least the high two-digits of people who read this. Besides, I’m a professor so that means I’m an expert at pretty much everything.

So, am I suggesting Russia doesn’t matter?  Well, that’s a broad question, so the answer is easy . . . “No.”  Surely, if Trump and his cronies were cutting some kind of political deals with the Russian government to get “intelligence” on his opponent’s campaign (and here it strikes me that “stealing” the election in 2016 makes as much sense as Nixon breaking into the DNC headquarters to stave off the Democratic juggernaut that awaited him in 1966-Russians-are-Coming-The...-04the 1972 campaign . . . “Who’s Afraid of Edmund Muskie?”) then of course it matters.  Indeed, there are rumors flying all over the place about arrests, indictments, subpoenas, Trumps getting shackled, and even a future Orrin Hatch presidency.  Anything is possible and everything here could be irrelevant the minute I hit “Publish.”

But that’s obviously not a very gratifying response, nor a valuable one.  And it’s not the real point of the issue.  Trump’s relationship to the Russian Federation’s President Vladimir Putin is about economics (probably Trump’s personal finances) and politics and became the dominant issue in the United States even prior to January 20th, 2017.

There’s a lot going on right now: a cabinet of mega-millionaires creating a 21st-Century Gilded Age; an intensified assault on immigrants with ICE agents gone wild like college kids on spring break; GOP attempts to destroy “Obamacare” (a terribly inadequate health care program to begin with) and, more importantly, trash Medicare and Medicaid; efforts to get rid of the mostly-weak regulations that exist on Wall Street and other corporations; GOP hoping for an orgy of tax cuts for the top 1 Percent; a reinvigoration of the War on Drugs (the deescalation of which was one of Obama’s few graces) and pursuit of a Nixonian commitment to “Law and Order” which surely will mean more poor people, especially Black and Latino poor, will end up in jail or on the wrong side of a cop’s bullet; gutting environmental laws; and making it harder for most everyone to pay his or her rent . . .

So, back to Russia . . . (and even if Trump is forced out as president for this issue, much of the stuff below remains relevant and real . . . at least in my mind).

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Blows Against the Empire (San Francisco, 17 March 2017)

“Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together? It is only undisciplined troops who make the people their enemies and who, like the fish out of its native element cannot live.”    

Mao Zedong


“The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”           

Finley Peter Dunne


“Falter not. Lay bare the inequalities of capitalism; expose the slavery of law; proclaim the tyranny of government; denounce the greed, cruelty, abominations of the privileged class who riot and revel on the labor of their wage-slaves.”    

Albert Parsons, Haymarket Martyr


“The day has passed for patching up the capitalist system, it must go.”

“Revolution is never practical–until the hour of the Revolution strikes.  Then it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives and compromisers become the most futile and visionary of human imaginings.”

” . . . revolutions are not the product of our brains, but of ripe material conditions.”   

James Connolly, Irish Revolutionary


“Revolutionaries sometimes try to prove that the crisis is absolutely insoluble. This is a mistake. There is no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation. The bourgeoisie are behaving like barefaced plunderers who have lost their heads; they are committing folly after folly, thus aggravating the situation and hastening their doom. All that is true. But nobody can ‘prove’ that it is absolutely impossible for them to pacify a minority of the exploited with some petty concessions, and suppress some movement or uprising of some section of the oppressed and exploited. To try to ‘prove’ in advance that there is ‘absolutely’ no way out of the situation would be sheer pedantry, or playing with concepts and catchwords.”  

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Radical “Moments”/Ruling Class Reform/Dissent Inside Capitalism/Radicals and Reformers 

Agrarian Revolutions, Nationalism, and Socialism

Bolsheviks, Chi Coms, Viet Minh,  Castro, EZLN

(Outside forces: Great War, Japanese aggression/Occupation, World War II, Cold War, NAFTA)

       Thoi Co” (the Opportune Moment)

Ireland 1916, Northern Korea, ANC








American Rebellions

Who Should Rule at Home?Bacons-Rebellion-colored

       Bacon and other Colonial Uprisings

       Paxton Boys and Regulators

       Shays and Whiskey Rebellions

       Slave Uprisings (Class Consciousness and the Origins of Racism)

       Dorr Rebellion


Class Wars and the Persistence of the Capitalist Regime

From the Great Uprising to Ludlow: Class Consciousness/Struggle, Socialism, Anarchy



1877 rising

(Haymarket, Homestead, Pullman, Bread and Roses, “Wobblies”)

 IWW Class Pyramidiww-pyramid2.gif













Populists: Banks and Railroads

Red Scares, the Seattle Strike, West Virginia Coal Wars

troops camped at blair during mine war to force surrender of miners







Depresssion Radicalism: “Pop Culture” resistance: Jolly Bankers, Pretty Boy Floyd, Who Do We Shoot?

Upton Sinclair and Huey Long: Share Our Wealth



Little Steel Strikes: Depression and WW II

little steel

The Beats, Rebel Without a Cause, The Wild One, and Cultural Resistance

Militancy in the ’60s: SNCC, SDS, Weather Underground, Black Panthers, VVAW, Poor Peoples’ Campaign, Women’s Liberation





The End of Class Struggle?

 Military Keynesianism and McCarthyism

Protest within Capitalist Framework (e.g. Civil Rights, Marriage Equality)

Culture and Identity

21st Century: Green is the New Red/Battle of Seattle/OWS/BLM/Climate Change/DAPLsparkiearthfirst

Ruling Class Fissures, but the Persistence of the Old Regime

The Obama Coma and the Trump Awakening

Capitalist Strategies: Force, Money, Courts, Media, Division

“Failure” of The American Left:  No Socialist/Labor Party, Cultural Hegemony, Commodification, Little history of political violence, and LIBERALS

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KNSB 7 (or, Kid Blast and Me)

They called Joe “Crazy, ” the baby they called “Kid Blast”

I had a hundred nicknames for Kelsey.  Some lasted years, some one or two times. Many were the ones my dad had used on me–ciudrule, cafone, testa dura, pazzo, Garibaldi Mangiapane, Joe Materasso, etc.  In his later teen years I took to calling him “Kid Blast,” from Dylan’s song about the Gallo family.  Kelsey could have been a Gallo, the bohemian gangster family, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, the small mob crew that did audacious things, the guys who put Umberto’s on the map.  “Kid Blast!”  What a great name.  “Blast.”  What a great word. It taosshould be onomatopoetic.  Kelsey had a blast.  Kelsey blasted through life.  Kelsey could get angry and blast me.  Kelsey got blasted.  In a crazy family, he stood out.  My Kid Blast.

We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we are we are/And we are very/Proud of ourselves

A few weeks before our due date I made a tape, an old cassette tape, for Jane to listen to in the delivery room–old stuff that we listened to.  Dylan, Neil Young, Joni, Bonnie Raitt, stuff like that.  Kelsey started his journey into the world on Christmas Day, 1988.  But then he stopped.  I think he already knew what lay ahead.  He didn’t want to deal with it, the chaos and anarchy that rules too much of our lives.  So he stopped.  Finally, because nature is not to be trifled with, he made his appearance at 2:48 A.M. EST on December 26th.  At that moment Jefferson Airplane’s  “We Can Be Together” was playing and he arrived.  Not a bad way to enter the world.  It was appropriate.  We ARE all outlaws in the eyes of America!  He knew that already.newborn

If I’m down in a honky-tonk some ole slick’s trying to give me friction/I said leave me alone I’m singing all night long it’s a family tradition

Kelsey Niccolò Sandino Buzzanco.  Descendant of Vincenzo (James, aka Jim Botts) Buzzanco and Catherine Mollica Buzzanco, Nick and Mary Buzzanco, and Jane Kelso and me.  Kelsey’s personality was part of the family tradition.  My grandfather bootlegged and ran a speakeasy outside Chicago during Prohibition.  My grandmother loved to have a martini every afternoon and they smelled like kerosene.  She and our cousin Carmella would go to the bars in the afternoon for cocktails.  She stole silverware from nice restaurants, insisting it was a “souvenir.”  My dad somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the local Teamsters Prez and got fired from his job driving a beer delivery truck.  He then went to work for the city of Niles, Ohio and organized an AFSCME local there and served 16 years as Prez and 6 years as a state Vice-President.  Not bad from a kid with a high school education from Calumet City, Illinois (yep, home of Jake and Ellwood).  I got my political education from him attending union meetings and labor breakfasts, watching him stand up to the city council chair, who was also the local bank Prez.  My mom was a fiery Italian mother, who could wield a wooden spoon or throw a shoe with the best of them.  Kelsey’s mom worked for a gun control group and attended the Brady Bill signing ceremony at the White House (yeah, the irony is pretty chilling).  And I’m not a wallflower.  Kelsey fit into that line pretty well.  His friends have told me dozens of stories about his antics.  Jim and Nicky Botts would have appreciated him, spidermanas I did.

March 11th, 2010.  I had an old Motorola flip phone.  The ring tone was the theme from The Sopranos.  “Kelsey” appeared on the screen and I picked it up and said “what’s up, kid?”  It wasn’t him.  It was his girlfriend telling me the news I had dreaded and feared and even maybe expected a little.  Kelsey was dead.  Morto!  He’d shot himself with a gun he had under the seat of his car.  I got in my car and drove maniacally, luckily not increasing the body count that day.  I can’t even describe the emotions I felt . . . it was so different, so very different, than anything I could even imagine.  Preternatural.  But I never didn’t believe it.  I didn’t think it was a dream.  I didn’t think it was a mistake.  I didn’t think I’d arrive and find him alive.  I knew it.  Kelsey didn’t do anything half-assed, so I believed it.  And I arrived and his Expedition was on the grass off North MacGregor, and there was a crowd of people and yellow police tape.  The cops and my friends wouldn’t let me go the car to see him, hug him.  I finally walked to the edge of the tape, as close as they’d let me get and saw him slumped over.  I guess I had to say one last goodbye to the son that I could not save.  I think I owed him that much.


Kelsey was about 3 or 4 and was playing at the little park right outside our townhouse in Greenbelt, MD.  He would go back and forth on the monkey bars all day.  He had biceps like steel cables.  I went outside and asked him if he wanted to eat and he said “No, I have the sun in my mouth.”  I figured I had the next García Márquez in my house.

I always had music on in the car when I took Kelsey out.  It helped distract him a little.  He loved R.E.M. and especially “Stand.”  He knew all the lyrics even as a little little toddler and would sing it and twirl around.  His feet didn’t stay on the ground and he didn’t listen to reason.  But he moved around a lot, sang this song as he swirled at Mach III.  I wished he’d have been able to just stand around more.

computerSo Kelsey was probably 13 or so and we were riding our bikes in The Heights.  Out of the blue, I hear him sing “you didn’t have to be so nice, I would have liked you anyway.”  I looked and him and we both had broad smiles.  So I picked it up, “If you had just looked once or twice,And gone upon your quiet way.”  And we more or less finished the song together.  I don’t know how he knew the Lovin’ Spoonful and what prompted him to sing it, but it’s always going to be one of the best memories I’ll ever have.

About 10 years before that, in Greenbelt, I’d taken Kelsey out for a walk on his Big Wheel.  We didn’t just go around the block.  We stopped at all the playgrounds (Greenbelt was an idyllic place to raise a kid) and went down to the lake and headed back.  At some point, invariably, he’d get tired out so I’d put him on my shoulders and carry his Big Wheel back.  So I have this little blond-haired diavolo on my shoulders and I hear him singing the opening lyrics to “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”  It was one of the songs I sang to him.  He knew the whole goddamned song, at age 3.  I still can’t listen to it without tears pouring out.  I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love.

One idea that Kelsey absolutely got from the Buzzanco DNA was a rejection of authority.  When he was tiny I bought him a “Question Authority” t-shirt and he took it to heart.  Jim Botts did a year in the can.  My dad led two strikes by public employees, illegal in Ohio at the time, the second of which got him arrested.  He didn’t like cops and made it clear that they were scabs when they took him in.  And I’ve gotten into a scrape or two.  Kelsey really didn’t like authority figures, didn’t like being forced to conform.  It’s tough to raise a kid and instill that idea in him, however.  You have to aware of what you’re up against, what’s important, what authorities need to be confronted, and when to back down.  He didn’t know that.  It wasn’t a political act of defiance, which I tried to explain to him.  He just hated all authority.  I tried to tell him how to be smarter with his anger, but I couldn’t sell it. He’d been to too many rallies and demos and heard me make too many speeches.  He knew how I felt.  I grew up in a family where the phrase “I didn’t see nothing” was instilled in us if we were asked a question by someone in charge.  He loved “Goodfellas,” especially when Bobby D. said “You learned the two greatest thing in life, never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”  And when he got in trouble, and he did a time or two, or dozens of times, he knew what to do, which was to do nothing. He didn’t squeal, he didn’t talk.  It might be the only lesson he took from me.   He wasn’t going to work for the clampdown.  I wonder what he’d be thinking today, we live in an era of Trump and liberal McCarthyism.  The Buzzanco family never worked for the clampdown.

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I didn’t think Kelsey was that much like me when he was alive.  I was wrong.  As the years went by since his death, I realized how much he inherited from me, and my dad, and his dad.  He was smart as hell, smarter than I was at a similar age, and stubborn, “testa dura” I said a million times.  We both pushed things to the edge and adrenalin could get the best of us, but I knew when to stop and he didn’t.  When we rode our bikes, my Moto Guzzi and his R6, he was insane–pushing it to 120-130 and doing wheelies.  He went past the line too often, and the last time it killed him.  A couple months after 3/11/10 I went to a Neil Young concert downtown.  Bert Jansch opened for him.  Throughout the show, non-stop, I kept thinking “Kelsey would be here with me tonight.”  After he died, I visited London twice, and both times went to Highgate Cemetery to visit Marx’s grave, as I’d vowed to do after seeing Mike Leigh’s High Hopes years earlier.  I put a picture and some of Kelsey’s ashes on the highgate.jpgstone of the great Marx and thought of his epitaph: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”  After I thought of Kelsey, and Marx, for a while, I started walking away.  I looked down and saw Bert Jansch’s gravesite.  I smiled.  Kelsey was with me there that day and Marx had something that wouldn’t get lost.

I listened to Late for the Sky on loop after my second divorce.  But it wasn’t until a few years after Kelsey died that I really listened to “For a Dancer.”  And it hit me like a Marciano punch.  It really was about Kelsey.
I don’t remember losing track of you
You were always dancing in and out of view
I must’ve always thought you’d be around
Always keeping things real by playing the clown
Now you’re nowhere to be found

Jackson Browne sang about Kelsey’s life.  He was full of joy and laughter, and anger and pain.  He made people laugh, he often made me irate.  Stealing Rodney’s line from “Back to School, I told him countless times that I could put him through school, or put him through a wall.  He did what he had to do,  “No matter what fate chooses to play  (There’s nothing you can do about it anyway).”  I don’t have any beliefs in any kind of gods or afterlife.  You turn to cosmic dust.  You exist, and then you don’t.  It’s the Big Sleep.  But his energy is around, for sure.  Atoms can’t be destroyed. And his memories are even more indestructible.  In a mere 21 years he gave me a lifetime of memories.  I do hope his cosmic dust has blown into some great adventures. I suspect it has.  In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone . . .

Kelsey met his demise on North MacGregor, less than a mile from my house at the time.  For several years I could not walk or even drive past that spot.  Then, in 2014, on March 11th, Ginsberg and I took a walk (Langston had died the previous April)  and I brought some of Kelsey’s ashes along.  When we went out, I just let Ginsie lead and I’d go where he wanted.  We walked down Fiesta toward University Oaks Blvd.  Every time we went there, Ginsberg would turn left, toward Wheeler. But that day, he broke off our route and went right, and walked toward the spot where Kelsey’s car stopped.  I threw some ashes in the air and thought of Kelsey and gave Ginsie some hugs and kisses.  He knew.  Dogs have some real intuitive intelligence and Ginsberg really took care of me.

Kelsey and I had friction from time to time, like nearly every day.  And probably nothing made me more upset than his fucking obsession with guns.  Like I said, his mom was at the White House when Clinton signed the Brady Bill.  No kid heard more about the dangers of guns.  And then I got a job in Texas.  There is so much to say about Texas and I don’t have that many years left.  But the immanent and vast culture and political ideology of gun ownership here has to top the list.  There’s a goddamned gun show every weekend, and Kelsey went to a few.  The state legislature and guv and lite guv and their myrmidons, the most vicious, deliberately ignorant, and degraded things to ever walk upright, pimp for the gun makers by convincing people they have some inherent right to blast someone who steps on their lawn.  They allow guns on campuses.  They want to arm teachers.  They are the most cowardly people I’ve ever seen.  Instead of using ideas, of which they have none, of which they’re afraid, they want to use force.  They strap semi-automatics on their back and wait outside the local iHOP while a group of Moms who want to stop gun violence meet instead, simply to intimidate them.  That, my friends, is exactly what Terrorism is.tke  The problem  of guns in America is the problem of suicide in America.  There are 30,000-plus guns deaths in the U.S. every year, and about 2/3, more than 20K, are suicides.  Of the 40,000-plus suicides, half or so involve a gun.  Guns are deadly and effective.  Almost all suicidal action involving guns ends up in death, unlike, say, overdosing or cutting.  Making guns available to people who wouldn’t otherwise even think of having them, like university students, will inevitably increase the suicide rate.  With mental health issues omnipresent and stress and pressure rising, having access to a firearm is ensuring many more self-inflicted wounds.  Fuck the NRA, Fuck Texas gun cowards.

On November 18th, 2006, I took Kelsey so see/hear The Who at the Toyota Center.  I onlythewho found out about the show a few days before that, and on the  way heard on the radio that The Pretenders would be opening.  Kelsey knew a little Who music but never heard of The Pretenders.  A few hours later, after sitting mesmerized looking at the stage, the show ended, and I said “so what do you think?” and he looked at me and said, with awe, “it was amazing!”   For Xmas that year he bought me the DVD of the show.

Kelsey loved comedies.  We watched Catch-22, M*A*S*H, Dr. Strangelove, Animal House, spidermanCaddyshack, and a ton of others.  I think his favorite was Office Space, which he seemed to have on every time I went into his room.  He used to sing the Geto Boys song.  He had a t-shirt with Milton and his stapler on it.  His understanding of comedy and satire were, I think, the best indicators of his wicked intelligence and wit.  The kid was a baller.

Kelsey had a bit of a brush with the law, and had to pay a fine and do community service.  I think he had 90 days to do it.  On day 89, he hadn’t done any.  Yet the next day he had an official-looking form with details of all the volunteering he’d done, at the food bank, dog pound, etc., signed by his friend.  Damned if he didn’t sell it.

Chain, chain, chain/(Chain, chain, chain)/Chain of fools

Kelsey was in middle school at T.H. Rogers.  The kids there didn’t have much time in between classes so they usually left their lockers open–the lock was on but not clasped shut.  Mysteriously, the locks were disappearing.  So one day the authorities looked in Kelsey’s locker and found a huge chain of locks.  Of course since they were locked together they were worthless.  How could I get mad at him about that?

So I’m at Kelsey’s HS graduation.  In the program the kids are listed with some basic stuff, including what they wanted to do as a career.  Kelsey listed “Astronaut.”  I was surprised they let him do that.  At any rate, I never said anything about it to him.  But in truth, it gave me a good laugh and I was proud of him for it. He had an amazing and wicked sense of humor, and I’m going to take credit for much of that.  Kelsey Schmelsey.

Kelsey was in 7th Grade, I think.  I got a call from the Commissars at T.H. Rogers.  Kelsey had been suspended.  He was on a computer at school and ordered tens of thousands of dollars . . . of instruments.  He made up a credit card number and used the neighbor’s address.  The music company called the school and it was easily traced back to Kelsey.  I used to tell him he better not go into crime–he’d have been the guy who leaves his wallet at the bank when robbing it.

So one day when Kid Blast was maybe 8 or 9 I come home and walk in and I see this little white boy with headphones on bouncing to the beat and he’s singing, “cause just yesterday them fools tried to blast me/Saw the police and they rolled right past me.”  I busted a gut laughing.  Kelsey as Ice Cube.


I don’t know that Kelsey liked Sinatra, but I know he heard him.  Growing up in an Italian or Sicilian-American family in the 70s, you couldn’t avoid it.  And  it might be corny to use this song in a tribute.  It’s the most-played music at funerals and memorials.  But there’s a reason for that.  This was our “national anthem,” as FAS said.  It’s defiant and honest.  As cheesy as it might be, it was a guide, a way to live, a Sicilian tao, for a bunch of working-class kids in a struggling community in northeast Ohio.  And Kelsey really did live that way.  Christ, I wish he’d have listened to me once in a while; he always said “you don’t understand” when I tried to give him a life lesson, about guns or authority or whatever.  I had a pretty good working relationship with my dad–sure we got on each other, but he was a consigliere to me.  I knew when to listen to him, and he was the only person I’ve ever truly, unconditionally trusted.  He was a man of honor, the real kind, and he always had my back.  I had the role with Kelsey but he made it hard.  He was much more Santino than Don Corleone (indeed, I floated Santino as a name for him and him mom quickly vetoed it).  But if you have to go through your whole life in only 21 years, you better make it count, and he did.  His way.

I dragged Kelsey out to far-too-many of my events–demos, protests, teach-ins, talks, interviews, radio show tapings, etc.  He actually was  pretty good about going to these things, and for a period of time really enjoyed it.  As anyone on the Left knows, there’s a group of usual suspects who show up at all your events.  For over a year a guy came to everything we did and afterwards always came up to talk to me.  He was “unusual” let’s say.  He weaved an intricate tale of how the CIA was after him.  Had something to do with being a pool shark, the OJ murders, and orgies.  And then he’d always explain how the CIA was conducting surveillance on him–they’d put tracking technology on his car, literally wore tinfoil hats, and put satellites in his dentures to follow him around.  Kelsey LOVED that guy and would talk about him for days after every time we met him.

I’m able to think of Kelsey and laugh and smile, Some of his antics, like those I’m mentioning here, really did reflect on who he was.  But mental health issues can be so goddamned pernicious.  When his chemistry was off and the neurons weren’t popping in sync, he could be so dark and anguished.  It would be easy to remember him mostly by his last act, but there was so much more than that.  He did create magic . . .

kelsey2Kelsey was a throwback.  He really didn’t belong in 21st  Century Texas USA.  It’s a cruel and angry place and it accelerated his worst problems.  I called him every day, with insane frequency if I couldn’t get hold of him and I was worried.  He had so much trouble living on his own, navigating through the perils and venom of life that we all have to accept.  When he died, a ton of his stuff was missing and he had a bunch of stuff, clothing, etc. that belonged to others. He coulda been a modern hobo.  He really didn’t have a home, but damned if I didn’t try.

Kelsey looked like hell the last time I saw him.  He was weary.  It was a Sunday.  On Thursday he was gone.  I talked to him the night before and he seemed to be in a good mood.  We talked about going to the casino in Louisiana for spring break, which would start that week.  A lot of people have asked me if I’m mad at him and I don’t get that question.  I’ve never contemplated being angry.  He thought he needed out, that it was never going to get better. I knew him every day for 21 years and change.  Kelsey didn’t talk about how he felt and he didn’t understand nuance. It was either good or bad, live or die.  And March 11th was apparently a good day to die.  It was an act of compulsion, surely  nothing he planned.  Kelsey far far too frequently just acted, he was “pure id” I’d say, and didn’t think of the outcome the consequences.  He just did, he just was.  Every day since 3/11/10 I wake up and for a nano-second I’m in a transitory state between emptiness and sentience and he’s still here, but then, every fucking morning, it hits me that he’s gone.  And now so are Langston and Ginsberg, the dogs he loved and tormented, and many of the people I’ve loved in the last few years.  So many people are gone.  Bertolt Brecht’s poem “To Those Born After” always hits me.  It’s so potent.  So I can’t be mad at Kelsey, and I think of a time when things will be better, though I don’t really see it coming.  And when that does happen I’ll think of him with forbearance and hope others do the same for me.

Lights out.


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