As a sci-fi fan, it would be
remiss of me in the final few hours of 2017 not to somehow honor the 40th
anniversary of the premier of Star Wars.
There is little I can add to the recognition, but I do have one story that
perhaps illustrates the power of the phenomenon to those too young to remember
a world before George Lucas’ blockbuster movie.
When the film debuted in May
1977, I was not immediately taken with the hype. Star Trek was my main sci-fi interest and I regarded Star Wars as an over-produced, genre-destroying,
corporate monster. I waited over a year before finally giving in to peer-pressure
and got my dad to take me during one of our weekly divorced-dad weekends in
Now, I hasten to add that Star Wars had been playing at our local
multiplex, Cine 1-2-3-4-5-6 (yes, that was its name) at Northway Mall in Albany, NY, since May 1977, so
it was playing for a full year before I saw it — and the theater was still
packed. Let that sink in for a moment. Star
Wars played at theaters continuously for over a year. It’s impossible to
imagine any film doing the same thing today.
The old Cine 1-2-3-4-5-6, here upgraded to Cine
10. Demolished in May 2007 (cinematreasures.org).
I was looking for any reason not
to like the movie. When an imperial officer used the word “sensors” early in
the film, I leaned over to my dad and said that was used in Star Trek. My dad shushed me and told me to give it a
chance. By the time Luke Skywalker fired up his lightsaber for the first time, I
was hooked. As though bound by quantum entanglement, I remain so today.
The backstory of an awkward young
man with limited prospects who hates his life rang true with a lot of kids, and
still does. Luke Skywalker’s coming-of-age is what gives the film its heart and
helps it rise above what Alec Guinness described as the “banality” of the
dialog in the script. My father, despite being an ex-marine himself, got a bit motion
sick during the Death Star run. Nevertheless, having grown up with Buck Rogers and Flash
Gordon serials, he recognized the similarities which Lucas used in
creating the film’s overall structure. By building on the work of the previous
generation, George Lucas created a film that attracted young and old alike.
Hey, I’m a Believer!
I walked into the theater a
skeptic and walked out into the hot June night a hard-core, rock-solid, Stars Wars fan. I quickly joined the fan
club, got the Kenner figures, got the models, got the soundtrack, and got the
books. The only books at the time, however, were the novelization of the film
(1976) and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye
(1978), both by Alan Dean Foster, who also wrote Star Trek Log One, which I cover in another article (see link).
Book covers to Star Wars and Splinter of the
Mind’s Eye (original copies, author’s collection).
I still have those books (see above). The
gold cover of the movie novelization is wrinkled from when my brother and I
fought over reading it in 1978. Some pictures later fell out, which
I saved and put back. The binding fell apart in the 1990s and it is now held
together by electrician’s tape. The dog-eared pages are now yellowed and
stained. I took them with me wherever I moved throughout middle school, high
school, and college. I probably haven’t read them in 20 to 25 years, but I could
no more get rid of them than I could sever a limb or a memory.
With the books came the music. I
played the 8-track of John Williams’ soundtrack almost daily. I also got the
single with the disco version by Meco. That single was huge and turned up on
TV, radio, and in ads. It even helped inspire me during my runs that summer of
1978 (as referenced in my short story “I Now Know Why Salmon Swim Upstream”).While I
still have Meco’s singles for The Empire
Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi,
which I bought at the time of the films’ releases, I long ago lost the 45 for
the first film — which brings me to the most interesting part of my tale.
Meco's 45s for the Empire Strikes Back and
Return of the Jedi (author's collection).
After the divorce in 1978, mom
sold the house and we moved into a much smaller brick row house. By the summer
of 1980, I was working for my mother’s one-woman cleaning service. She had a
number of customers in an exclusive upscale apartment/condominium complex
called Oxford Heights. She was in high demand because she provided complete
service, including windows and laundry. I was paid $5 an hour (about $15 at the
time of this writing), which was a pretty respectable wage for a 15 year old. Despite
the high pay, I loathed the work. It was boring and tedious and my Sicilian
mother was a stern taskmaster. Instead of swimming and going to baseball games,
I spent the summer stinking of bleach and folding other people’s underwear. My mom
worked me eight hours a day, five days a week and . . . wait. Wasn’t this
supposed to be a Star Wars story?
Gold . . . Everywhere, the Glint of Gold . . .
One day during that summer of 1980,
while cleaning the apartment of a young couple by the last name of Fenton, I
was vacuuming the hallway leading into the bedroom when I caught a flash of
gold out of my eye. I looked up and saw a gold record. An actual, honest-to-goodness,
gold record awarded for at least one million sales. The light reflected off it
like a disco ball. I looked closer and saw it was for Meco’s Star Wars theme single.
I think I almost passed out right
I called to my mother and asked
her about it. My mother, who never saw the movie, responded nonchalantly that
the husband, Mike Fenton, who worked as a casting agent in New York City, was a
friend of Meco who gave it him. For a moment, amid all the family dysfunction
and the grind of a lost summer, I was connected to a phenomenon — if in only in
the most tangential of ways.I glimpsed
behind the curtain and beheld the face of Oz.
On a cosmic scale, considering
the present age of the universe of some 13.8 billion years, 40 years is so
small a percentage that barely a measurable amount of time has passed between
1978 and 2018. So, in some way, it is still June 1978 and I am still at that
theater in Albany, NY. Indeed, every time I watch Star Wars I am transported, albeit briefly, back to that one moment
in time and space. My father is still alive, I am still young, I am still sitting
on the edge of my seat, and I am still waiting for the movie to begin.
It seems like it was only
dad, Joe Urso, and I, circa August 1978, Lake George, NY.
—Bad beatnik poem from the TV series Peter Gun episode “The Blind Pianist”
(Oct. 13, 1958)
When I picked up a copy of Lawrence
Ferlinghetti’s Coney Island of the Mind
at a used book sale in 1984, I knew immediately I was a Beat. The raw emotion
written in a staccato-like free verse explored every facet of existence in a
world that always tries to classify and contain us. Being “beat” is a state of
mind that transcends cultural norms. It is born of a discontent with Western
society. Forced into a cycle of working to pay for the debt we acquire by
existing to serve the system, we lose our sense of individuality and purpose.
As long as that dynamic exists, Beats — with their artistic sensibilities, sardonic
humor, and obscure literary references — will always be around to both
contribute to and question the cultural zeitgeist (one way you can tell a Beat
is that we use words like “zeitgeist”).
No serious self-respecting Beat would
have admitted to being one. More often, they identified by their aspirations: artist, musician, philosopher,
poet, student, teacher, or writer — not necessarily by what they did to pay the rent.Despite the fact that “beatnik” is a
media-invented name (spun off from “Sputnik,” the Soviet satellite first to
orbit Earth), the word does define certain common characteristics about the
Beats, including a love of jazz, marching to the sound of one’s own “beat,” and
sympathy for left-leaning ideology. Nevertheless, Beats never made good
revolutionaries. Despite critiques of society in such works as Allen Ginsberg’s
poem “America,” most were generally apolitical during the height of their
cultural influence in the 1950s and early 1960s.
The Beat Movement was a post-war
response to the increasing commercialism and materialism of Western culture and
the near-constant threat of war and nuclear annihilation. Rather than
participate in a cycle of war and working for the sake of paying debts acquired
by working, the Beats instead opted for a simpler life that found joy in
valuing our individuality. The beatnik, like the hippie, has become a
stereotype, but both were symptoms of a larger conflict between society and the
individual. In studying such movements, we learn a little bit more about both.
Aeolus 13 Umbra explores the Beat Movement in
a number of posts, including:
A Bucket of Blood (1959): From the
Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel. Directed by Roger Corman. Beatnik characters
and stereotypes populate this classic low-budget film about an artist with an
unusual technique for making lifelike sculptures.
Allen Ginsberg: America: Ginsberg reads a segment of his poem, along
with some freaky image processing by yours truly, which remains as relevant
today as it was 60 years ago.
Radio Documentary: The Cool Rebellion with Howard K. Smith: The
noted news announcer takes a look at the Beats through decidedly
conservative-colored lenses. An interesting exchange between a Beat and a
Square at a nightclub typifies the cultural divide between the middle-aged
middle-class and a rising tide of discontent with material Western values.
Radio Interview: A Great Day in Harlem: On August 12, 1958, many Jazz musicians of
the Beat era got together for a picture. In this piece, I interview Jean Bach
who directed the 1994 Academy Award nominated documentary, A Great Day in Harlem, about this famous photo.
Review: Edward Dorn's Gunslinger: Dorn is
associated with the Black Mountain Poets, contemporaneous to the Beat Movement
with whom they shared writers and editors and similar poetic sensibilities. Dorn’s
masterpiece, Gunslinger, is a
psychedelic ride through the American cultural landscape of the 1960s.
The Bloody Brood (1959): From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel. Directed
by Julian Roffman. Starring Peter Falk with Barbara Lord, Jack Betts, and Ron
Hartmann. A man's investigation into his brother's death leads him into the
underground world of THE BEATNIKS! Jazz, poetry, bongos, and DEATH!
The Little Shop of Horrors (1960): From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
Directed by Roger Corman. Filmed shortly after A Bucket of Blood, The Little
Shop of Horrors shares some of the same sets. While not a Beat film per se,
the movie’s dark humor and down-trodden characters fit in perfectly with the
Beat’s groove — like, you know what I mean, man?
On March 28, 1986, the political
debate show Crossfire turned its attention to the question of whether
censorship has a place in American society, and, specifically, whether rock
music lyrics should be censored. Appearing on the show are hosts Tom Braden
and Robert Novak and guests John Lofton and Frank Zappa. For 21 minutes, a
classic rhetorical conflict unfolds in which all aspects of the public debate
are explored: defining key terms, appearance and non-verbal communication,
tone, research and preparation, psychological tactics, and the end game.
The topic under consideration —
censorship — came about following the formation of the Parents Music Resource
Center (PMRC) in 1985 which was created to inform the public on what they
considered was a rising explicitness in sex-related topics in rock music.
Their efforts resulted in parental guidance labels identifying various degrees
of mature content being affixed to albums, but many proponents wanted to take
the effort even further and put restrictions on what artists could sing about.
Sex has always been a component
of rock music, but the issue came to a head by the increasing popularity of
music videos following the start of MTV in 1981. While some form of music
videos have been around in one form or another during the rock era, the 24-hour
format of MTV and its ubiquitous appearance on basic cable packages made it
more popular than ever — and productions vied to push the envelope, however
tame by today’s standards they seem.
The point of a public debate is
not so much as to get the audience to change their minds on a topic, but rather
to convince them that, despite disagreements, you can make a logically valid
argument with support and evidence. In today’s politically polarized
environment, public debate is often used as a tool to preach to the converted with
brutal language filled with logical fallacies. Neither the public discourse nor
the body politic is served by this use of the debate.
Tom Braden: Liberal political commentator. Although aligned with
the left, Braden has solid anti-Communist credentials as a CIA agent active in
covert intelligence operations against the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, his
political commentary ended him up on Nixon’s enemies list. His personable
demeanor often serves as a moderating influence, although he is quite willing
to step back and let opponents go at it. Braden also authored Eight Is Enough,
the book on which the late 1970s TV show was based.
Robert Novak: Conservative journalist who started with the
Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal and later enjoyed a long career as
a political commentator in print and on TV. Despite his strong socially and
politically conservative views, and support of Ronald Regan, Novak was a
registered Democrat and identified himself as agnostic.
John Lofton: Far-right conservative political commentator. Lofton
is ideologically a nationalist theocrat who often makes arguments based on
appeals to religion, patriotism, and traditionally conservative family values.
Although closely aligned with the Republican Party for part of his career, he
later distanced himself and authored a blog titled “Recovering Republican.” His
extreme positions on social issues and mercurial personality stalled his career
within the GOP and in the media at large; however, he continued to pop up
periodically as a gadfly for the religious right. Lofton took pride on never having
attended college, and in this forum it shows.
Frank Zappa: Conservative musician and producer. Although Zappa
self-identifies as a conservative, he is really a classic libertarian —
socially liberal, fiscally conservative, and a strong proponent of individual
freedom and personal responsibility. Zappa also adheres to a strict
interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as it regards matters of legal rights.
Due to his background in rock music, and being closely identified with the
counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, Zappa may have been underestimated by
his conservative opponents in the debate over the censorship of rock music.
Appearances and Non-Verbal
In a public debate, appearance
involves two components: dress and non-verbal communication. In the video, all
the participants are wearing two or three-piece suits (interestingly, both
conservatives are wearing three-piece suits). Men’s business suits and ties are
a sort of uniform. Its commonality of design and ubiquity results in a loss of
individuality. The result is that we focus less on the person than on their
ideas or what they represent. In this regard, all of the participants adhere to
this standard, yet Lofton’s suit, a basic blue, makes his size more apparent
than a black suit which would have blended in with the background. The coat
seems a bit tight in the shoulders and bunches up at times as Lofton’s posture
Meanwhile, Zappa is wearing a
dark, understated, bespoke suit, and probably the most expensive one on the
set. It blends in well with the background and, given Zappa’s tall, thin frame,
and steady posture, the suit wears well throughout the debate.
Our non-verbal body language is a
visual indicator that either reinforces or detracts from our credibility.
Zappa, throughout the debate, generally exhibits a calm and collected demeanor.
He maintains a firm posture, limits his gestures, and does not even uncross his
legs during the entire show. Despite the aggressiveness of Lofton’s attacks,
Zappa, for the most part, keeps his cool.
Meanwhile, Lofton is constantly
changing his posture. He’s often seen slumping in his chair, leaning over,
making flailing gestures, pointing his fingers at Zappa, and continuously
violating Zappa’s personal space. Granted, there is not much room on set, but at no time does Zappa violate Lofton's personal space. The overall impact on the viewer is that
Lofton is acting out of anxiety and desperation.
John Lofton reaches into Frank Zappa's personal space to make a point.
Debate on Your Own Terms:
One lesson about debating is to
settle early on the definition of the keywords and terms under discussion. Tom
Braden specifies at the :29 second mark (all time references are synched to the
Braden: . . . but when you
actually listen to the words of the song you
get a shock.
Although the discussion is framed
by music video clips, it is the lyrics, the words, of the songs that is
identified as the problem. Nevertheless, to many middle-aged American audiences
of the time the images of scantily-clad models, tame by today's standards, in music videos were risqué. While the
topic is the question of censorship, various attempts are made to put Zappa on
the defense, defending pornography, such as in this exchange at 1:12:
Novak: Are you
saying there is no filth, no pornography, no obscenity that should not be
permitted to be sold and distributed freely in the country in the form of music
videos and rock music?
Novak is being a bit underhanded
here in his questioning. He is insinuating that by being against censorship,
Zappa also supports pornography, obscenity, filth, etc. Essentially, this is a
Red Herring logical fallacy. Novak tries to shift the topic from censoring
words to rather vague concepts such as filth, pornography, and obscenity. These
are abstract terms which vary in definition from person to person. It is a
classic ploy in an attempt to discredit someone by shifting the topic and
associating their position with something ethically dubious. Zappa, however,
does not take the bait.
Zappa: I don’t
think music qualifies as pornography and especially since this whole business
started with words. We’re talking about words. All of the complaints are about
Suggestive imagery is always a
more challenging position to defend to a socially conservative opposition;
however, Zappa shifts the conversation to the one point he knows is settled
law: the First Amendment. When dealing with just words there are few
restrictions that can be placed on a citizen. As long as Zappa keeps the
conversation on that point, he can dominate the debate. Indeed, the impact is
immediate and Novak concedes at 1:35, “Ok, take the pornography out.” Zappa
then reiterates his point:
talking about words, and I don’t believe there is any word that needs to be
suppressed. There’s no scientific or, uh, realistic reason why you should keep
people from hearing certain words.”
And again at 2:35
we’re talking about rock videos we’re talking about . . .
Zappa: We’re not
talking about rock videos. We’re talking about words.
Zappa later, at 3:09, defines who
he is politically:
Zappa: I'm a
conservative, and you might not like that, but I am, and the fact of the matter
is this bill that they're talking about in Maryland is stupid.
By identifying himself as a
conservative, which is further supported by his later statements, Zappa gives
himself credibility to argue against censorship. One expects a hippie liberal
rock musician to be against censorship, but that a conservative is against it
gives the idea more weight to those undecided on the topic.
By defining the terms of the
debate — that it is about words, not images — Zappa succeeds in establishing
his dominancy at an early point. By self-identifying as a conservative, Zappa
puts Lofton on the defensive and gives independent-minded conservatives an
alternative. From this point on, Zappa’s opponents have to attack aggressively,
which can expose weaknesses in one’s argument. Having achieved the high ground
in the argument, all Zappa has to do now is point out the flaws in the
opposition’s position — a much safer rhetorical position.
A person’s tone in a debate
regards their overall attitude. Are they too passive or too aggressive? Do they
sound reasonable or closed-mined? Do they show respect to their opposition
despite ideological differences? Zappa, as previously discussed, generally
maintains a cool demeanor.
Lofton at 7:00 engages in
hyperbolic exaggeration to make the point that the Founding Fathers could not
have foreseen this type of music, so the First Amendment does not apply. Zappa,
however, does not fall for it and maintains his position:
Lofton: Do you
believe think the Founding Fathers really had the First Amendment . . .that they gave us the First Amendment to
defend songs that glorify Satanism, and suicide, and incest? You really believe
Absolutely. Yeah, I believe that.
you’re an idiot.
Zappa: I tell
you what . . . kiss my ass! How do you like that?
your teeth out. Take your teeth out and we’ll talk about it! [Lofton gets
Lofton tries the same tactic
Novak tried at the start of the show (see 1:12) — attempt to discredit Zappa by
asserting a Red Herring fallacy in associating his position with ethically
dubious ideas — and similarly Zappa does not fall for it. While Lofton engages
in a classic ad hominem fallacy by calling Zappa an idiot, Zappa does not do
himself any favors by telling Lofton to kiss his ass. This is Zappa’s one and
only fault committed during the match; nevertheless, the exchange leaves Lofton
exasperated. He continues to mumble under his breath and gets bleeped by the
show’s censor (ironic considering Lofton’s position on censorship). While not
Zappa’s shining moment, Lofton nonetheless manages to fumble the opportunity.
A better tact for Zappa may have
been to point out to Lofton the fallacy of limiting an interpretation of a
constitutional right based solely on what the Founding Fathers knew at the time
the amendment was authored. If we take Lofton’s suggestion at face value, then
it follows it would be fair to put limitations on the Second Amendment to
prohibit the sale of semi-automatic weapons, or indeed any weapon that can fire
more than one bullet at a time, since neither technology was known at the time
the Bill of Rights was authored. Lofton, being an ardent NRA supporter, I’m
sure would disagree. Such a counter by Zappa would have pointed out a further
logical fallacy in Lofton’s argument.
All that being said, Lofton often
does Zappa’s job himself. Throughout the entire debate, Lofton exhibits a
distinct unwillingness to take a reasonable tone. His arguments are filled with
logical fallacies and, as we shall explore, factual inaccuracies as well. Zappa
is firm in his position, but relaxed in his approach. While Zappa tells Lofton
to “kiss his ass,” he otherwise does not overtly disparage Lofton’s
intelligence. Why should he? Lofton is managing to do that job well enough all
on his own.
Research, Preparation, and
While Braden, Novak, and Lofton
all share a similar disgust at 1980s rock music, none manage to conjure up a
single artist’s or band’s name as examples of their thesis, that rock music
lyrics should be censored, throughout the entire debate. In fact, only Zappa
mentions other artist’s names.
One noteworthy observation is
that three of the participants, Braden, Novak, and Lofton, all carry notes and
refer to them repeatedly throughout the debate. Despite this, Novak and Lofton
repeatedly get basic facts wrong or provide incomplete information. Zappa,
however, carries absolutely no notes and not only gets his facts straight, but
also corrects his opponents when they get information wrong. The results make Lofton
and Novak look unprepared and lack creditability at crucial points in the
John Lofton checks his notes. Frank Zappa does not need any.
Lofton attempts to draw a
correlation between rock music and its influence on society by focusing on, of
all things, incest. At 3:35, Lofton provocatively asks:
Lofton: Are you
[unintelligible] songs that portray incest as just another kind of sex, and
perhaps preferable sex? Are you for that?
After some exchange on this
point, Zappa respond at 4:30:
Zappa: I didn’t
realize that incest was such a terrible problem in the United States that we
suddenly needed government intervention to cure incest in America by keeping
words off of records.
incest in America never used to be a problem did it Mr. Zappa? That’s come
about in the last twenty years or so.
Braden: Oh John,
that’s not so.
The suggestion that rock music is
singularly responsible for an alleged rise in incest in America in only the
last twenty years of its 200-plus years of existence is so ludicrous that
Braden’s disbelief is almost palpable (Novak curiously has no comment on this
blatant lie). Hyperbole is a rookie mistake for a professional debater.
Lofton’s obsession with incest as a point of argument is odd. He certainly
would have gotten more traction by suggesting a correlation between the rise in
the use of recreational drugs and a rise in the mention of its use, and in some
cases glorification, in rock music over the last twenty years, but instead
Lofton curiously sticks to incest as his talking point. From here on, barely
five minutes into the debate, Lofton’s creditability is effectively dead on
When Braden presses Lofton on his
plan to implement a censorship policy (at 9:00), he is unable to provide any
details and speaks of it only in the most general of terms. For someone so
passionate about the topic, it is odd that he is unable to provide a proposal
of any sort. As censorship is a radical departure from the American tradition
of a free press, a detailed plan could alieve fears of abuse. The absence of
any plan not only demonstrates a lack of preparedness on Lofton’s part, but
also increases the dubiousness of his proposal and decreases the likelihood his
position will be deemed creditable.
Novak himself is also guilty of
some sloppy research on his part, which makes him look unprepared, as in this
exchange at 14:39:
Novak: There is
a rock video, it’s about to come out, that has a, a school teacher undressing
in front of the students . . .
Zappa:It’s out already and it’s one of the ones they
use for bumpers. They showed it at a senate hearing. It’s called “Hot for
Teacher” and the group is Van Halen.
None of this was classified
information. Despite it being before the Internet, a look at MTV, Billboard
magazine, or talking with any teenager at the time, would have confirmed these
facts. Certainly Novak, who worked for both print and cable news outlets, had considerably more resources at hand, so there's no excuse for sloppy research. Novak makes a similar
faux pas at 17:34:
Zappa, when you were testifying in Annapolis, yesterday I think, they had
some kids that were picketing outside who were from the school for the mentally
disturbed and they said that rock music almost ruined their life, rock music
really disturbed them. Doesn’t that give you some pause as if maybe you were
making a — you might be in error on this question?
Zappa: Well see,
you’re in error as to where those kids came from. It’s not a school for the
mentally disturbed. There’s a place called Freedom Village run by a man named
Pastor Fletcher A. Brothers. A Christian organization, he collects money for it,
they have a farm in upstate New York. I’ve debated Pastor Brothers on the radio
before. I’ve also seen his literature, Basically, what he has done is taken the
children who have come to his place for rehabilitation — I don’t know where he
gets them, who sends them — but he carts them around the country on the Freedom
Village bus and makes them go in and testify all the bad things that happened
to them before they came to his place and then he connects it to rock music.
Zappa then goes on to provides
details as to particular rock songs Pastor Brothers found offensive. The
overall effect on the audience is that Zappa is more prepared. Not only has he
studied his own talking points, but also those of his opponents as well. In
fact, Zappa seems more informed on their own evidence than they are themselves.
The Mind Game
The psychological aspect of the
debate is a component not to be overlooked. If an opponent can be caused to
lose their focus, get caught up in tangents, or get angry, their creditability
will be damaged. If one’s opponent is well-prepared, has done their research,
and is intellectually reasonable and confident, it will be almost impossible to
Lofton’s psychological ploy is to
act aggressive to the point of anger. As noted before, he gesticulates widely
and frequently invades Zappa’s personal space. He insults Zappa, from saying he is part of the problem (despite Zappa’s lyrics never being in question) to
outright calling him an idiot. While unethical from an academic debating point
of view, such tactics can nonetheless weaken an opponent’s concentration and
focus, giving you, at least temporarily, the upper hand.
On the other hand, if one’s
opponent is overtly passionate, aggressive, and ill-prepared — all signs of
basic insecurity — it will be easier to rattle their cage, so to speak.
Consider the following curious exchange that begins at the 5:58 mark:
you look at the camera and tell them . . .
camera . . .
Zappa: Are you
directing the show now?
yeah . . . that’s right. Well, you certainly need some direction Mr. Zappa.
Zappa: Are you
going to spank me here? Come on, what are you trying to do?
Lofton: Are you
into that too? No, I’m not into spanking . . .
Zappa: I love it
when you froth like that.
would you tell our viewers what the Founding Fathers . . .
Zappa: I thought
he [referring to Novak] would be the one frothing today. I’m glad that you’re
again Frank, wrong again.
Zappa: I got a
napkin for you when you drool.
And later again at 15:01:
[indicating Zappa] thinks it’s amusing you might have a grade school class
that’s “hot for teacher” in a sexual way. Why is that amusing?
shouldn’t it be amusing?
not smiling. You don’t look too happy at that.
over Lofton] Why should I smile when I’m sitting here with you?
you can fake it Frank you . . .
Zappa: I like
him [pointing to Novak] better than you. Does that give you a rough idea of
what’s going on here?
At first, I was confused as to
why Zappa would engage in such exchanges, but I think he zeroed in on a key
aspect of Lofton’s psychology. There is an insecure over-eagerness to Lofton.
He desperately needs to prove he’s right. It is the sort of approach a
determined younger brother might take when matched against older siblings.
Zappa constantly interrupts Lofton during these two exchanges and barely lets
him complete a sentence without getting needled, increasing Lofton’s
frustration and getting him off-topic. In this way, Zappa demonstrates a
psychological dominance over Lofton that pervades the entire debate.
Despite Lofton's aggressive tactics, he is often seen slumping in his seat, suggesting a submissive posture.
In another example of Zappa’s
deft use of language, he successfully uses Lofton’s own words against him, as
in the following exchanges at 5:38, 5:49, and 8:11:
are songs that advocate incest.
Zappa: Tell me
them. I haven’t heard them.
you ought to get out more.
Lofton, however, is unable to
name any songs. His response, “Well, you out to get out more,” is a somewhat
juvenile attempt to distract the audience from his own inability to provide the
artists, song titles, or lyrics of any songs that he thinks promotes incest.
Rather, Lofton’s response is to suggest that it is Zappa who is uninformed.
Zappa, however, in a bit of rhetorical judo, uses Lofton’s phrase against him
to point out Lofton’s own very real factual errors at 5:49 and 8:11:
Your group is called the Mothers of the Invention . . .
It’s Mothers of Invention. You should get out more.
Lofton: You once
wrote a song called, “We’re All in it for the Money,”. . .
not a song. It’s the title of an album. You should get out more.
In both these exchanges, Zappa
tosses Lofton’s petty remark, “You should get out more,” back in his face. This
puts Lofton off-beat for a moment and adds to his overall frustration at not
being able to get the better of Zappa in the debate. Lofton earlier used the
remark, unsuccessfully, to suggest Zappa was uniformed. Zappa responds in kind
with Lofton’s own words to successfully point out Lofton’s own actual factual
When to Walk Away — The End Game
Typically, people will only
remember the last couple minutes of any speech or debate, so it is important to
end on a strong note that reminds your audience of your position. On a TV show,
keeping track of the time is even more important because each segment and
program break is carefully timed out. This episode clocks in at 21:10. Minus
time for the credits, that leaves less than twenty minutes for four speakers to
discuss the issue, not a lot of time.
Consider this following exchange
starting at 16:59, with only about three minutes left in the debate:
Zappa: If you
don’t link the spirit then change the things that make the spirit happen.
Lofton: I agree
Zappa: In other
words, if you have kids that are rebellious and kids that are hopeless. You
have kids that go to drugs. Then give them something to hope for.
what? What would you tell a kid he ought to hope for nowadays Frank?
Zappa: What I
tell kids and what I’ve been telling kids for quite some time is first register
to vote and second, as soon as you’re old enough, run for something.
really think that’s going to give kids hope, telling them to vote?
Zappa: Well, I
don’t know if it makes them commit suicide [Lofton previously tried connecting
rock music to suicide], but I think it gives them a little more hope.
Not too intense an exchange, but
Lofton curiously decides to denigrate Zappa’s advice to young people — register
to vote and run for public office. In a political discussion, this seems to be
fairly harmless advice, but for some reason it rankles Lofton and he just can’t
let it go, as in this exchange about two minutes later at the 19:05 mark:
[interrupting Zappa] I want to talk now. You’ve talked for a little while, ok?
I think your answer about where hope is supposed to lie shows the bankruptcy of
what used to be considered the radical message. We have millions of kids in
this country Frank who may be suicidal, who see no meaning in life, who see no
hope in life, and you’re going to tell them the hope is in registering to vote
Frank? Are you serious?
Zappa: Are you
trying to dissuade them from registering to vote? Are you trying to dissuade
those kids from running for office? Is that what you’re doing?
talking about kids who don’t know the meaning of life and you’re telling them
to vote? That’s no answer.
At this point, Tom Braden
interrupts Lofton and ends the debate.
Lofton is attempting using a
classic ploy to draw an opponent into commenting on something outside their
area of expertise by creating a hypothetical situation. Zappa is no minister or
psychiatrist, and answering such existential questions are not only beyond his
area of expertise (music and the Constitution), but attempting to do so would
weaken his creditability, particularly in the short amount of time left in the
program. Rather than take the bait, Zappa instead issues a call for action to
the young people watching: vote, run for office, and become the decision
makers. Now, who in their right mind could possibly find anything offensive
Only John Lofton, apparently.
Lofton’s response, that such a
call somehow shows “the bankruptcy of what used to be considered the radical
message” is just too absurd a claim to make any rational sense out of it. How
can encouraging young people to exercise their basic rights as citizens be a
morally bankrupt? Indeed, Lofton is practically frothing at the mouth at
Zappa’s response while an aloof Zappa barely acknowledges Lofton’s presence.
And that is how the debate ends.
Winners and Losers
As far as the moderation is
concerned, Braden comes out on top. He asks a few questions to guide the
conversation, seldom interferes, and calls Lofton out on his obvious lie about
incest only being a problem in the 20 years prior to the broadcast (inferring that rock music is to blame). Novak gets
a low score, however. He starts off by attempting a Red Herring logical
fallacy, which gets rebuffed by Zappa, does not call Lofton out on his lie about the
rise in incest, and gets basic facts wrong which Zappa points out.
Regarding the debate between
Zappa and Lofton, there is no doubt Zappa is the clear winner. Unlike the two
moderators and his opponent John Lofton, Frank Zappa needs no notes and comes
across as the most well-informed member of the group. He is composed, uses
gestures effectively, makes no distracting movements, does not invade others’
personal space, and makes his points without histrionics. Except for the “kiss
my ass” comment, Zappa delivers a near-perfect performance.
Lofton is the clear loser in this
debate. He comes across as anxious, desperate, and unreasonable. His arguments
contain logical fallacies and he even outright lies, as in his claim that
incest has only been a problem in America in the last twenty years. He
alternatively slumps away from Zappa and then tries to invade his personal
space. Despite holding several pages of notes, Lofton is unable to provide the
names of any artists or songs that are so egregious that they deserve to be
Zappa does make one insightful
prediction in this 1986 debate that has, rather unfortunately, proved
prophetic. At the 10:05 mark, Zappa builds off Lofton’s assertion that America
is under attack and defending children against the onslaught of rock music
videos is a matter of national defense.
Zappa: Could I
make a comment about National Defense? The biggest threat to America today is
not communism. It’s moving America toward a fascist theocracy, and everything
that’s happened under the Reagan Administration is steering us right down that
While most read this comment as a
prophetic insight (and to an extent, it is) it should be noted that Lofton is a
theocrat, and this comment was likely intended by Zappa as a retort to Lofton
for suggesting rock music videos are a direct threat to the nation. Without
mentioning his name, Zappa makes it clear that he considers Lofton to be the
real threat. While most of the audience would have missed this subtext, I have
no doubt Lofton got the message.
Without wading too deeply into
the current political situation in the United States, it is fairly safe to say
that Zappa’s prediction has come true. American politics have come to be
dominated by a far-right contingent that uses religion to excuse political
expediency and push a fake news narrative. Lofton’s kind of political debate is
anti-intellectual and nationalistic in nature and has been partly responsible
in empowering fringe extremist groups in America today. Every time I see this
debate, I am reminded how much Frank Zappa’s presence is sorely missed on the
All four members of this
particular Crossfire panel have since passed away, but I like to think that
somewhere out in the great eternal, ethereal void, Frank Zappa is still telling
John Lofton, “You should get out more.”
More likely though, Zappa is
probably telling Lofton to kiss his ass.
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