Just When We Need You The Most
gatewood has died.
if i have to explain that i refer to the lawyer gatewood galbraith, that just means that you are not a dedicated hemp activist and/or you don't live in kentucky.
gatewood is sufficient here.
we had a governor whose nickname was Happy, A B Chandler. he was kind of our Madonna: wildly popular, a successful recycler and embellisher of existing ideas. universally referred to as Happy.
gatewood, though, was our bjork: innovative, transgressive and relentless. you might not like what either said, but you knew they were saying something. and they said a lot.
unlike bjork, though, gatewood was never boring.
gatewood ran for governor of kentucky a total of five times, most recently this past fall. a few times he ran as a democrat in the primaries. a couple of times he lept into the general election as an independent.
he also took a stab at Agriculture Commissioner and Attorney General along the way, and twice made a run for Congress.
i think the best he ever did was to marshall about 15% of the total vote.
in between campaigns, he was a well-respected criminal lawyer because, he said, “losing statewide elections doesn’t pay worth a damn.”
gatewood was a marvelous stumper, a lovable character and a man of passion. the reason he couldn’t win an election was that his passion was marijuana. that is to say, he was a tireless advocate for the legalization of marijuana and industrial hemp. that was the main thrust of his early campaigns for Ag Commish and Governor.
his platform broadened as he tried to increase his appeal, of course. gatewood was chanting his mantra that “the government has no business in our bedroom, bladder, or bloodstream” while most of the current Tea Party were still just school yard bullies, burning frogs and drowning cats or whatever. what he got instinctively, and what sets him apart from the narrow-minded troglodytes featured on Fox “news” these days, was that government did have some business, a noble and ethical purpose, namely: to keep the weakest and most vulnerable in our society from falling through the cracks. gatewood championed low tuition in state schools, gay rights, gender equality, environmental protection, renewable energy, economic justice in the coal fields, and healthcare accessibility for rural areas, among other things. he was the only candidate for governor who ever had the balls to stand up to Big Coal and categorically oppose the horror of mountaintop removal mining--on environmental, social justice and economic grounds. from as early as i can remember, his plan was always to legalize marijuana and tax it so that we could plow the revenues into the beleaguered school system, which has failed our most dependent citizens, our children. gatewood always made it a point to say that he, like his opponents, was all for better schools and infrastructure. the only difference was that he had already figured out a way to pay for it.
and, much like the Occupy Movement, gatewood early on figured out who was poisoning the well of american politics. he talked about the “synthetic subversion” that sprung from the New Deal, whereby kentucky (and the US at large) lurched out of an agrarian economy into an “industrial/synthetic” economy overnight, which allowed corporations to insinuate themselves into power.
he had a name for these consolidated overlords of american politics. “the Petrochemical Pharmaceutical Military Industrial Transnational Corporate Fascist Elite Sons-of-Bitches” he called them.
gatewood was a self-fulfilling prophecy, i suppose. these were the people whose money had subverted the democratic process, and it is now impossible to win an election without that money. the media know this, so they never really took gatewood seriously. as if to prove the point, gatewood lost often and well, except in the one place where he didn’t need corporate sponsorship to rent the media’s attention--nicholas county, where he lived, worked and raised his family. make of that what you will.
gatewood was comfortable with his convictions and contradictions. legend holds that he first tried marijuana in an attempt to control his asthma. it worked, and he became a lifelong convert.
it may have ameliorated his asthma, but the lifetime of smoke probably didn’t do much to help the emphysema that eventually killed him...
this is my gatewood story.
gatewood called me two days after i first met him.
"is this robb? gatewood calling..."
his voice sounded like the rumble of a few cubic tons of rip-rap gravel tumbling out of the bed of a dump truck. the man resonated.
"oh shit" was my first, internal, reaction. the guy on the other end of the line was running for governor of the commonwealth of kentucky, after all. he had seen the photo in the Lexington Herald-Leader and was calling to chew my ass and ask me never to attend a function associated with him ever again, i assumed.
there had been a rally out in the styx the weekend before. it was an affair billed as GATEWOODSTOCK: three days of fundraising, camping, campaigning, community, information dissemination, speechifying, networking, solidarity, barbecue and loud bands.
my brother rhett and i had hustled down from lexington to attend the first night. don't know what exactly we expected to find, but we pulled up right at the opening of Biker Rock Night of GATEWOODSTOCK.
we saw lots of grassy, undulating hills.
we saw a tobacco barn with one side stove in. it looked like they had caved in the fourth wall and applied it to the construction of a makeshift stage. shaky, suspect timbers from the former structure had been strung above the stage, gang-pressed to hold truss lighting.
radiating out from that central point were the hog pens: pods of three to six harleys parked in clusters all across the property. the only other people we saw were the riders of these hogs. the sun was still a ways off from setting, but these folks seemed to be pretty far into their twelve-packs already.
i was wearing a pair of homemade tie-dye jeans and a fluorescent orange shirt. i don't think i'd bothered to put shoes on for the trip. i believe rhett had on khaki cutoffs and a hawaiian shirt. i don't recall if he wore shoes. the point was, we were way too colorful and obvious in this field of denim and leather.
to cover our discomfort, we did what freaks have been doing for the last half century: we started tossing the frisbee.
that worked out pretty well. at some point a little furry guy with a couple of big cameras around his neck approached me and started snapping photos. he identified himself as being from The Lexington Herald-Leader and asked permission to use my likeness in the paper. sure, man, whatever; have a great day... never saw the guy again the rest of the afternoon and evening.
i guess he got the shot he had come for. no need to stick around for the bands or the raucous, energized biker crowds, or even the candidate himself.
i was on the front page the next morning, looking like everything a serious seeker of public office would NOT want representing him or her. i don't know what head trauma i ever sustained made me think it was ok to dress like this in public. no way around it: i was an unholy, nightmarish mess in eye-straining technicolor.
and i was the sole image accompanying the small article about the opening of GATEWOODSTOCK.
me, this shoeless patchwork of pseudo-hippie garishness, leaping like an addled spaniel for the frisbee in the top left corner (i believe my tongue was even hanging out). that's what the Herald-Leader chose to show from gatewood's campaign event.
like just about everything else, this selection had not escaped gatewood's notice. the guy didn't miss anything. he asked me if i had seen the photo in the paper. i told him i had and was quick to tack on that it seemed a pretty lazy editorial decision, in my humble opinion. he responded that he never even saw that photographer from the Herald-Leader.
"but, whatdya expect? Ed is a ninny."
when he went on to link Ed with Bill from Paducah and finally, Irv from The Courier Journal (my hometown paper), i began to piece together that these guys were the political editors for the three largest papers in the state. he didn't seem to have any affection for these fellows. he tore into them for a few minutes. Ed was a ninny who thought he was Mark Twain, which was true, insofar as they wrote in a common language. Bill was a lap dog content to lick the hands of the powerful and piss the floor when he received attention. but Irv really got gatewood steamed. "Irv thinks he's the damned archbishop of canterbury. can't have a king til Irv blesses him..."
it tickled me to hear gatewood rumble on in such a candid fashion. i didn't know it then, but the meandering diatribe was a deliberate oratorical tool gatewood used to great effect. just when the listeners began to wonder where all this wildly entertaining storytelling was leading, he'd clobber them with the point, then stand silent for a minute, to let their minds absorb the blow. gatewood was a master storyteller.
i was beginning to feel a little sorry for the guy. he was cataloging a list of offenses his campaign had endured at the hands of these editors. they either ignored him, or worse still, belittled him in a death-by-needles sort of way. sometimes their papers would report on the gubernatorial campaign and only tack a reference on near the end, referring to gatewood as the “the pot candidate”. often they recapped without mentioning his name. sometimes for days on end. gatewood told me which days those were. i was feeling a little uncomfortable. like, gosh, man, you got it rough. but, y'know, we only met a few days ago. don't you have a friend you can talk with or something?
that's when the hammer fell.
"so, robb, that's why you've got to get off your ass. today. and get your friends off their asses. today. and start writing letters. let these sorry clowns know you’re watching them. tell them your story, brother."
the line went silent.
i think my brain smacked against the back of my skull a full 3 seconds later.
it would have been enough if he had simply leaned on me because of the embarrassing photo. but the embarrassment went deeper. much deeper. and gatewood knew it.
as evening approached at GATEWOODSTOCK, rhett and i took stock. the hog pens were filling up, now with tents encircling them. the main field in front of the stage was choked with flabby bare arms and pendulous guts and wild beards and leather chaps and bandanas. the first band was setting up; from the looks of them they appeared ready to run the wide gamut between Motorhead and Molly Hatchett. our supplies were low: no food, little cash and a woeful, pitiable beer supply.
we considered pulling up stakes and heading back. rhett suggested we make one more circuit of the grounds, just to make sure we weren’t missing anything.
thankfully my brother rhett is a bloodhound for trouble.
we found it in the form of a little airstream camper high on a hillside above the main throng. four young hippie kids from ashland were homesteading for the weekend, two radiantly beautiful girls and two sparsely-bearded guys. they were kind and welcoming. they had a lot of beer and good pot.
and we repaid their kindness and hospitality by stealing their women and making off with a considerable portion of their beer.
i’m not sure how it happened. i don’t recall any coercion or premeditation, but i am not proud of it. one minute we were all sprawled around basking on a picnic blanket, and the next rhett was walking off hand in hand with the blonde and i was heading for the pines with the brunette’s hand in mine. i didn’t see rhett again until the sun was pretty high in the sky.
if i knew her name, it escaped me by sunup. about all i remember is that she was really cute and had a nose ring, which was about 5 years ahead of the times.
we spent the evening wandering the pastures, stealing away to smooch and grope then returning to the bacchanal, all the while drinking profuse quantities of purloined beer. rinse and repeat as necessary.
i do, however, remember when the announcement was made that gatewood would be speaking next. i stated my intention of getting close for the speech, and to my surprise, my friend was more eager than me.
on the way up to the stage, she proceeded to unpack an analysis of political strategy worthy of an atwater or a carville. in essence, she predicted that gatewood would hit the themes of government as in loco parentis with a particular focus on the privatization of prisons and the obscene profits criminal justice corporations make off a steady stream of nonviolent drug offenders. she figured this particular version of gatewood’s “stick it to the man” theme would play well with the outlaw biker crowd.
and she was right as rain.
my first impression when gatewood took the stage was, “damn, he’s tall.” i’m guessing he stood about 6’5”. he was lean and angular at the time, and he paced the rickety stage much like i imagine he paced the courtroom in front of a jury. he started out kindly and avuncular, upright and gangly, thanking the organizers, smiling broadly and name-checking faces in the crowd.
and then he shifted into gear. my second impression was, “how can someone so obviously stoned to the bone have so much fire and energy?” the guy wound fables and stories with diatribes and jeremiads against the oppressors, those who would stamp out the herb. his rhythm was tribal and intoxicating. he would lean out over the first row occasionally; his speech would quicken into a staccato beat; you could see his clench on the microphone tighten, the veins in his temples rising. he would not have been out of place fronting Minor Threat at The Jockey Club in 1986. and then he’d make his point, drop the bomb, and lean back until he was upright. and watch and wait until the words sunk in, the bomb detonated.
now here’s the really embarrassing part for me. more embarrassing even than my sartorial shenanigans, if you can imagine. i could have done here what i usually do when i recount this episode, which is rarely if ever.
usually i leave this part out. but it says something about gatewood that i think puts in high relief what set him apart from any politician i have ever witnessed first hand.
i suppose it was a combination of several factors: a long day of beer-drinking, little or no food, the desire to impress my new scholarly activist nose-ringed friend, a visceral reaction to articles i had been reading about the family farm’s imminent extinction, the culmination of myriad frustrations with what the political process had ossified into, a release from a day spent completely out of my element, and then maybe...
maybe just for that one night, i was THAT GUY.
you know him.
especially if you’ve performed in front of a live audience.
THAT GUY who, for whatever reason--maybe he’s invisible all the rest of his days, maybe he’s so overcome with a feeling of bonhomie and belonging and communal soul that he believes he is engaged in an open dialogue, maybe he’s bored and underwhelmed by what’s happening on the stage, maybe he’s trying to impress his buddies, maybe he thinks he’s the funniest guy on the planet and feels compelled to share with everyone his gifts of hilarity, maybe he’s just a selfish dick--THAT GUY is the guy in the crowd who forgets that the performance is not about him.
sure, it’s FOR him, and the performers want him to enjoy it, but THAT GUY gets confused and thinks it is ABOUT him.
he acts out or performs or comments on everything or tries to direct the proceedings. and he makes an ass of himself.
yeah, THAT GUY.
even if i wasn’t exactly THAT GUY at GATEWOODSTOCK, i came close enough to being him that a) i now guard against a repeat performance with due vigilance and b) i have extended great sympathy and compassion to THAT GUY whenever i have seen him since. there but for the grace of god go i...
enough tiresome setup. time to take my medicine.
so gatewood is slaying them. the crowd is sweating and frothing, seething and roaring on cue. and whenever gatewood tees off on a long drive, puts one through the goal posts or blasts one over the fence in center field, the goofball in the PLA-DOH colored clothes throws his head back, thrusts his fists in the air and hollers (and he can bellow pretty good) to the heavens, “WOOOOO! GIVE US BACK OUR FARMS!”
once more, in case you missed it, that was, “WOOOOO! GIVE US BACK OUR FARMS!”
and i said it many times. it was, like, my thing.
it wasn’t particularly germane. it was related to one of the principles of the overarching campaign, maybe, but obliquely at best. i am grateful that none of the bikers pummeled me into silence.
so gatewood left the assembled throng on a high note (pun intended): he fired up a big Kingston-Kong spliff, inhaled deeply, passed it to a dood in the front row, and said something like, “see you in frankfort next year. thank you.” and then he was on the ground among us.
i was just enjoying watching him work his way through the crowd. the guy was genius in his ability to make every single person seem important for a few seconds, then move on to the next fan without hurting anyone’s feelings. slick as a ribbon, gatewood was.
and then, without me noticing, gatewood was in front of me, his big paw extended. i shook it, even though he was looking over his shoulder. he looked back to me. i started to congratulate/thank/sing praises to him, but he cut me off.
“you’re not a farmer are you?” this grandson of a hemp farmer asked me. we were still joined at the hand.
no, i replied and told him i was a grad student at UK (the University of Kentucky).
“journalism?” he asked, and dropped my hand.
no, i told him, english.
he reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out someone’s business card and a nice fountain pen.
“what’s your name, brother?”
i told him, and he scribbled something on the card, looking down his nose and squinting through the red and blue haze of the stage lights.
“give me your number.”
i gave it to him without a thought, and he wrote it down.
he looked out over the crowd to his left, then turned back to me.
“well, robb, thanks so much for coming out tonight. keep up the good work (or something) (here he clapped me on the shoulder) and, remember, you’ve got to tell your own story, brother.”
i didn’t know what to make of that just then. he turned and hugged my friend, and they talked, faces close for a minute. i stood mute, processing. i thought i had heard it right. so, was that a theme from the speech? a personal catch-phrase, a sign-off like dan rather’s “courage”? some mystic wisdom revealed by the ganja spirit and meant solely for me?
i couldn’t know.
that is, until gatewood called me that following monday. after what seemed a month or three of awkward silence on the line, it dawned on me what i owed him. he wanted articulate people to pressure the papers into covering his campaign more earnestly.
i guess he assumed i was articulate.
i scrambled for a pencil and something to write on, then asked him again for the names of the editors he had mentioned. i remember him saying, “now you’ve got your hat on right, brother” before he gave me their information.
we chatted a minute or so more. we both thanked each other and hung up. and that was the last time i spoke to the man.
i was honor-bound and got to work. it was tough drafting a letter that was focused and concise. in the end, i decided that two letters were necessary: one for the editors themselves, and another to be run on the letters pages for the general public. as the democratic primary heated up, i enlisted a couple of my fellow grad students who were simpatico. for a while there, we were holding Bill, Ed and Irv’s feet to the fire pretty consistently. and our letters (under various pseudonyms) appeared in print with a surprising regularity. if there was a theme we tried to stick to for the editorials, it was that gatewood wanted what all the other candidates-- and everybody in the commonwealth, for that matter--wanted. but only gatewood had figured out a way to pay for it. pretty original, right? for the letters direct to the editors, we took the high road and demanded higher standards of journalistic integrity in coverage.
you’d think that there would be a limited number of ways to say the same thing again and again over a period of weeks and months. but remember, we were english grad students: it’s what we do. we polish turds and put lipstick on pigs. the same turds and the same pigs over and over.
i’d like to say that our efforts paid off. but i have no way to measure the impact, if there was any. the facts speak for themselves. gatewood got paltry coverage and ended his run dead last and on the edge of financial ruin. the party anointed the lieutenant governor, brereton jones, who in predictable fashion went on to win the general election.
the word “kentucky” is a derived from the wyandot phrase “ken-ta-teh,” which is often translated as “dark and bloody ground” for its history as place of abundant and successful hunting. more aggressive scholars argue it means, “slow to catch on” or “the place of simpletons” or “what the fuck is wrong with you people?”
by “more aggressive scholars” i mean me. i’m a native son and in no way a reputable scholar or historian.
i just get frustrated with my neighbors frequently.
i suppose my fellow briarhoppers are no more or no less blind or dimwitted than the average american, really. there is a steady and pernicious avalanche of propaganda against the common sense position that marijuana and hemp should be legal, controlled and taxed.
despite that, polls show that in the time since GATEWOODSTOCK, the percentage of americans who favor legalizing marijuana, at least for medicinal purposes, has gone up from 20% to 70%.
i don’t know what the figure is here in kentucky, but i’m pretty sure it’s well below the national average. as mark twain said, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Kentucky, because everything there happens 20 years after it happens anywhere else.”
but here in kentucky, marijuana is our number one cash crop. we produce more of the stuff than any other state besides california, and you could turn us on our side, put fulton county in san diego, and the appalachian mountains would cut across santa barbara. (and, no i am not a geographer, either, but you get the point).
we are sitting on the mother lode. there is absolutely no reason we should be a coal state that scoots along between 47th and 50th in the nation in education. that wily weed could put a laptop in the hands of every student, upgrade every educational facility in the state and pay teachers a nationally-attractive wage instead of putting a new camaro in the driveway of every illegal grower each fall.
what we need is a superhero. maybe a guy wearing a straw hat, with a goofy grin and a big bulbous pinnocchio nose, to come along and show us the way. someone willing to put his neck on the chopping block for what is right. someone electable, compassionate and above the influence. someone who gives a damn about us, the people of this commonwealth.
it’s a shame we had what we needed right in front of us and did nothing.
it’s a shame gatewood has died.