The following is an interview we conducted with Gordon Skene, the producer of BushSpeak. BushSpeak, distributed by the Shout Factory, is a sharp and biting audio collection of what have come to be known as Bushisms - strange garblings of the English language that are characteristic of political members of the Bush family.
The Bushisms of the BushSpeak CD are all provided courtesy of George W. Bush, and provide a broad representation of the strange political philosophy of the man often referred to as King George the Second. On this CD, Mr. Bush himself provides answers to such gnawing questions as: Where do wings take dream? What's the difference between fooling Mr. Bush once and fooling him twice? Would it be easier if America were a dictatorship? Where do American families put their food?
In an age when music seems to dominate all other sound, we took interest in the production of an almost purely spoken word CD, especially one that relates to the hottest political season in over a generation. As it turns out, Mr. Skene has a long history working with the spoken word, and a special interest in political history. As a result, Skene is one of the a growing group of irregular thinkers who are translating the Age of Information into the Age of Action.
Well, actually, he's not taking credit for it, but I got a phone call from Richard, who is the owner of Shout Factory and he said, "You know, what would you think of putting together a package of Bushisms?" And, I thought about it, and I've known Richard for a really long time and I used to do some work with Rhino in their spoken word projects. Several years ago I produced Great Speeches of the Twentieth Century and Great Moments of the Twentieth Century and that kind of stuff. So, I have a large archive of political and historic type material.
Anyway, Richard said, "What have you got on George W. Bush?" I said that I try to keep abreast on the whole thing and record as much as I possibly can. That's just part of what I do. He asked, "What about these great gaffes?"
I had heard about them, obviously. I had read the books. Certainly it's no great secret about George W. Bush's mangling of the English language. So, he said, "Would you be interested in putting together a package of this, and I said sure.
We proceeded for the next six months to start getting the material together. What happened is that there was so much material that what I had done was spread it out over five CDs. What we had was enough material to go into various areas, I would say roughly three or four hours of materials to choose from.
So, at the end of six months it was one of those things where we had to have a cutoff. Basically, what we did was that I had presented all this material to them and we all kind of sat down and made the process of elimination. There were sort of two ideas. One was to do the really big, full on cram as many of these things as we can onto a CD project. The other one was to do something that it's not going to be overkill, but it's going to be something to listen to at parties or whatever, you know. At my last count, we had 120 or 130 gaffes that we could have put in, but we decided at the end just to do the one collection that we had.
It was actually Sean's idea to come up with the various subcategories, Bush on education, Bush on all these sorts of things. It basically evolved, and the deal was, Rhino Records historically has a tongue in cheek and wry sense of humor, and the idea of doing this Bushspeak package was that it followed along in the mold of the political satire albums of the past, going all the way back to The First Family and all like that. The difference between Bushspeak and The First Family is that Bush was doing it live and in person. You didn't need to have anybody take his place because it was right there.So how did you pick out which items would be on this CD?
This was the part that got crazy, because we were in it for six months. For me, I would spend eight hours a day listening to speeches, and I would go through stuff. This is where it gets bizarre because a good chunk of this stuff comes from the White House. Let's go to the source! The wonderful thing about the White House website is that you can go through all the days and all the speeches, and sometimes they will provide you with the transcripts. Well, some of the transcripts are not sanitized. They are sort of as they are, so you can go through and pick the parts you want and go right in there and grab it.
So, I was grabbing anything that was a malaprop, or skewed logic or that sort of thing and at the end of the day compiling them and throwing them into a great big heap. The time consuming part for me was the going and grabbing and putting the stuff on CD. The easy part was to sit down and listen and say, okay, this is funny and this is not funny, to go through the whole process of elimination.So, was it the funniness that you were going for or the political impact?
What's interesting is that it was a combination of both, because there is the absurdity with the political impact, and there is also the humor with the political impact. Basically, we were going for laughs on this one, because if we were just going for the political thing, I think it would have been a darker album.
I was over at Amazon.com, and a couple of buyers wrote reviews, and one guy said, "I'm a Republican and I love this album." This is cool. I think the thing is that, first off, you're making a political statement, but you're also in the retail business, so if you can somehow straddle those two, this is something where Republicans can listen to this album and say, "Oh, he's just one of us," and Democrats can listen to it and say, "This man is a moron." The amusing thing is that they're both laughing at it, but for different reasons.
To answer your question, we were primarily going after the laughs, the absurdity. It does beg the question: Is there a political axe to grind? Are there political points to make on this stuff? I think that sometimes just by the presentation of the material alone, the audience can arrive at a conclusion on their own. If you sort of take into consideration that, right now, Bush's popularity is really down there, you'd be hard pressed to take one of his speeches and say, "This is a rallying thing." If you listen to it with a certain frame of mind, if you delve deeper into the meaning of it, it's kind of horrifying, but at the surface it's just kind of really funny stuff.So, Bush is on record as saying all of these really stupid things, but you're saying that even a Republican can enjoy it. Why do you think that these Republicans are still supporting Bush? How can they do this even with all of these things that they're hearing on the CD?
You know, in a way, you're asking why the Mona Lisa is smiling. I couldn't tell you. I really don't know, because you listen to this and think, "My God, this man is leading us completely straight to hell in a handbasket." It's just kind of absurd. I find myself just scratching my head.
It's interesting that you bring up that point because I had an interview with a guy a couple of weeks ago in conjunction with this album, and he did not see the humor in this album at all. He was very pro-Bush, and he was saying, "Why are you saying these things to denigrate our President?" But Bush is saying these things himself. We don't have anybody doing a George Bush impression. This is the man himself, and I think that the words speak for what they are.
For some bizarre reason, our culture is so wrapped up in denial on so many different levels that I think that, frankly I like to try to keep myself as open politically as possible, and try not to play favorites, but when this man opens his mouth it just drives me right up the wall. I really thought during the 2000 elections, couldn't the Republicans have run somebody with more brains than this guy? The bottom line is that I would hate to say that the majority of Americans are not that bright, but the thing is that it really makes it a question, the job that the media is doing and putting a spin on what all these things are all about.What is your position in all that? We think about the media as this thing out there, but at Irregular Times we have our web site. You're making this CD. Where do items like this fit into that whole group of media, and the messages that are being put out about our President and the political process?
For me, on a personal level, I find it very difficult to watch American network television. I have to say that for me, it is ironic that I have to find out what is actually going on in Iraq through the BBC, the CBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and any other news-gathering service other than CBS and ABC. Where does this put us?
I guess that maybe this puts us in that role that has always been there, of the political satirist, the person who consciously or unconsciously acts as the conscience. It's that person who just looks, and I don't want to say that it's icon-bashing, or that we're setting up a bunch of iconoclasts, but part of taking advantage of democracy is to always have dissent in discourse. When you put out an album like this that gently pokes fun, or pokes fun at all, I think we are taking advantage of the democratic process. We are trying to say what we think is going on.
I remember the Vietnam War very well. I remember all the political satiric movements that went along with it. There was a play running off off broadway for a very long time called Macbird, which was a takeoff on Macbeth. Instead of MacBeth it was Lyndon Johnson. There was that sort of poking fun in that area of dissent that was used in a creative way. I think that this follows along in that mold, using dissent in a creative way that can engage an audience that at the same time makes them think. Maybe that's throwing an awful lot of ammunition onto a very small album that's only about 20 minutes long that costs 6 bucks, but the thing is that anything that I can do that can create an area of thought that gets people thinking about what we're doing here, that's where I am with this.How are people using this CD? Where are they playing it?
Well, I have been hearing from people that they've been playing it around. You know, on the CD, there are two passes, one with music and one that you can use yourself, and nudge, nudge, wink, wink, it could become sampled and used like that. I have heard from a few people who have been playing it as little bits in a program, just as an aside. There have been a couple of shows where they have been playing the album in the context of satire. I think that some of it has been used as a part of programming for radio.What other kinds of projects are you working on now?
What I actually am working on now is a really big project that has been going on for the past year. It's the Black History Box that we're doing in conjunction with the Urban League and the NAACP. I don't know if you remember three or four years ago when Rhino came out with a box called Say It Loud. That was initially a black history box, which I was also a co-producer on. What had happened was that the project had taken a turn in the direction of being primarily music, and very little was used as far as spoken word. This project that we're working on now is a sort of historic survey of speeches, events and individuals going back to Marcus Garvey. The material that I have from about 1905, I like to say that it's Marcus Garvey to Al Sharpton, and it runs that entire gamut. It's seven CDs right now, of which we're in the final stages. I've already turned in about half of the material that we're going to use, and that's 20 hours. I probably have another 20 or 30 hours to go. What' we're trying to do with this is trace the civil rights movement, the African American culture and the growth of civil rights and black history all the way from 1900 to 2003.When would that be available?
We've been putting off the release date on it for a little bit, because everybody wants to get it done right. We initially had it slated for this coming February, and I think it's now September of 2005. It's a kind of a massive project. We're going through hundreds of individuals. I have a sound archive that roughly goes back to the 1890s. It goes into cylinders. I have the usual suspects, like Teddy Roosevelt speeches and that sort of thing. My collection covers primarily political events, cultural events, and that kind of thing. At last count there were 100,000 reels of tape, 50,000 transcription discs, and that kind of stuff.
Because the kind of material I go after is a very broad nature, they asked if I would be willing to put together a Black History Box. It's always the kind of thing that I wanted to accomplish. It's exclusively spoken word. Right now we're working with a couple of estates. We're working with Adam Clayton Powell III. So, that's the kind of material we're working with. I want it to be the be all and end all.
The other project that I'm working on is a History of Baseball, that we're doing in conjunction with major league baseball. Major league baseball is coming up with the games, and I'm coming up with the popular materials, like interviews. That's supposed to be coming out before the big start of next season's games.Those two projects are historical. How is it for you to be doing something that's more political, like the Bushspeak CD?
It really isn't that much different, and I'll tell you why: My collecting, as far as my archive goes, it's current. I have a goodly chunk of the Osama Bin Laden communications that he's released. I see the role of preserving history as an ongoing thing, so if someone says "We want George W. Bush," I see it from a historical point of view as no different as no different from the person who three months ago asked for a bunch of Eva Peron material. It's the historical continuum. I don't see it as that much of a gear switch, in that respect.
One of the things that I have been doing in the last ten years is working quite a bit with Microsoft. Microsoft is one of my clients, and we're doing the Encarta. I was doing Encarta projects for them, the CD roms. For them, it was a real combination of historic and current. For example, I was doing something for them just recently where they wanted an old interview from the 1940s and then I had to also throw in some material from the new premier in Spain of Zapatero. So, that kind of juxtaposition of 1940 to 2004 is a little gear switching, but it's still historic.How did you get involved in this kind of work? You obviously have a really extensive archive, but you had to start from scratch at some point.
You know, the irony is that my archive actually started on November 11, 1963 and November 22, 1963. When I was a kid I had surgery, and I was home convalescing. When you're thirteen, you're really bored. My parents had a tape recorder, and I put the microphone in front of the speaker of the radio and started taping stuff. I like commercials and stuff like that. One day, I was recording the ABC station here in Los Angeles, and that was the initial bulletin for the Kennedy Assassination came out. For some weird reason I was just so drawn to that. I don't know if it had something to do with me being a budding young chaos merchant and was just seeing the possibilities of history unfolding, but that started the whole thing for me. With that kind of material, particularly if it's current at the time, it's of very little interest.
I also had the extra added bonus of living just two or three blocks from the local radio station. They would periodically throw the stuff out, tapes and transcripts and that kind of stuff, and I just started collecting. The more I got into it, the more I found that there's fascinating stuff to find. It really kind of grew from that respect.
It's a daily thing for me, and it has been for some time. I started recording the CBS World News Roundup, which is a morning radio news thing. I've been recording that from about 1968 onwards, and so I've got thousands of those. It's the one thing that most of the Golden Age of Radio collectors don't collect. So, they usually go, "Do you want that junk?" I usually take it. Over the years, I've amassed a pretty wild collection of stuff that has spanned quite a lot of the goings on of the 20th Century.
Also, because of the work I'm doing with organizations like Microsoft, it's broadened a bit to encompass a lot of goings on across the world. I've been doing a lot of work with German radio and the BBC and French radio. As a collector, there's a sort of reciprocity. It's kind of like trading baseball cards. It's like, "I'll give you Arnold Schwarzenneger announcing his run for governor if you'll give me 1968 Paris." It's that kind of thing.I'm interested in a phrase you used in the middle of there to describe yourself. You called yourself a budding young chaos merchant, and I'm wondering what that means to you. What would the manifesto of a chaos merchant be?
Well, there's this kind of Pavlov's dog response to danger and high drama, and it's kind of funny because that was me for a very long time, so that for a very long time I used to react with this sudden thing where all my alarms and bells would go off if I saw a bulletin. I would immediately run for the recorders and start recording things because something is happening. It's weird because I don't know if everybody reacts that way. It was one of those things that maybe it was the adrenaline rush. Some people get it falling out of airplanes, but I got it with the government falling apart.You've got a good historical perspective, what with your own experience and the archive and lots of listening, so what's your perspective on how this current election would go?
I've been trying to think of someone who most closely resembles somebody like George W. Bush. To be dead honest, I don't think that we've ever had anybody like him before. Really, when you take into consideration the 2000 election, how unprecedented that was, I don't recall in my lifetime and in the span of the 20th Century a situation as chaotic as there was in November of 2000. I just think that it's going to get real ugly. Somebody said something really interesting to me the other day. They said, "You know, if this election has to go to the House one more time, we're going to be seeing a dramatic shift. The world is going to pull all their money out of our banks. Our credibility is going to be shot."
It's a little scary, but on the other hand, there is something kind of interesting about this. I went to the opening day of Fahrenheit 9/11, and one of the things that most impressed me was the incredible turnout. Also, people seemed to be galvanized toward action, and that's the one thing I'm seeing happening right now. I'm seeing people who normally would not be getting involved and who normally have a certain amount of apathy toward politics become very much involved now. I've seen people talking about things that they normally would avoid. I really think that in its weird sort of way, this sort of reminds me of 1968 in the sense that there's this great political upheaval. People just sort of got together and banded together around something and that's what I'm seeing right now.
It's fascinating to see, because what we've had for such a long period of time is a sense of complacency and apathy. People just want to have an average life. People just want the truth. When you hear what is going on and the barrage of lies and spins, I'm a person who records on average seven hours of news every day. I find that there's only about a half hour, maximum, that's remotely of value with American news. It's so strange that on the one hand we have the media establishment, which is for whatever reason following the party line. I have to find what's going on in my country from another country.
The tip off was that no one spoke for a long time about the wounded troops, the whole situation in Iraq with the people who were coming back, and they were coming back with missing limbs. It was one of those hush hush, we weren't going to talk about it type of things. I had to find out what was going on with news reports from Berlin. For all of this being really keen about what's going on in the media, and we have all this sophisticated technology, it's odd how the choice is to find out who J. Lo is marrying rather than finding out things that could really impact our lives. I just find it bizarre, but I think a lot of people are getting really fed up with it. Perhaps the majority of Americans are waking up.
You know, you've got to be hopeful. What are we going to have? You have to be hopeful, because what's the end result if you're not? We're all going to die. I'm also hopeful in that things happen in a sort of pendulum kind of way. They swing in one way, and then they swing in the other way. Eventually they do hit the mid point. Maybe we are at that point where we're about to swing in the other direction. You see a lot of really awful things going on in our culture, but you see a lot of really great culture too. I can't trash everybody and say that we're all going to hell, because there are great pockets of wonderful things going on.
To find out more about the CD itself, visit our review of BushSpeak.
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