Conspiracy: The Secret Sauce in Everything
by John Kendall Hawkins
Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It's a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world, except for Lola-The Kinks, "Lola"
While I've only recently finished listening to an audiobook -- Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty -- which I went on to review, it's been a while since I've listened to a podcast series. The book was from Amazon Audible, a trial subscription freebie, as I immediately canceled my subscription within minutes of the download. I didn't feel bad, and I'd do it again. I never got over the fact that all those books I purchased from Amazon years ago turned out to be leased books, rather than purchases, and which mysteriously stopped functioning after I cancelled my Amazon account preventing my desktop Kindle from syncing with the mothership. And plus, Bezos is asshat who works with the Intels, especially the CIA, so who knows what buyer data they turn over to the spooks. Hmph.
The last podcast series I listened to (and reviewed) was Slate magazine's award-winning Slow Burn, an excellent 8-episode docudrama about the Watergate-driven downfall of President Richard M. Nixon ("Tricky Dick," as we called him to his face). It was nicely paced by writer and host Leon Neyfakh, and contained many interesting tidbits of info that were under-played by the MSM, such as the kidnapping and beating of loudmouth socialite Martha Mitchell, US attorney general John Mitchell's wife (soon to be ex-), who was on a phone in her hotel room trying to rat out the president's mischief to Helen Thomas when the phone was ripped out of the wall and she was beaten black and blue. The CIA was involved in the Watergate break-in. And, what a hoot, the man who beat the snot out of Martha was later appointed ambassador to the Czech Republic by president Donald J. Trump.
So here I was with another 8-episode podcast to listen to -- Wind of Change. Turns out the podcast was written and hosted by Patrick Radden Keefe who wrote Empire of Pain, the devastating chronicle of the Sackler family and their false advertising that led to the Oxycontin epidemic in America. Aside from Empire, he has also written the New York Times bestseller Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. And he writes regularly for New Yorker magazine. In a freaky way, Wind of Change is also about the CIA, Keefe posits for the reader's consideration.
The blurb for the series is: Spies. Secrets. Soviets. And tight leather pants. Did the CIA write a metal ballad that ended the Cold War? And that's a good place to start. Keefe's podcast wonders aloud if Klaus Meine, lead singer of the German rock band Scorpions, worked with the CIA to release the super hit "Wind of Change" in 1990 as a propaganda device to hasten the demise of the Soviet Union. Sounds bonkers, even to Keefe, and the investigative journalist only considers it because the source, he's told by a good friend with political connections, is the CIA itself.
This is where it gets tricky, Karl "Turd Blossom" Rove style. Rove's not, as far as we know, involved in this narrative, but his reputed remarks to a NYT reporter years ago about the MSM (and therefore millions of readers) would be led down rabbit holes to f*ck with reality-based thinking, while the real stuff was happening away from the cameras. That's right, the rest of us, including investigative journalists, would be busy sipping Turd Blossom stew -- Soupçon! -- while flies were walking across eyeballs, as GW Bush anti-terrorist Czar Cofer Black used to say, before he went into "private" business as a contract spook. In short, Keefe will soon begin to wonder if the rumor he's heard can be trusted.
So, in Episode 1, Keefe sets us up with an old TV Mission: Impossible beginning. We're given a report on Klaus Meine by way of CIA inferences and rumors as a potential agent of wild oats seeding (Meine is the leader of a heavy metal band) for Operation Freedom, a Cold War beer hall putsch to take down Communism one vodka-joint country at a time, by singing the counterintuitively humanistic paen to soft revolution embodied in die Scorpions macht ballade, "Wind of Change." This startling change of their paces makes you wonder (doesn't it?) whether the Scorpions are all just tough talkers and really just the Moody Blues in disguise having themselves a Sojourn. Supposedly, after a 1990 heavy metal concert in Moscow, the camp Meine was moved, as he and other shitfaced rockers floated down the Moskva toward Gorky Park, to feel a zeitgeist vibe and go from there to the major hit, "Wind of Change."
Keefe's mission, should he choose to accept it, is to find out if Klaus Meine was a spook for freedom. You get the feeling that his editors at New Yorker will "disavow any knowledge of" Keefe's doings if he's caught with his mental pants down. The fuse is lit. And here we go on the ride, up and down through crazy anecdotes and suppositions and stretchmarked reasoning and downright conspiracy theorizing. Has Bobo lost control? Is a promising and already successful career unravelling before our very ears? Has Covid-19 engendered yet another Richard Cory? (Sad, isn't it?) But, the fuse was lit, the tape was self-destructing, and the listener, having read the host's most excellent book on the Sackler Oxycontin Dynasty, was given some aural latitude to make his case.
Keefe talks in the living room of the pod with good bud Michael, who reiterates what he's heard his friend, Oliver (not his real name, shhh), a former CIA employee, say:
Michael: I remember he told me a bunch of stories but the one that I remember the most is the one that I told you to Wikipedia which is that he was either at the farm at the time of his training or he was at headquarters in Langley and like an older gentleman who has been around the block comes in to meet the new recruits.
Patrick: So a gray beard.
Michael: Yeah. And tells him stories etc. Told this story to a group of people that he was with that this song had been written by the CIA and had been a part of a psyops campaign.
Patrick: Psychological operation.
Okay, a gray beard, authority, authentic voice, get it, but I'm thinking, what if the old f*ck is John Brennan? Why would you believe a professional liar? Remember his Vaudeville Abbottabad tapdance around the truth? We're not told who the gray beard is, so we are forced to apply generic skepticism.
But young Keefe has a different take. The possibility that the CIA has written a song so powerfully felt by the masses that it swept across Europe (not so much America, Keefe tells us) that it single-handedly beat the living boogers out of old man Iron Curtain with love and hope (chemically combined, producing sentimentality, often syrupy and only fit for later waffles). He tells us:
Patrick: This story Michael told me, about the song "Wind of Change," has confounded me more than anything I've ever worked on. [emphasis added] When I started looking into it, it's like it opened a door into a lot of strange, improbable places. So improbable that normally, I'd just move on, I wouldn't even follow up. Except the idea came from Michael, and Michael has been a valuable source for me over the years.
Sweet Cheeses! Confounded you more than anything? More than the Sphinx's riddle to Oedipus? More than the single bullet theory? More than the mystery of Smiley Silage? Maybe she's a spook pushing American culture like a scorpion. Neoliberalism is very similar to twerking. In your face.
The obvious thing for Keefe to do is contact Klaus Meine and axe him if the CIA wrote that goddamned song that changed the world. Well, in Episode 8, that's exactly what he does.
He contacts Scorpions lead singer Meine to get the low-down from the horse's mouth and ask him if he was Trojaned by the CIA. They talk:
Patrick: We heard a rumor that there was some kind of connection between the CIA and your band.
Patrick: Have you ever heard anything like that?
Klaus: No, no, no, no.
Patrick: You've never heard that.
Klaus: Never. Never heard that".I mean, it's it's really like it's really after all these years to hear a story like this. You know, that is really something I thought I heard all the stories connected with "Wind of Change." But the CIA "
Of course, if Klaus were a spook, he'd lie about it. They all do. Maybe you are a spook, reader.
Michael's friend Oliver has already explained to him (and through him, to us) that he can't provide more details about the rumor. "He was just like it's a felony," Michael tells Patrick (us), "There's no f*cking way I can tell you this story on the record with my voice, anything like I'll go to jail for this." So, to reiterate what we know so far, we don't know who the gray beard was, Michael's ex-spook friend is suddenly terrified he'll be hit with the Espionage Act if he talks, and Scorpions lead singer Klaus Meine is seemingly discombobulated by the rumor that "Wind of Change" was a CIA song. Was ist das scheissen? sagt er. Keefe goes at him:
Patrick: Am I blowing your mind here?
Klaus: Yeah. I mean, there's this whole thing is like, wow, crazy. Maybe you are, you're from the CIA.
Maybe you are, Keefe. Maybe you are a spook, says Klaus. You're either an asset or an a**hole, Klaus seems to be implying. It's looking more like a dead end than a dead drop secret left for Keefe.
Herr Meine's schnarky comment to Keefe is worth keeping in mind, moving forward. You might think that, surely, Keefe will cash in his chips before he loses his car and has to hoof it, or worse, bus it out of Vegas (I mean, who wants to be on a bus full of losers and young retro hippies in search of America? Wow!) As Keefe planned this whole podcast based on that shaky premise that keeps him up at night for some reason, we have to assume there's a method to his madness -- after all, this guy recently has been awarded the Orwell Prize for Political Writing for his report on the continued Troubles in Northern Ireland, and, what's more, his Sackler Cartel dossier is brimming with rationality and balance.
The fact is, it's what's between Episode 1 (where he posits a weak likelihood) and Episode 8 (he essentially gets ouch-stung by the lead singer of a heavy metal band called Scorpions) where all the finer action of his thinking is. The podcast suddenly becomes a desiderata (or a just-sit-arounda) discussion of modern propaganda and identifying truth and/or factuality when hidden either in Red Riding Hood in wolf's clothing authority (my, what big memes you have), or else some post-mod abstract relativist noun decked out in military camouflage that blends in with the thin air. Keefe begins with the idea that just after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, that the 1990 Moscow Musical Peace Festival that brought a Woodstock-like collection of heavy metal bands to Russia was seminal in strumming the hearts and minds of the long-suffering Dostoyevskians. You can see all the Raskolnikovs putting down their ax handles to rock-and-roll in a different way, eschewing the whacking of the landlady for another day. But really?
It's at this stage when you realize that the stout-hearted lad, Keefe, is a product of growing up in the Reagan era, without the benefit of knowing what the Howdy Doody-looking voodoo economics witch doctor president was up to. He almost blew up the world ("the bombing begins in five minutes," the films The Day After and Threads graphically expressing what a seeming imminent nuclear exchange with the Soviets would look like: it ain't pretty). Then, Reagan in Berlin in 1987 pressed Gorby with, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."
Then, perhaps the most important event leading to the fall of the Wall, other than the eventual Stasi gaffe at a checkpoint that led to the collapse, was the Soviet decision to allow a live concert in East Berlin in 1988 featuring The Boss, Bruce Springstein in his prime, singing Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" (I cried and wanted freedom when I heard it), and other hits, and the acerbic, politically astute "Born in the USA" that Reagan tried to co-opt for his 1984 re-election campaign -- inexplicable, given that Springstein's lyrics spelled out the disaster of conservative policies on everyday people. And "Chimes" made one think of Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," which preceded "Wind of Change" by decades. (Maybe Dylan should have won the Nobel Peace Prize). Reagan's comment and Springstein's concert get no mention, and Dylan's influence only a passing reference. This tells me Keefe is young, not stupid, (and I am wizened, though not necessarily wiser).
There's no doubt that the fall of the Wall led to the kind of emotional instability that only new hope can bring, people no longer wanting to be enchained by ideology. East Berlin (soon to be ex-East) followed up Springstein's concert with Pink Floyd's demolished Wall concert, a far more (IMHO) commercial sing-along than The Boss's hungry heart event. Keefe is not wrong to amplify the significance of Western rock music on Soviet populations deadened by totalitarianism. In 80s, Soviet hippies were listening in to Radio Free Europe and getting goosed and juiced by the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane. And even a few years after the Fall, in 1994, I can attest to the power of "Wind of Change"in South Korea, where I was teaching EFL to university-aged students who saw the song as the anthem Keefe describes and an urgent anticipation that Korean reunification was in the offing, them recalling that the divide between North and South existed as a casualty of the Cold War, not by choice.
And there can be no doubt of the desire of the Sovier republics to Get Free and Blossom. In 1991, the largest line in history for a restaurant occurred in Moscow when the first McDonald's opened up. Unbelievable. And soon thereafter Gorby was gone (Keefe tells us that Gorby cried when he heard "Wind of Change"for the first time. Teary perestroika, right?) And then Gorby was hoiked, and the CIA helped install Boris Yeltsin, the besotted dancing bear that Bill Clinton practically monicalewisnkyed when they met. The hardcore Russians made up for that, by electing KGBer Putin and, according to our own Intel Community, installing Donald J. Trump in 2016. (Our turn now!) But there was the downside to the Wall's fall. Pieces of it soon ended up being sold as souvenirs in a triumphant romp for capitalism, the latter further exploited as the West pushed the Russians to open up and buy American in a kind of gold rush (I essayed in the Prague Post in 1999) for Eurasia. Ee-ha!
Keefe persists. As he tells himself early on,
A lot of journalists are driven by this. The conviction that the real story lies inside whatever literal or figurative room we're locked out of. We spend our days trying to get glimpses inside, wishing that once, just once, someone would hand us the key.
Keefe just can't let go. He keeps seeking the key, like the most rabid 9/11 conspiracy theorist -- he just knows he is just a thermite scent away from blowing the revelation wide open. So, he brings us through the pros and cons of the Freedom of Information Act (reading into their "neither confirm nor deny" a plausibility of a cover-up.) Relates the CIA's "rollback" policy -- the written permission needed to tell a future employer that you worked for the Company.
He tells us of Mission:Impossible tactics, and how the TV show influenced CIA thinking, Keefe relates the story of GHW Bush, the only ex-CIA president (although, technically, as the CIA is the president's private army, each prez can claim to be the head spook), going around wearing a rubber peel-off mask. This is funny: right up there with LBJ's exposing himself in the White House (a reporter asked him why we were in VietNam if we knew we'd lose, per the Pentagon Papers. This is why, he told her). And also, speaking of disguises, it reminds of the time Abbie Hoffman was snuck into the White House with the intent of spiking Nixon's drink with acid. We hear about the myriad and arcane levels of security clearances, that reminded me of Ed Snowden's descriptions in his memoir Permanent Record; Keefe's allusion to the CIA's "wink and nod" system with private companies hiring spooks also recalled Snowden's Homo Contractus chapter (Snowden himself wore a Dell computer badge but did NSA work.)
He brings us through the CIA's propaganda victories encompassed in the Hollywood films Argo (Oscar for Best Film), the Iran hostage rescue that because of a film-within-a-film ruse ("The whole reason the Argo ruse worked is that real Hollywood people were involved, which gave the fake movie credibility,"); and, Zero Dark Thirty (nominated Oscar Best Film), in the latter case spending many minutes describing how the Obama administration essentially "wrote"the screenplay with their copious classified operational details -- helped to the degree that director Kathryn Bigelow said as the film was being released that she considered it a "journalistic." It's easy to see why Turd Blossom would have a sh*t-eating grin when it came to f*cking reality-based thinking.
At the end of the day, Keefe will draw conclusions on the wall that I won't reveal here. But the podcast series is really about thinking processes, about how even a guy who pursues investigative journalism can get hung up on a tantalizing conspiracy theory needing only some mother-loving evidence to find a breakthrough. Keefe is keenly aware of this:
...that's the nature of a conspiracy theory. It's impossible to prove but also impossible to disprove, so if you have the temperament, and the time, you could devote yourself to solving it for the rest of your life.
Keefe goes on, identifying a contemporary urgency to such seeking:
And there's something about the moment we're living in, when every day the very nature of truth is called into question that makes me feel like the stakes of solving this slightly ridiculous story are greater, somehow, than the story itself.
Maybe it's just a sign of the times; maybe Rove is right: reality-based thinking is a mug's game.
Maybe it's all conspiracy theory and we'll be waiting for some time before someone cries Bingo! when they hear the truth again.
The podcast "Wind of Change" can be heard here.