His voice emanates from the console. His words hover in the passenger seat, peering curiously, cautiously out the window at the grain silos, cornfields, and billboards for antique malls and adult bookstores, which blur together as I accelerate away from the tollbooth scrum and into the yawning expanse of the prairie.
Holly came from Miami, F-L-A ...
It is highly improbable that my passenger was conjuring the Kansas Turnpike when he penned his undulating ode to transvestites, guttersnipes, users, abusers, hookers and hustlers. Interstate 70 is several things, but a walk on the wild side isn't one of them.
Hitchhiked her way across the U.S. A.
This particular ribbon of asphalt is spawned in the outskirts of Baltimore and makes a crooked incision across America's midsection before fading into the Utah desert. But it's the stretch that starts at the eastern terminal of the Kansas Turnpike that is the beginning of the endless. It's a lonely land bridge filled with drivers fueled by shitty truck-stop coffee and the persistent fear that they'll be stuck here for all of the 537 miles that separate Topeka and Denver.
Plucked her eyebrows along the way ...
The tortured souls determined or desperate enough to traverse these miles must wonder why the pioneers who eyeballed the imposing horizon didn't just say, "Screw it," circle the wagons and make Kansas the "I've Seen Enough" counterpart to Missouri's "Show Me" state. It's pretty and all, but they don't call these the plains for nothing.
Shaved her legs and then he was a she ...
But those brave settlers refused to let cholera, covered-wagon stink and the land's rightful owners prevent them from pissing on the prairie to mark their territory. Were they motivated by opportunity, by greed or by the alone time with their first cousins? I'm not sure. But I know that Lou and I have all the motivation we need to merge onto the main artery of the heartland.
She says, 'Hey, babe, take a walk on the wild side.'
His name is Phill Kline.
Don't be fooled by that feral extra l in the first name. This man wants nothing to do with superfluous consonants. He has no desire to walk on the wild side. And no, he does not want any jam on his toast. Are you fucking crazy?
Say, 'Hey, honey, take a walk on the wild side.'
Kline is attorney general for the state of Kansas. He heads the top law-enforcement agency in the land of sunflowers. The tasks charged to the general's army include fighting crime, keeping kids safe and "protecting consumers and the vulnerable." Sort of like Superfriends without the tights. And they are here to protect you from Lou Reed.
And the colored girls go do-da-doo-da-doo-da-doo-do-da-doo-do ...
I was wasting Whitney Watson's time.
The attorney general's spokesman didn't point this out in any specific terms, but the gist was conveyed by his tone of amiable exasperation. He had grown weary of answering questions about Kline's decision to turn away 1,600 CDs from a shipment of 51,000 that the state received as part of a $143 million anti-trust settlement between the federal government and the recording industry.
"This really is old news," Watson told me last week. "The story broke in other parts of the country 2 or 3 months ago. I hate to waste time on this when there are so many other things this office is involved with that deserve attention."
Like battling the societal ills sputtering on George Foreman Grills statewide.
A June 30 press release on the attorney general's Web site proudly proclaims that Kline used a price-fixing settlement from the company that manufactures the Foreman Grill to help "knock out malnutrition in unborn babies." It's a wry way of saying Kline gave the money to four anti-abortion "pregnancy-maintenance organizations."
But there haven't been any similar self-congratulatory statements regarding Kline's refusal to allow 33 individual album titles donated as part of a CD price-fixing settlement from being circulated within the Kansas library system.
The multistate lawsuit, settled in 2002, required CD distributors and retail chains to cough up $13.86 to each consumer who filed the necessary paperwork and to send more than 5 million albums to the states that participated in the lawsuit for dissemination to public schools, libraries and nonprofit organizations.
Watson said the attorney general received a list of 1,700 album titles available for distribution to Kansas' 300-plus public libraries. But the state had a say only in which albums it did not want.
"I would have picked a lot of Johnny Cash or Entertainment Weekly Greatest Hits of 1987 myself," Watson quipped. "But we couldn't pick what discs we wanted. We were only able to select which albums that we didn't want."
And that was precisely the problem.
Most of the forty states involved in the lawsuit turned down a percentage of the available albums. (California was the lone exception.) But nobody seemed to notice until the Associated Press obtained a list of the artists whose albums Kline's office had refused.
Artists such as Lou Reed, Nas, Soul Asylum and ... Devo.
Yes, I said Devo.
Yes, that Devo.
Watson told the Associated Press that the albums "did not mesh with the values of a majority of Kansans" and that the folks in Kline's office rejected titles that promoted drug use and violence.
Which is super. But who asked them?
"It's not up to Phill Kline or anyone in his office to decide what the values of the majority of Kansans are," says Dick Kurtenbach, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Western Missouri. "Or to limit the distribution of materials sent to public libraries based on what their idea of what the values of Kansans are. That's a basic violation of the First Amendment."
I was willing to let Kline get away with picking on the holy culinary shrine that is the Foreman Grill, and I wouldn't be sad if Soul Asylum's runaway train never did come back, but something about the attorney general barring a Devo album -- most likely for its tongue-in-cheek title, Pioneers Who Got Scalped -- failed to whip me, whip me good.
"This is clearly censorship," Kurtenbach says. "Librarians should be making those decisions, not the attorney general."
But technically speaking, he didn't. The distillation of albums offered by the price-fixing settlement was a task handled by the attorney general's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division, a small unit within one of the smallest attorney-general offices in the country. Watson admitted that the methods for judging albums were "unscientific" and mostly involved Internet searches and whatever firsthand knowledge staffers possessed on specific artists.
I didn't imagine one often heard Notorious B.I.G. and Foxy Brown thumping from cubicles at the AG's office, but the subjective nature of Kline's process became obvious once I realized that virtually all of the artists he turned away are already circulating through the state library system -- Johnson County, for one, has material from 22 of the 25 artists, including several of the specific albums that were de-Klined.
But some administrative types with the state library system either stood mute or voiced their support for the attorney general's decision. The rationale? Well, as Roy Bird (a federal projects coordinator and state library consultant) told the AP, "Rap is not popular west of Salina."
The statement was dubious, if not ignorant. But there was only one way to find out for sure. So I began chasing the sun west on Interstate 70.
Do you really want to know about some gangsta shit?
It's a fair question. And I have to commend Outkast for posing such an inquiry just as we're crossing into Shawnee County, stomping grounds of one state attorney general.
Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" had yielded the passenger seat to Outkast's "Gangsta Shit" as the car hurtled toward Topeka. The songs are featured on two hastily assembled compilations I had procured from a friend of a friend as a soundtrack for my quest to find out whether Phill Kline had his finger on Kansas' pulse or just a thumb up his ass. The set is informally known as Phill Kline's Greatest Hits I and II and includes tracks from the CDs that failed to earn his stamp of approval.
Do you really want to know about some gangsta shit? Outkast asks again.
Actually, no. The attorney general's office does not want to know about some gangsta shit, even though it enforces the law in a state that was founded on gangsta shit.
The Wild West wasn't just a clever name. Frontier brothels, swinging-door saloons and gunfights at high noon are romantic notions in the modern world, but in the old days, Wichita, Abilene and Dodge City were far nastier snakepits than anything Outkast can conjure. You want thug life? Don't look at Tupac. Look at Wild Bill Hickok.
But for all its lawless past, Kansas also has a tradition of noble lawmen cleaning up the riffraff. And perhaps Kline and company fancy themselves modern-day Earp brothers in a showdown at the OK Computer Corral.
Except this isn't Tombstone. It's more like Footloose with more grain silos and fewer homoerotic dancecapades in deserted warehouses. For my purposes, Phill Kline is the pulpit-pounding preacher decrying the loose morals being advocated by the harpies from Hades. And I'm the new guy with bad hair and tight jeans who just wants to dance, man.
But as I roar past the Capitol dome on the freeway, I defer to the Notorious B.I.G. as he articulates a conscientious rebuttal to the attorney general in the form of the prescient political satire "Dead Wrong."
Slit the wrist of little sis/After she sucked the dick/I stabbed her brother with a ice pick/Because he wanted me to fuck him from the back/But Smalls don't get down like that ...
OK, so not all of the material denied by the attorney general is entirely defensible. But the more important issue is understanding why his office is making blanket moral decisions for everyone in a state where the attitudes and values of the citizenry differ vastly from county to county.
The real Kansas lies west of Topeka, once you pass the Club Orleans strip joint on your way out of the capital. That's when the traffic thins and the billboards thicken. That's when the accusatory "One Kansas Farmer feeds 128 people and you" signs begin to pop up while every curiosity known to man -- barbed-wire museums, three-headed calves, the world's largest hand-dug well, enormous balls of twine, Dwight Eisenhower -- is never more than an exit away.
Driving deep into the prairie is like piloting a lunar rover to the dark side of the moon. The isolation is completely comforting but also desperately depressing. Still, as Cypress Hill's "Hand on the Pump" prods me onward, I also know from my childhood that no place on Earth is ever as isolated as it first appears. If a farm boy from rural Oregon could watch BET's Rap City via satellite and cruise around an alfalfa field with Cypress Hill's Black Sunday in the tractor's tape deck, then surely modernity has seeped its way into BFE, Kansas.
To prove it, I need to find the perfect Kansas town. The kind of place that is high in Phill Kline's brand of moral fiber with "Kansas majority values" dripping from the faucets.
What I find is Ellsworth.
Ellsworth is a small town -- fewer than 3,000 residents, including the occupants of the county prison -- but it's not too small. It's close to the freeway but not too close. It's located in the heart of the heartland, but the nearest "big" cities -- Salina, Hutchinson, Great Bend -- are a solid 45 minutes away. The morning papers are filled with the prospects for the corn crop (could be a record year) and letters to the editor weighing in on homosexuality (Jesus wasn't a big fan) and the theory of evolution (ditto). In short, it's the place.
There is generally no good reason for you to be in Ellsworth unless you live there, break down there or are incarcerated there. You just pass through like the trains that clack past downtown.
At one time, those trains slowed and even stopped. Ellsworth was an important railhead for herding cattle north from Texas off Chisholm Trail. The town's Web site boasts that, whereas Abilene was the first cattle town and Dodge City the last, Ellsworth was the wickedest, a rowdy settlement on the banks of the Smoky Hill River, a place so raucous that Wyatt Earp first earned his reputation for taming wild streets there.
But those days are gone.
There are no tinkling saloon pianos or drunken cowboys shooting at the moon to herald my arrival. Rather, Juvenile's bump-and-grind "Slow Motion" is coming in loud and clear from some radio station to the east. And without Juvenile, there would be silence. Rush hour in downtown Ellsworth occurs when fate conspires to have two pickups with Yosemite Sam mudflaps meet at the town's one traffic signal at the same time.
At 7 p.m., Semisonic's get-some-before-last-call "Closing Time" provides an apt description of the activity in downtown Ellsworth. All the services you'd ever need -- bank, barbershop, grocer, hardware, department store, pharmacy -- are condensed in three square blocks. And all have closed by this late hour.
The competition for tallest structure is a draw between the two water towers with "Ellsworth" emblazoned on their sides and the farmer's co-op grain silo that touts the town as "Home of the Bearcats." The place and its inhabitants are resilient but sagging a little. The sidewalks are dotted with metal silhouettes of period figures -- cowboys and schoolmarms -- intended to add nostalgic charm but serving instead as an eerie reminder that this is a town of ghosts, if not yet a ghost town.
Paden's Place is a rare oasis of life. The restaurant portion of Paden's is the kind of greasy spoon where plastic flowers rest on the booth partitions, portraits of geese in flight line the walls, and men named Chuck and Harold wear mesh hats without irony and talk quietly between bites of steak and Texas toast. A dog wanders lazily through the dining area. Elton John tells anyone who'll listen that sad songs say so much.
If it's excitement you seek, mister, you best head on down the trail.
"Most people go out of town -- usually to Salina -- for their entertainment, which is too bad, really," Linda Homolka, the director of Ellsworth's public library, tells me later. "We don't have a theater. We don't have an ice rink. All we have is a bowling alley."
Aside from high school sports, the Coach & Four really is the only show in town. The bowling alley sits beside the railroad tracks and across a gravel lot from a used-car dealership with six cars for sale, three of which appear functional.
I stride into the place and am surprised to hear the roiling "Take Me Out" by alt-rock darlings Franz Ferdinand mingling in the air with the crash of pins. Let's hear it for league night! However, the "league" appears to be six senior citizens who have strayed away from the retirement center and now find themselves trying to pick up 7-10 splits.
The game-room jukebox reveals a range that covers Outkast, Eiffel 65, Garth Brooks and George Thorogood. So far, so good. But I will need more than a troupe of bowling geriatrics and "Hey Ya" to expose any holes in Phill Kline's presumptive piety. Where are the kids?
"Mostly we just drive around," Shelby Sneath, a 15-year-old sophomore at Ellsworth High School, will explain later.
And so they do. I watch as cars filled with teens sail intermittently down Main Street, the town's night patrolman nipping at their heels in an absurd, slow-motion game of cat-and-mouse through the quiet streets of Ellsworth. But most teenagers congregate in the parking lot of the Kwik Shop gas station. They lean on the hoods of their cars -- which frequently rattle with hip-hop bass -- and try to look like they aren't waiting on out-of-towners to shoulder-tap for $1.99 half-racks of Natural Ice.
Back down the street, this time in the bar portion of Paden's Place, I am out-hicked 10-to-1. There are loud discussions about hunting, the debauchery of the previous weekend's Cowtown Days (they drank 18 pitchers!), and various complaints about people's old ladies. One gregarious gent sizes me up like I'm a deer needing to be gutted before he saunters to the jukebox and selects "If That Ain't Country" by David Allan Coe.
I spent the summertime cuttin' up logs for the winter/Tryin' like the devil to find the Lord/Workin' like a nigger for my room and board/Coal-burnin' stove, no natural gas/If that ain't country, I'll kiss your ass ...
I'll take that bet.
After the track finishes, I walk over to the jukebox for a rebuttal. I hope to answer with Sly Stone's "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" but have to settle for Curtis Mayfield's "Superfly," then Dwight Yoakam's "1,000 Miles From Nowhere" and, finally, "Walk on the Wild Side." But I don't think they get my irony. Nobody flinches.
Instead, I ask Aaron the Bartender -- who graduated from Ellsworth 3 years ago -- what he thinks about the suggestion that rap evaporates in the crisp air west of Salina.
"Did somebody really say that?" he asks, shaking his head.
"That's about all I have in my car is rap," says Brandon, a young man with an eyebrow ring who is perched on the stool next to me. "Except maybe for alternative rock." To illustrate his point, Brandon walks over to the jukebox and punches in the code for R. Kelly's "Thoia Thoing."
"People listen to Nelly, P. Diddy, you know, your average rap groups," Sneath says. "I'm drawn more to the punk bands like Good Charlotte and Linkin Park."
And how, pray tell, did that come about when the nearest proper record store is nearly an hour away?
"I watch a lot of MTV and VH1," Sneath says. "Actually, that's basically all we watch."
Fair enough. But when the Kline Kutting Krew speaks of "majority values," they are presumably referring not to Sneath but to the generations that preceded her. So what does, say, Sneath's aunt think of Ja Rule?
"I don't agree with the language," Connie Schmitt begins. "But I do think he's cute and sexy. I enjoy that song he does with J. Lo. I even bought that."
Schmitt is the proprietor of the Garden Prairie Inn, the only motel in Ellsworth. She is also a staunch, Fox News-watching Republican who bemoans the fact that her oldest daughter, a junior at the University of Kansas, has become a "liberal Democrat." But Schmitt also remembers growing up in Ellsworth and listening to Janis Joplin with headphones in the high school library.
"Kids will always be kids," she says. "They will sneak it in one way or another ... but I was worse than my daughters are, to be honest. We ran all over this town when I was a kid. Nowadays, kids are more intelligent. More sophisticated. But they do grow up a little too fast."
That also means they leave towns like Ellsworth faster. Which hints at something much more devastating to Kansans than anything Phill Kline could do.
The music collection at the J.H. Robbins Memorial Library in Ellsworth is wanton. Librarian Homolka does what she can with what she can, but there are only 43 albums stuffed into a small CD rack in a corner of the modest, modern building. The eclectic roster indicates that most of the discs were donated by patrons eager to jettison the flotsam of their own collections.
There is Bach and The Best of Kansas, Jimi Hendrix and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Brian Setzer and Reba McEntire, Spanish Guitar Favorites and -- my personal favorite -- Sounds and Songs of the Humpback Whales. There is no Outkast, Nas or Notorious B.I.G., but it's not because nobody listens to the music.
"We're a little more country out here, but we still have the younger kids who like the rap," Homolka says. "They use our computers and listen to it with their headphones up so loud you can hear it clear out in the lobby."
Homolka doesn't understand why the attorney general would dictate what CDs her library should receive. But she isn't particularly concerned about the situation -- in all probability, none of the albums would find their way to Ellsworth anyway. It doesn't matter what principle-touting politicians in Topeka or fire-breathing liberals in Kansas City have to say about Kline's "censorship." Out here, the debate is meaningless, just another tumbleweed drifting on the prairie.
In the other Kansas, all that matters is survival.
The town of Russell, 40 miles west of Ellsworth, has spawned two U.S. senators (Bob Dole and Arlen Specter), but its public library has virtually no music in its collection.
"I have four CDs, and that's the extent of it," says librarian Maxine Ganske. "It's some opera that a patron donated ... but, honestly, I would probably hesitate to put any more CDs on the shelves, because once you start a service, you have to support it, and we don't have the funds."
The slow death of Small Town, U.S.A., is oft-lamented, but it's disturbingly real to anyone traveling through Kansas. Most places are like Ellsworth, largely forgotten, crumbling and split in two by the symbol of former importance -- the railroad tracks -- that is a constant reminder that the world is passing them by.
Out here, the state can't give land away. Not that it doesn't try. Signs dotting I-70 advertise "free land for industry," and in Ellsworth County the "Welcome Home Plan" offers free residential lots as incentives for outsiders to relocate. The cost of living is low, but the living isn't easy.
In small communities, a public library is often an underlying source of vitality. At its core, the library is the most democratic of government institutions, a conduit for citizens to pick and choose thoughts and ideas as they see fit. They decide what is appropriate for them.
Pay a visit to any library in Kansas, and you will find much more salacious material on the shelves than in someone's CD player. Shakespeare could be a dirty motherfucker. And is Foxy Brown's Chyna Doll more damaging to fragile minds than copies of Seventeen magazine with the message "Get Your Best Butt" on the cover with Ashley Olsen?
So hand over Tiny Lights: Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop, Mr. Kline.
The decision to turn away Rage Against the Machine's Renegades -- even if it's an album on which the band covers "safe" musicians such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones -- in the interest of sheltering the vulnerable is an insult to individual sovereignty.
To say nothing of how oblivious Topeka politicians (and Kansas City journalists) are to folks outside the state's most populous cities.
The intolerance and the determination to maintain "majority values" also relegate Kansas to sociopolitical backwater, in the minds not only of outsiders but also of young Kansans.
"[Ellsworth] is a great place to raise your kids, but the kids don't want to stick around," Connie Schmitt says. "They want to go out and see the world. And unfortunately, that means this kind of life is going away."
Don Henley is riding shotgun.
I hand my $2 to the attendant at the eastern terminal. It's the duty you pay to re-enter the world.
The more I know, the less I understand ...
Henley is mocking me. His "Heart of the Matter" is a nagging reminder that the easy answers I sought in the heart of Kansas could not be found in 24 hours. And as I return to Kansas City, the outside world comes whistling in through the air vents.
All the things I thought I knew, I'm learning again ...
The world is bustling and buzzing with excitement and tragedy worlds away from the little towns on the prairie. Julia Child has died. The governor of New Jersey has resigned. The Olympics are under way. The details have been washed away by the generalities.
I've been tryin' to get down, to the heart of the matter ...
Yes, Phill Kline is a douche bag. A conservative cyborg with erect posture, impeccable hair and a hearty fear of God and Devo swelling within. He and his employees had good intentions when they kept those albums from public distribution, but they overstepped their bounds by enforcing presumptive values. And they revealed how out of touch they really are with the other half of the state.