Saturday, July 26, 2014

Track of the Week: My Morning Jacket "Gideon"

Now that I have two kids and am getting older and the music scene is more fractured than ever, I've had a hard time finding new music.  That wasn't so in grad school, when I had many friends with highly developed tastes, could go see rock shows at multiple clubs, and could play the latest indie record rather than showing a new episode of Sesame Street to placate screaming toddlers.

For that reason, I find myself constructing a lot of Spotify playlists full of music released during the second Bush administration.  A lot of the stuff I first heard in grad school has really stuck with me, and it has the dual purpose of reminding myself of people and a place that I miss.  At that time (2000-2006) it seemed that there was a real renaissance in independent rock music, with all kinds of great bands.  My Morning Jacket is one I discovered then that I continue to follow, but no album of theirs will likely ever top 2005's Z.

That autumn I was finishing up my dissertation and looking to hit the academic job market for the first time.  I had no clue what was in store for me, but felt both cautiously optimistic and scared to death.  Back in those relatively carefree days I would go to a downtown coffee house with my laptop after lunch and work laboriously over my dissertation.  As an award, I'd often walk down to the local record store (which is still open) and browse around.  Sometimes I'd buy something, sometimes I'd shoot the bull with the owner and play a couple games of Joust on the old arcade machine in the corner.

Sometimes I browsed for awhile before finding a good record, sometimes I'd ask the owner for a rec and he might play a couple of tracks for me.  Z was one I bought right away, anxious to hear it.  Having expected to the rootier sound of their last record, I was blown away by the first track, "Wordless Chorus," which had keyboards and angular rhythms that sounded less Neil Young and more New Wave.  I quickly latched onto "Gideon," which combines the album's eerie, echoey atmosphere with an inspired Jim James vocal and a swelling power that's never failed to lift my spirit when the song gets to the rousing finale.

I listened to it a lot during the stresses of that first shot at the job market, when my spirit needed some lifting.  Nowadays I hear it as a relic of those last happy days of grad school naivete, before the realities of my mistaken career choice became all too apparent.  Now that my bitterness about my failed career has subsided, it helps to remember the good times in grad school, the last time I was actually allowed to be a scholar.  It was a nice dream while it lasted.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Having Fun With Audio Outtakes

One thing I love about the internet is that it has made things available that once had to be acquired via difficult means, and often in the form of a bootleg copy of a bootleg copy.  I speak here less of music than audio outtakes.  There is little that I find more enjoyable than hearing prominent figures and entertainers being caught by a live mic, when their veneer has been dropped and the real person beneath is there in all its revealing glory.  John Kerry's live mic this week, which revealed that his private thoughts about Israel are much more critical than his public ones is a good case in point.  Even better is Mitt Romney's "47%" outtake, which helped cost him the election.  Without further ado, here are my favorite audio outtakes for your enjoyment.

Orson Welles

This is the king granddaddy of all audio outtakes, so legendary that it has spawned plenty of parodies and homages.  It starts inauspiciously enough, with Orson Welles reading advertising copy for that most  mundane of products, frozen peas.  He starts to dispute the copy, and in his voice you can hear the frustration of a man who went from being a great figure of stage, radio, and film to being reduced to shilling grocery products.  His deep, famous voice never sounded better than uttering deathless phrases like "you people are pests," "what is it that you want, in the depths of your ignorance," and my personal favorite, "no money is worth this."  The latter I think is probably the best thing to say when you're walking out the door of a crappy job.

Casey Kasem

The late Casey Kasem was a fixture in my popular cultural life as a child, when I listened to his Top 40 broadcast and heard him voice Shaggy on Scooby Doo.  Little did I know that America's favorite DJ cursed like a drunken sailor in Marseilles.  While this outtake compilation has his most famous blow up, over a depressing dedication he had to read after a peppy song, my favorite clips are him cursing out local stations with stupid promo copy.  Despite his stream of profanity, these clips do show Kasem to be a dedicated pro trying hard to get things done the right way.

Lee Elia

There are plenty of famous coaching meltdowns out there, but for the most part they were during televised press conferences, and thus immediately available to the public.  Not so with Cubs manager Lee Elia's infamous tirade in 1983, which was caught on audio tape by a reporter who deserves some kind of award.  This rant is a true masterpiece of profanity, the Night Watch of cursing.  As a White Sox fan I've always enjoyed Elia's special words for the "bleacher bum" style of Cubs fans.

LBJ pants

This is probably the most surreal of all the outtakes I've ever heard: LBJ, president of the United States, ordering specially made pants over the phone with someone who was obviously not expecting the call. He utters the word "bunghole" right after belching into the phone.  It doesn't get much better than that, but I also love his description of wearing pants without enough inseam: "it's like riding a wire fence." Can't really argue with that.

Paul Stanley

Okay, I know this doesn't quite qualify, but there is little that cracks me up/horrifies me more than this compilation of KISS front man Paul Stanley's stage banter.  His band are the ultimate example of style over substance, and Stanley's screams to rile up the crowd have a kind of insanely asserted soullessness to them.  This is the sound of the void at the heart of our culture, folks.  Listen at your own peril.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Return of Nationalism and A Multi-Polar World

The past weeks have been pretty dramatic when it comes to world affairs: ISIS threatening the Iraqi government, increased bloodshed in Afghanistan, Germany catching an American spy, Ukrainian separatists shooting down a Malaysian airliner, and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  Beyond the surface headlines, there are bigger trends afoot.

One of those trends is the obvious loss of American hegemony.  Iraq and Afghanistan are American imperial adventures that have completely backfired, and there is little that can be done about it.  Despite Russia's erratic and violent behavior, the US is having a hard time convincing Europe to take action against Putin.

In fact, for the first time since the end of World War II, we are seeing the emergence of a multi-polar world.  Russia is reasserting its power, and rising China has been flexing its muscles with its southern Vietnamese neighbor and traditional rival Japan.  Ironically, this process was abetted by the administration of George W. Bush, which claimed to be making America stronger than ever before.  The failed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed America's weaknesses, damaged its credibility, and have reduced the American public's support for aggressive foreign policy.  One of the great "what ifs" that will be discussed by future historians will be "what if Al Gore had not been cheated out of the presidency," not least because he likely would have continued the safer, multilateral foreign policy of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.

While I am not a cheerleader for American hegemony, I do not look optimistically at the emerging multi-polar system either.  A multi-polar world lends itself to conflict, a fact scary to contemplate one hundred years to the month after the "July Crisis" of 1914 that led to worldwide war.  Nationalism provides the fuel for such fires, and gives the masses reason to cheer their troops on the road to the slaughterhouse.  After years of talk of globalization many observers have been acting as if nations are a thing of the past.  Russia and China put lie to that belief, as the Chinese government has whipped up anti-Japanese sentiment, and Putin is pursuing an ultra-nationalist foreign policy that calls for all Russians to be united, regardless of borders.

That kind of nationalism might seem paradoxical in a world of greater and greater global economic convergence, but it shouldn't.  After all, in 1913, on the edge of World War I, global trade reached new heights despite the rabid nationalism that would send the world into conflict.  Nationalism is an incredibly potent force, since it gives legitimacy to autocratic and undemocratic regimes, by riling up the masses and giving them a feeling of having a stake in the state.  While it is not the only game in town (just look at ISIS and its idea of Sunni state), it's still really, really important, and has been fatally ignored for too long.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Re-post in Honor of James Garner: Why I Love The Rockford Files

Editor's Note: This weekend brought the sad news of James Garner's death.  He's an actor I'd always liked, but in the last few years the magic of Netflix streaming had made me a big fan of The Rockford Files.  I even went as far to read his recent memoir, which showed him to be a remarkably grounded person.  In honor of his passing, here's something I wrote awhile back about him and his signature show.

Unlike a lot of people, I can't just sit down and burn through whole seasons of television in a day.  The repetition gets to me, plus I'd rather be reading.  However, there are some shows that I have slowly been working my way through over a matter of years, enjoying them like a fine aged whiskey rather than a case of Busch Light.  One of these shows is The Rockford Files, one I am a little embarrassed to love so much.  My requests to put an episode on usually results in a groan of pain from my wife, and my effusive praise of the show to friends and colleagues is normally met with a kind of exasperated silence.  I don't care what they say, I love it.

In case you don't know the show, it stars James Garner as Jim Rockford, a wrongly convicted ex-con who works as a private eye.  He lives in a trailer on the beach with his disapproving father Rocky, and usually ends up getting roughed up and not getting the girl or a big payday.  The supporting characters include Dennis, a grumpy cop who sometimes helps Rockford, Angel, a friend from prison with a knack for weaseling out of situations Rockford has to clean up, and Beth, his liberated woman lawyer and sometimes paramour.

As a fan of all things seventies, I love how the show (which ran from 1974 to 1980) epitomizes so much about the polyester decade.  Although Garner has a ruggedly handsome face, he is no traditional tough guy PI, and reflects the less orthodox masculinity of the time.  He keeps his revolver in the cookie jar, and rarely uses it.  He often gets beat up by roughnecks, harassed by the police, and harried by his dad.  Rockford is more likely to use his mouth and wits to get what he needs, rather than his fists or his gun.  Instead of working out of a fancy office, he takes calls in his trailer, and when he's not around, an answering machine, not a secretary, takes his calls.  The latter device is also used in the opening of every episode, where there's a different message on the machine each time, usually from a bill collector or Angel with a problem or wacky scheme.  Originally released in the midst of the mid-1970s stagflation, Rockford is a hard luck hero for people living through hard times.  Reflecting the Watergate era and general distrust in authority and elites, the villains are usually wealthy, connected types whom the police have been unable or unwilling to bust.

All in all, Rockford is just a much more human hero than we're ever allowed to see.  The shots inside his trailer home show the faded wood paneling and the stains on his pot holders.  He inhabits a very unglamorous, low budget Los Angeles, full of strip malls and industrial parks.  The opening montage shows him fishing and buying groceries, fer Chrissakes!  Unlike with modern day shows, he's not laden down with all kinds of psychological or supernatural bullshit.  He is not a serial killer, does not suffer from a mental disorder, does not have a secret family, is not involved in organized crime, etc.  He's a likable guy, what's wrong with that?  Watching all these shows where I am supposed to have ambivalent feelings about the protagonist is just getting old.  It was an interesting twist back when Tony Soprano and Don Draper first went on the air, but enough already!  Can't I just watch someone I want to root for?

Beyond all that The Rockford Files gets all the small touches right.  Rockford drives a gloriously gold Pontiac Firebird, wears open collar shirts with sports jackets (my preferred professional look), and it's got an endlessly catchy theme song.  What's not to like?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Track of the Week: Joy Division, "Day of the Lords"

This week has brought no end to heartbreaking news.  A bomb killed scores of people at an Afghani market.  A man was choked to death by the NYPD during an arrest.  Israel bombed then invaded Gaza.  Russian separatists in the Ukraine downed a passenger airliner (and the bodies have been looted).

It has been hard not to get emotionally involved in it all.  In times like these I often turn to music for solace and contemplation, and this week has been no different.  Over the past few days I've kept going back to "Day of the Lords" by Joy Division, a dark song even by their standards.  It's the second song on their first album, and one that grabbed me the very first time I listened to it.  Bernard Sumner's distorted guitar sounds absolutely sinister, and Ian Curtis' vocal more foreboding and troubled than usual, growling traumatized about "the bodies obtained."  The drums sound less played than dropped, staggering like a person stabbed in the gut.  In an oblique way, the song seems to be about wartime atrocities, and Curtis screams out in horror "where will it end?"  My thoughts exactly.

Friday, July 18, 2014

"Making Of The Video" Music Videos

Since it's summertime and I'm off from school I find myself watching snatches of VH1 Classic in the mornings between playtime with the kids and episodes of Sesame Street.  I get easily transfixed by those 80s videos, which today look like strange news from another galaxy.  The look, music, and filming style appear so antiquated nowadays, along with the thought that the youth of America once used to spend hours at a time watching videos on MTV.  (I know I did.)

Rewatching these videos has reminded me of the various video genres that once dominated the airwaves.  You've got your live performance videos (like AC/DC's for "Thunderstruck"), your story videos (like A-Ha's sublime "Take On Me"), and your "life on the road is tough" videos (like Bon Jovi's "Dead or Alive.")  Today I'd like to focus on that most meta video genre, the video about the making of the video.  We were so obsessed with music videos back then that we would gladly watch videos about videos getting made.  Bigger stars tended to go this route, since it tended to present them in a more humble or humorous circumstance.  (Usually these videos had farcical elements to them.)  Here are some of the most representative videos in the genre:

"Easy Lover" Philip Bailey and Phil Collins

The meeting of the two Phils is one of my favorite 80s pop guilty pleasures, as it combines for Earth, Wind and Fire member Phil Bailey's great falsetto with Phil Collins' warm, radio-friendly tenor and some kicking' guitar.  Like a wild stallion trapped in a stable, that guitar is just itching to burst out of this Top 40 number and shred.  The video shows the Phils hanging out, riding in a helicopter, and taping the video.  All in a day's work for a pop singer.

"The Flame" by Cheap Trick

This video belongs to the "earnest making of" sub-genre.  Perhaps that's because the normally raucous and funny Trick needed something a little more Serious for their power ballad aimed at the pop charts.  It's mostly a collage of shots of the band in candid moments on the set of the video, smoking aimless cigarettes, getting their hair done, etc.  It gives the song (admittedly one of the less shitty power ballads of the era) a certain vulnerability, which you need to accompany lyrics like "wherever I go I'll be with you" backed by airy synthesizers.

"Oh Sherrie" by Steve Perry

This is a fairly unique entry in the genre, in that it creates a story around the video making process, rather than being an actual, behind the scenes look at the video.  Perry storms off of the ornate, medieval castle set of his video, and starts lip-syncing to his lady love with that level of emotion we've come to expect from the King of the Power Ballad.  (Evidently his desire to leave the overblown set shows that he's down to earth and not pretentious.)  His director is pretentious (and British, of course) who pairs a New Wave skinny tie with a black leather jacket (making him suspiciously stylish.)  Perry, in classic video about making videos fashion, shows that even though he's a star, he's just a regular, nice guy.

"Where The Streets Have No Name" by U2

Leave it to Bono, of course, to make a video about making a video and turn it into mythology.  It details the band's concert on an LA rooftop for which they didn't have a permit, and which the cops eventually shut down.  Bono and the boys look charismatic and rebellious as all hell, even if they are copying from the Beatles' playbook.  It doesn't hurt that the song is one of U2's greatest, its relentless, irresistible drive still thrilling all these years later.  That's the secret of U2: their grandiosity begs to be deflated, but somehow they always make a believer out of me.

"Don't Lose My Number" by Phil Collins

Yes, it's another appearance by Phil Collins, who was the king of the making of the video music video. Part of his appeal came from his rather ordinary look.  Collins was short, a little stocky, balding, and wore pleated pants and tastefully modern patterned shirts.  He was like a regular bloke, but with a warm voice with some power to it with the perfect timbre for accompanying 80s synths and drum machines.  That trope is repeated here, with Collins having to deal with the media and comically ambitious video directors and special effects experts.  I loved this video as a kid even though I didn't care for the song, since I found it funny.  Then again, my favorite contemporary artist at the time was Weird Al Yankovic.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Return of the Know-Nothings

The recent refugee crisis of children fleeing unrest in Central America to cross the Rio Grande has occasioned the most vehement outburst of nativism I have yet witnessed, with screaming mobs of protestors hurling abuse at young immigrants.  Congress has reacted to the influx thousands of vulnerable children who have endured things that most adults in this country will never experience with a push to get those children deported as fast as possible.  This coming from a body that has repeatedly failed to pass any meaningful immigration reform policy because the House's reigning Republican Party is scared to death of alienating the nativist base of their party.

Put in historical context, these events are both predictable and surprising.  I'll start with the surprising side of the issue.  Back in 2000, George W. Bush ran as a candidate explicitly sympathetic to Hispanics and supportive of immigration reform.  When he was president he was unable to get said reform passed due to intransigence within his own party, but the GOP's leadership seemed to be embarrassed by that turn of events and maintained an interest in courting the votes of Hispanics.  Those voters rejected Mitt Romney by a historic margin, which got many pundits asking whether the Republicans would finally get behind immigration reform in order to stem the loss of votes.

Despite what the pundits predicted, the Republicans have embraced nativism whole hog.  That should have been predictable, since xenophobia has long been a potent political force in American life, along with its brother, nationalism.  Americans, of course, like to speak of "patriotism" when referring to themselves, with nationalism being a "bad" thing that "other" countries engage in.

When I hear the screaming mobs spewing hatred clothed in the fig leaf of "protecting the border" I hear the echoes of the 1850s and the Know-Nothings, the first major anti-immigrant group in American history.  It formed in response to the massive waves of migrants from Germany and Ireland, and mostly directed its ire against Irish Catholics.  It was a movement powerful enough to have its own political party (the American Party, known colloquially as "Know-Nothing" for its members' early devotion to secrecy.)  Nativists of that era burned Catholic churches and engaged in other acts of mob violence.  American nativism survived the death of the Know-Nothing Party in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924 (which set strict quotas on immigrants from outside northern Europe), and the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885.  If those children in Murrieta today did not have protection I fear that the blood would flow.

Just as the Know-Nothings of yesteryear hatched theories of Catholic immigrants being part of a papal conspiracy, modern nativists claim that the president is somehow encouraging their arrival to get more voters.  They claim refugees will bring disease and will rape the women of America.  That may sound like the ravings of a street-corner railer, but they are in the Congressional record, coming from the mouth of Representative Louie Gohmert.  Granted, he is batshit crazy, but his party is not denouncing him.  In fact, Republicans have decided that they need their Tea Party base more than they need the votes of Hispanics, who they have been busy trying to disenfranchise.  While the most important GOP leaders would never use such inflammatory rhetoric, they are willing to let others do it for them, and reap the reward at the polls.

They aren't stupid.  Like I said, nationalism is a secret and very powerful force in American politics, and Republicans have benefitted by being the de facto nationalist party.  Appeals to nationalism can supersede class interests and class identity, something the modern GOP needs for its success.  Reagan used nationalism masterfully, getting many of the very people he was actively screwing over to vote for him because he had "made America strong again."  The Tea Party gets voters to the poll with the call to "take our country back."  (The "our" in that slogan is telling.)  It was probably sadly inevitable, based on our nation's history, that an influx of immigrants would be met with hatred by extreme nationalists.  However, it was not inevitable that one of our major parties would join that extremist chorus for its own greedy gain.  When and if the party decides to go back to the Bush-era policy of moderation, they cannot and should not be allowed to live down their shameless opportunism in reaping a harvest of hate at the polls.