Friday, September 19, 2014

Thoughts on Jodorowsky's Dune

Last week I finally saw Jodorowsky's Dune, I documentary I had desperately wanted to see when it hit the art house theaters before the demands of parenting interceded.  It was everything I had hoped it to be, a rare experience these days.

In case you don't know, it is a film about a failed film.  In the mid-1970s, Mexican surrealist/psychedelic/totally whacko director Alessandro Jodorowski decided to adapt Frank Herbert's iconic novel Dune for the silver screen.  (This was a decade before David Lynch's ill-fated version.)  He did not merely want to make a film, he wanted to produce a spiritual experience that would raise the consciousness of the world.  He managed to assemble a world-beating team of design and effects mavens, including HR Giger and Dan O'Bannon, who would later go on to work together on Alien.  Jodorowsky also got commitments from Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, and Salvador Dali to appear in it.  He needed to get some additional funding to get it made, but none of the Hollywood studios bit, and the film never got made.

In order to better solicit funds from the studios, Jodorowsky's team of what he termed "spiritual warriors" storyboarded the entire film, and put the results in book form.  The images from that book are breath-taking and intriguing, and inevitably inspire deep thoughts about what might could have been.  The vision behind the film is so vast and impossible for the time that it's hard to believe such a film had any chance of getting made.  If it had, the course of cinematic history would have been vastly altered.

Dune would have appeared in 1975, two years before Star Wars rewrote the rules for science fiction and space adventure.  As much as I truly love Star Wars, it is hard to love its unintended consequences.  For one, "hard" science fiction rarely appears on film.  Sci-fi tends to be of the action-adventure variety, such as the (nevertheless) stellar Guardians of the Galaxy.  It became the ultimate crowd-pleasing genre, one where the complex ideas and social critique so common to literary sci-fi were conspicuously absent.  Jodorowsky's film may have given birth to a science fiction tradition in film of a more intellectual bent.  As insane and detached from reality as Jodorowsky often seems, at least he was really trying to do something revolutionary.  Most of what lands in the multiplexes these days bearing the title of "science fiction" is bereft of any traces of artistic or intellectual depth.

It is also obvious that while Jodorowsky's magnum opus never saw the light of day, his concepts and those storyboards did not go unnoticed.  StarWars had its own spiritual addition to science fiction, in the form of The Force.  The creative team he put together did manage to make a film together, on 1979's Alien, but without Jodorowsky.  That fact is a little depressing, since it seems that pathbreaking ideas in cinema only reach the public after they have been mediated and made safe by popularizers.  Truly original cinematic visions are awful hard to come by, and Jodorowsky's Dune is an irresistable look at one of the last great attempts to make something truly new under the sun.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Breaking Down The Kinks' Run of Greatness: 1966-1971

Spotify has a lot of great music, but if you rely solely on their volumnious database you will still miss out on one of the greatest runs by a band in rock history, and I'm not talking about the Beatles.  It's generally acknowledged that groups like the Fab Four, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Doors put together great runs of albums in the period roughly between 1966 and 1972.  The group with the longest winning streak in that era, however, was The Kinks, and many of their crucial albums are missing from the streaming database.

In America they're known mostly for their early, proto-metal rockers "All Day And All Of The Night," and you really got me, along with their early 80s nostalgia exercise "Come Dancing."  During their 1966 to 1971 winning streak, the Kinks stopped touring America due to a dispute with the musicians' union, and made music so indelibly English that it did not play well to Yankee tastes.  It also happened to be odd enough that the band did not retain their popularity in their home country, either.  Apart from weirdos and afficianados like myself, this music has mostly been forgotten, a real crime.  In the interests of spreading the Gospel of the Kinks and my own obsessive tendencies, here's a breakdown of the albumsof the era, all of which deserve your attention.

Face to Face 1966

This 1966 album begins the run, full of songs commenting on life and the class system in Britain.  "Sunny Afternoon," taking the point of view of a drunk aristocrat's ennui was the hit, and the last one the Kinks would have for awhile.  On this album Ray Davies' jaundiced eye towards modern life comes forth, satirizing tourism in "Holiday in Waikiki" and poking fun at the Carnaby Street fashions of "swinging London" on "Dandy."  "Session Man" is a great sleeper track that mocks the pretensions of session musicians, and was likely inspired by experiences the band had when the label put session men on their records.  It's derision of musical virtuosity is punk as punk can be, a whole decade early.

Something Else 1967

On Something Else the Kinks perfected the formula they started on their previous record.  There are many snapshots of daily life, the mundane world that most rock bands just completely ignore.  Daily rituals like "Afternoon Tea" get a song, and the album ends with "Waterloo Sunset," the most beautiful ballad about a train station, or perhaps anything else, ever recorded.  In between there are tales of schoolboy envy ("David Watts") family conflict ("Two Sisters"), and the "Lazy Old Sun."  Dave Davies also offers two of his best songs on this album, the darkly humorous "Death of a Clown" and the gutbucket rock of "Love My 'Til The Sun Shines."

The Village Green Preservation Society 1968

This concept album may have been the band's best yet, but it sank faster than a cinder block.  Perhaps this was because its evocation of small town life and its nostalgia for the old days was wildly out of touch with the spirit of revolt and progress in 1968 when it came out.  The harpsichords and psychedelic touches of the last two albums dropped out in favor of a folk-pop sound that bands like Belle and Sebastian have been very heavily influenced by.  It's hard to choose individual songs to highlight, since the album holds together really well as a cohesive whole.  The best moments deal with memory, and how we are constantly trying to preserve what the passage of time is continually wrenching from us.  "Picture Book," "Do You Remember Walter" and "People Take Pictures of Each Other" all hit this theme really well.

Arthur 1969

Arthur might very well be the best of The Kinks' albums, strange since it was written for a TV special that never actually materialized.  It is a concept album unlike any other, telling the story of the decline of the British Empire through the experience of one ordinary person.  The rollicking "Victoria" is a fun little send-up of naive patriotism, but things get pretty serious pretty quickly on "Yes Sir" and "Some Mother's Son," unsparing looks at trench warfare during World War I.  In the first song a bewildered private is constantly being ordered around by callous bourgeois officers who laugh about sending the cannon fodder off to die.  The second is one that always brings a tear to my eye, telling the tale of an anonymous soldier dying in a trench, and the hole that will be left in his family's life.  The album tells the tale of Arthur's achievement of a middle class life in Australia, but on "Shangri-La" Ray Davies wrote perhaps the best critique of postwar suburbanization to find its way onto a rock album.

Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround 1970
The Kinks had their first hit in awhile stateside with "Lola," a rollicking song about gender-bending romance.  Ironically, the song came on an album revolving around the vagaries of the music business.  Ray Davies details the ways bands are parted from their hard earned money on the humorously bitter "Moneygoround" once they are lucky enough to hit the "Top of the Pops."  The album also contains the affecting "Back In The Line," a wrenching song about having your livelihood in the hands of careless jerks whose butts you have to kiss to survive.  This acid take on the music business ended up being the Kinks' comeback, and helped launch them to a new label.

Muswell Hillbillies 1971
For a large part of the 70s the Kinks wandered in a wilderness of half-baked concept albums and rock operas that could not equal what they had accomplished on Arthur, before playing things safe and settling into hard rock in the later part of the decade.  Before that strange journey, they put out a truly stellar record with a heavy folk and country influence.  It begins with "20th Century Man," the best summation of Ray Davies' critique of modern society's inhumanity.  Other highlights include the country-ish "Muswell Hillbillies" and musical hall-inflected "Alcohol."

The Kink Kronikles 1972
The Kinks' old label neatly summed up the band's golden era on this double LP compilation, one of the few able to combine well-known songs like "Lola" and rarities like "Willesden Green" in a seamless fashion.  Even if you own all the other albums, it's a must have for the presence of great stand-alone singles like the wistful "Days," the jaunty "Autumn Almanac" and bouncy "Wonderboy."  My favorite has got to be "Big Black Smoke," a dark tale of a young country girl corrupted by London's bright lights.  It's the kind of social realism that we get so little from pop music, and something the Kinks provided in admirable abundance.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Putting The Salaita Case In Proper Context

I have been following the case of Steve Salaita in large part because I have a personal connection to the University of Illinois.  It hurts me to see an institution that I deeply care about in the news for essentially firing a professor over his political beliefs.  You can talk "civility" or "pre-fired" as much as you want, it doesn't change that fundamental truth.

As distressing as the university's behavior is, I can't say I'm surprised by it.  Salaita's case is one of many that point to the growing authoritarianism of university administration and the fast dwindling power and privilege of university faculty.  His case is well known due to his prominence and the unusual nature of his firing, but it is hardly unique.  He had the unfortunate experience to be without tenure protection, the same boat that contingent faculty, now the majority, find themselves in.  I can tell you that I know of multiple people who have lost contingent positions essentially for "getting above their station."  These folks were great teachers who took pride in their work, but exhibited far too much independence.  They, unfortunately, did not have a public campaign at their back, nor were their institutions held up to ridicule for their capricious behavior.  I can guarantee you that every large college or university every year is firing a contingent faculty member for such political (internal or external) or personality reasons.

There is speculation in the Salaita case that the chancellor and board were moved to go after him by wealthy donors to the university called for his ouster.  If true, it illustrates the fact that today's universities, even publicly supported ones, are now controlled by monied interests.  Universities have become just another business, and their faculty, mere employees.  Adjuntification is part of the same casualization and temporization of labor crushing the prospects of workers across America.  As far as tenured faculty go, their privileges and freedom to speak are being curtailed, so that they may become just as vulnerable as any other corporate employee.  At most universities they are given a feeble faculty senate where they can air their grievances, which administration will politely, but pointedly ignore.  Salaita had support at the departmental, college, and even university level, but if the donors and board have a problem with him, that's simply not good enough.

I am glad to see a lot of anger and protest about this case, but I would like to see it go broader and deeper.  We are not dealing with one university that has fired one scholar for political reasons, we are dealing with a whole system that has brutally casualized labor and made even tenured faculty into mere employees to be forced to toe the company line.  This didn't happen overnight, but is the result of decades of corruption, rot, and neglect.  Until something is done to challenge the new order at its roots, there will be more Steve Salaitas, both the famous ones on the tenure-track, and the nameless ones on the contingent track.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Track of the Week: Big Star "What's Going Ahn"

Whenever the weather changes my mind gets flung into the realms of memory, whether I want to or not.  This breezy, overcast day feels like the start of fall, and for some reason I was reminded of the fact that I was just starting college twenty years ago.  Like a lot of freshmen, it took a long time for me to find a niche, which eventually took the form of the college's debate team.  (I wasn't partying on the weekends in college, I was going hundreds of miles in a van to argue with other people while wearing a suit.)

I never really fit in back in my hometown, and had all kinds of crazy expectations that in college my days of loneliness would be over.  At least I was going to college near the center of a good-sized city, so on days that I had to myself early in my college career, I would walk downtown from campus and go to an amazing independent record store that alas no longer stands.  After years of living in an isolated town I finally had access to just about any album I could have wanted.  The first I bought there happened to be the Big Star CD that combined their first two albums: #1 Record and Radio City.  I bought it because I'd read interviews where two of my musical heroes, REM guitarist Peter Buck and Replacements front man Paul Westerberg had spoken so enthusiastically about Big Star's influence on them.

I was not disappointed, and began playing the album every day and even got my roommate hooked.  This is music that still resonates with me like little else, and seeing the recent documentary outlining the band's well-known difficulties brought me to tears.  I've listened to the music so many times that it's been divorced from the context when I first heard it except, for some reason, "What's Going Ahn."  It first appeared on their second album, and I've never really heard it cited as one of their most crucial tracks.  Nevertheless, it is a beautiful jewel of a song expressing a kind of world-weariness well beyond Alex Chilton's young years.  While it's about a lost love, the wistful tone seemed to speak to my feelings of loneliness at the time.

Luckily I found my tribe pretty quickly afterward.  For that reason, I hear the wistfulness in the song much differently nowadays.  One of those friends I met in those early college days stayed close to me, and we even roomed together when we both lived in Chicago.  He died almost two years ago, and this song is just one of many things that I seem to come across practically every day that reminds me of him.  As autumn's chill comes and the leaves fall, I am reminded of life's transitory nature, and that's what's always been going on.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

13 Years Later, Still Imprisoned By 9/11

Yesterday brought news that the president wants to start bombing ISIS in Syria as well as Iraq.  While I don't care much for violent religious fanatics, there does not seem to be much evidence that this group is determined to strike the United States.  It was fitting that the news came a day before the anniversary of 9/11, since Obama's new war is entirely consistent with what people used to call "the post-9/11 world" before it just became "the world."

Like most, I remember that horrible morning very vividly, especially my immediate thoughts when I realized the scale of the attacks (I was listening on radio.)  I knew, right then and there, that this attack would bring years of war and bloodshed, which was the first time that day that I broke down into tears.  The thought that the deaths of that day would end of being just the tip of the iceberg was almost too horrific for me to bear.  Even over a dozen years later the cycle continues, with the vague "War on Terror" apparently never-ending.  (Hunter S. Thompson pretty much predicted this on 9/12.)

Despite the changeover from the neo-con Dubya to the most liberal president since LBJ, the war persists and even strengthens.  We still have Guantanamo Bay.  Despite bin Laden's death, the occupation of Afghanistan continues.  The mess made in Iraq has led to yet another military intervention.  Our government treats its citizens with suspicion, and spies on the people in an unprecedented fashion.  The teenagers I teach have never known a time when their country was not at war.

Thirteen years later, it's time to finally break the spell.  The bodies have piled up, but nobody is any safer.  Come home, America.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Cranky Bear Asks America To End Its Football Addiction

[Editor's note: It has been a long while since I have received a missive from my friend Cranky Bear, who appears content to live the quiet life in his compound and to stay above the fray of world affairs.  Cranky has also been sneering at my more domesticated lifestyle, calling me "soft" and a "sell-out."  However, after such a long silence I have received a message in a small microfilm canister via carrier pigeon, and would like to share it with you.]

Hello folks, Cranky Bear here with a cup of strong coffee in my hand and an axe to grind.  Last week marked the beginning of football season, and the sport seems to be a bigger part of our culture with each passing year.  College football coaches are often the highest-paid public employees in their respective states, and even the least nerdy among us participate in fantasy football.  NFL games have become reliable TV ratings bonanzas, and the Super Bowl is the most watched event in a given year.

I do not see this as a good thing.

All sports work within a social context, and football's context has changed to an extent that it is a national bloodsport that embodies so much of what is wrong with American society.  In the first place, playing the game has been shown to cause catastrophic brain trauma and all kinds of ill effects stemming from it.  Other players lucky to have their brains intact end up unable to walk, and are at a higher risk for ALS.  New rules adopted by the NFL will likely only make a dent in the problem, and even under these rules fans and players complain that the game isn't being played the way it ought to be.  Fans want the big collisions, and defensive players want to make the hardest hits that they can.  It would be easy to dismiss these feelings and say that the game must be reformed.  However, I take them at face value as proof that the game can only be played "right" when it is dangerous, and is therefore incapable of reform.  We will all be better off if it just goes away.

In our tight economic times, football is also a major economic drag.  High schools pour money into practice fields and expensive equipment, money better spent on actually educating students.  Our universities are struggling and slashing departments left and right, but they still build new athletic complexes, luxury boxes in the stadium, and pay coaches millions of dollars.  Several cities have been held hostage by their NFL franchises and extorted money to build new stadiums where perfectly good ones already stood.  The NFL is a "non-profit" organization that makes $9.5 billion in revenue, pays its wretched commissioner tens of millions of dollars, but does not pay a single red cent of federal income taxes.

Speaking of Goodell and the NFL, football is run by the biggest pack of shysters and liars that you'll ever see.  The NFL denied the facts on concussion when they knew they were true, it held back on punishing Ray Rice for spousal abuse, and has fought to stiff players whose bodies were broken in the service of amassing wealth for the owners and their cronies in the league office.  The case of Ray Rice demonstrates a disturbing tendency by the powers in college and professional football to protect the perpetrators of violence and sexual assault.

The NCAA, which manages college football, is even worse than the NFL.  They still peddle the stinking lie that big-time football players are "student athletes" who shouldn't be paid, all while rolling in the dough that they generate.  Have you ever seen the type of colored blazer wearing philistine who regularly occupies positions on bowl committees, events that rake in dollars made by the unpaid workers on the field that the people are paying money to see?  These well-fed respectable men about town act as if those young athletes owe them a living.  College football is nothing more than a giant wage-theft racket dressed in the romantic garb of "tradition."

Even worse, football is a vehicle for militarist propaganda.  The NFL colluded with the military to turn Pat Tillman from a skeptical soldier killed by friendly fire into a super-warrior martyr to recruit more cannon fodder.  The NFL takes every opportunity to associate itself with the military and praise its every action.  There has probably never been a more effective use of propaganda since World War II than Whitney Houston's rendition of the national anthem at the Super Bowl during the Gulf War, complete with military jet flyover.  Football's very language and ethos self-consciously recalls war, from the "trenches" on the front "lines" to the "field general" behind center and on the sideline.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, it encourages the people of this country to be obedient to their military leaders and to keep from asking questions until the body bags have come home and reality has set in.

Last but not least, football as a sport isn't all that great.  It is a game suited for television and rather underwhelming in person, but on television there are more commercial breaks than interesting plays in a given game.  The NFL in particular has become a dry, technocratic exercise about as inspiring as an annual earnings report.  Give me basketball's free-flowing poetry, baseball's cerebral contemplation, or soccer's athletic beauty any day.  Fuck football and every inch of its turgid violence, you can have it.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Track of the Week: The Charlatans "The Only One I Know"

Sometime around 1989-1990 I started gaining a more sophisticated understanding of pop music.  Instead of listening to top 40 radio and the oldies station, I started buying tapes (then CDs) and hearing things through word of mouth or from less mainstream sources.  120 Minutes and Yo! MTV Raps were my conduits to something more interesting than Whitesnake and Poison.  In those days before grunge there was a lot of challenging stuff happening in the underground of independent rock music, but it was so far underground that I was not hearing it.  Instead, I was pretty open to the sounds coming out of the UK at the time.

There is a long history of great British bands with followings and hits in the home isles that for inexplicable reasons don't seem able to break into the charts stateside.  The cool older kids at my high school that I knew through band and debate were into this stuff, as was my friend's hip older sister.  That's how I learned about Depeche Mode, The Sundays, The Smiths, Teenage Fanclub, etc.  One particular sub genre of British rock music of the time especially intrigued me: Madchester.

This was the term for a style of rock music out of Manchester (natch) influenced by electronic dance rhythms and hip-hop beats, and for a brief, blessed time brought a little danceability to a genre sorely lacking in that essential quality.  Until I saw the film 24 Hour Party People based on the Manchester scene of the 1970s and 80s, I had no clue just what a huge cultural phenomenon this had been in Britain.   Since this music was underground in America, my young mind had assumed that it was out of the mainstream in Britain, too.

As innovative and popular has Madchester was in its moment, it was a short moment, partially due to the implosion of its two biggest bands: The Stone Roses and The Happy Mondays.  There was another fine group less heralded than them, The Charlatans, who somehow managed to adapt their music over years and survive into the next decade.  They have never produced a great album, but they did put together something more important: a great pop single.

"The Only One I Know" still gets me today, almost a quarter century later.  Hearing it recently in the movie The World's End had me calling it up on Spotify during my morning commute each day this week.  It has a unique element I am very partial to: lead organ.  While the beginning guitar figure sets a suitably funky course, the swirling organ gets in your head and never leaves.  It gives the song a spooky, moody feel despite the propulsive dance rhythm.  It's as if the Charlatans decided to distill the elements that were actually good about the Rolling Stones' psychedelic phase, then jack up the tempo and modernize the beat in a Madchester blender.  It's striking some times how fast music trends can come and go, but some, like Madchester, are worth returning to.