Saturday, July 23, 2016

Track of the Week: Kate Bush "Wuthering Heights"

I have a history of ignoring a particularly important or notable artist for years, then hearing them one day and getting obsessed and buying all of their albums. That's basically what happened after with me when it came to Tom Waits and Gram Parsons. At least in the streaming age it doesn't set me back as much, like it has this week.

I am currently reading the novel Beatlebone by Irish author Kevin Barry, which is set in 1978. The main character (who happens to be John Lennon taking a trip to a remote Irish island he bought years before) keeps talking about hearing the song "Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush on the radio. Evidently it was a big hit across the pond, but like a lot of great British music, wasn't big in America. I wanted to listen to it so I could better understand its meaning in the book.

I put it on, through the modern magic of Spotify, and was immediately blown away. Kate Bush has a singular voice in pop music, one that is most definitely weird in an off putting way. I used to think the same of Tom Waits, but in both cases once I got over that I realized that these were voices much more compelling than most others. For the past five days now I've been warbling "out on the wiley, windy moors"to myself, even though I am living through the dog days of a New Jersey summer, and not in some foggy bog in the isles. With Bush it just took that hook of the opening lines to keep me coming back to the song until something just clicked and all I could think to myself was that I had been wasting so many years of my life not listening to Kate Bush.

At forty years of age I thought that these moments of intense enthusiasm were over for me, but dang if they still don't happen. I hope they still do in my future, greying years, because having this enthusiasm has reminded me of what it was like when I was 21 and Bowie finally clicked, or when I was 26 and The Band became the only thing I listened to for two months. It just makes me happy to have a love of music as one of my lifetime companions.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Four Words Hillary Clinton Needs To Say Next Week

I am not planning on saying much about the RNC, because to compare it to a dumpster fire is an insult to dumpster fires. Plus, plenty of other people are lending their two cents about it.

No, I want to look forward to next week's DNC. Clinton and the Democrats have been handed a tremendous opportunity to make their case after four days of Republican disaster in Cleveland. The own goals scored this week by Trump will likely tempt the Clinton camp to elect to poach Republican voters rather than energize their base. Considering the levels of dislike within her own party, such a move would only make divisions within the Democrats much worse. Failing to cultivate the base of her own party is the surest way for Clinton to lose the election.

There are four simple words she needs to say to the supporters of Bernie Sanders at the convention: "I have heard you." She must acknowledge the issues that matter to them and the others in the base (like me) who voted for her but want action on progressive issues like economic inequality, financial regulation, college affordability, and racist policing. If the Democrats get out the vote, they will win this election handily. I will go to the polls if only to stop Trump, but many on the left require more motivation than that. Jill Stein is currently polling at five percent, those voters could decide the election.

I fear however that Clinton, like an old boxer in a tough fight, will fall back on her old style and training. In the 90s Bill Clinton maintained power after getting crushed in the 1994 midterm by employing a triangulation strategy. He sat in the political center, stealing some ideas from the right like welfare reform, then using it to show voters that he was not beholden to the left. That bullshit is why I voted third party in 1996. Why would I vote for a candidate who didn't seem to give a shit about what his base wanted?

The election of 2000 shocked me out of protest voting, but I can't say I don't understand where it comes from. I think the Bernie or Bust crowd needs to swallow their pride in the face of a horrific and unprecedented threat like Trump, as difficult as that might be. However, there is no way that Clinton can expect those voters to do that without offering a way for them to save face or to ensure that she will actually represent their interests. So she too needs to swallow her pride in the face of an unprecedented threat. Beyond that, she needs to run a campaign that actually incorporates the ideas that animated the Sanders movement, and not just to pay lip service. Failure to do so could invite disaster.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Lies That Bind

I didn't watch much of the Republican convention last night live, just clips and tweets until I had a long phone conversation with an old friend while sitting in my recliner while sipping a bourbon. That was a lot more pleasurable than watching the shitshow in Cleveland.

I woke up this morning to my social media blowing up over the plagiarized section of Melania Trump's speech last night. I'm much less outraged than amused. Having been a professor and a teacher for years now, I have busted my fair share of plagiarists. Usually the root cause is a combination of laziness and stress. Knowing how sloppy and last-minute the Trump campaign has been, I am sure that the person responsible for the speech had little time to do it, was not all that qualified, and needed to cut a few corners.

I am much, much more concerned with the dishonesty from the Trump campaign that comes not out of laziness, but out of malice and manipulation. Trump's entire campaign is built on lies of the most odious variety. He started it by claiming that undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit violent crime, a lie intended to stir up anti-immigrant hatred on his behalf. He lied about there being "thousands" of Muslims cheering the fall of the twin towers across the river in Jersey City, a lie intended to spread hate against Muslims, who he was calling to be banned from entering the country. He recently topped himself with the lie that Black Lives Matter activists were holding moments of silence for the murderer in Dallas. This was obviously intended to inflame white paranoia and build up the narrative that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization.

Of course, Trump's malicious lies raised his political profile well before his run for the presidency. He first made a big splash in national politics by claiming that president Obama was born outside of the United States. This lie, also based in bigoted paranoia, had long been percolating on the Right. The fact that he was so publicly proven wrong, but still allowed to have a place in the media firmament, made it obvious to Trump that he could build a political career on telling big, racist whoppers to the drooling Fox News watching troglodytes.

Trump perhaps understood something that others in the more august corners of our media have failed to see: the modern conservative movement is built on lies that are endlessly reinforced through the propaganda arms of Fox News and talk radio. I'll name a few. The lie that cutting taxes on the wealthy leads to prosperity for all. The lie that people are poor due solely to their own laziness and other shortcomings. The lie that America is an exceptional nation that is the greatest country that ever existed. The lie that American history is an uninterrupted march of freedom. The lie that institutional racism does not exist. The lie that global warming does not exist. The lie that evolution is merely a controversial theory. The lie that there is a war on Christmas. The lie that gender is not a social construction. The lie that fetuses feel pain in the first trimester. The lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The lie that all Muslims are predisposed towards terrorism. And on and on and on and on and on...

Trump is merely the dead weasel-haired avatar of a morally bankrupt movement that has maintained its base of support through mendacity of the foulest nature. The country club Republicans may clutch their pearls and turn up the collars on their Izod shirts, but they used those lies to manipulate a mass of angry people who have spurned them for the real deal. Cleveland is the apotheosis of decades of lies.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Fear

Time to get a little personal today, because I am not made of stone. I have spent every day since July 6th in a perpetual state of anxiety over the fate of the world. I have been getting what the great Hunter S Thompson referred to as "the fear." It started on the 6th when I watched the video of Alton Sterling's killing at the hands of the Baton Rouge police. Two years ago after watching Tamir Rice get killed by the Cleveland police I resolved never to watch one of those videos again, because the images from Rice's death have been haunting my idle thoughts ever since. In Alton Sterling's case I suddenly felt some kind of duty to bear witness, and it was much more horrifying than I could have imagined. I soon learned of Philando Castile's murder, which was just as horrifying. I spent a good half hour that day sobbing in front of my computer, feeling helpless. Every day since has been full of some kind of horror.

Having the summer off, I am stewing in the misery. I am on Twitter all day, and if an hour goes by when I am not, I wonder what new horror awaits me. On Thursday I checked in on the news before leaving for an evening session at the gym. Once I got there the slaughter in Nice was plastered all over the televisions. That night I finally cracked a bit. The recent events were already building on things that had been shaking me, from the mass murder in Orlando to Brexit to the continuing prospect of a Trump presidency. I am fairly skeptical about the power of prayer; I tend to think that the unseen force that animates the universe cares little or not at all for the fate of humanity. (If it did it would have a lot to answer for.) But Thursday night I walked out of the gym slathered in sweat, walked across a baking parking lot, got into my car, and fervently prayed. In that moment I again felt completely helpless.

Of course, things only got worse. That night the president's televised roundtable on police violence was terribly framed, and only served to make everyone mad at him and to confirm them in their opinions. I knew watching it that nothing was going to change. The next day the attempted coup in Turkey led to hundreds of dead and the possibility of an authoritarian crackdown by Erdogan. Today after an hour away from Twitter I learned of the murder of three police officers in Baton Rouge.

It is not just that horror seems to pile on top of horror, it is that there is no end in sight. Every terror attack gives more and more power to the forces of bigotry. In Europe and America the reactionaries are using the violence for their own ends, just as much as the radicals are. The likes of Le Pen, Fortyn, Gingrich, Boris Johnson, and Trump exult in the blood of the innocents, calling for eradication, deportation, and "law and order." All the while restricting access to firearms is off of America's political table, making more mass shootings an inevitability. The murder of police officers is making attempts to hold police accountable even more difficult. That will mean more killings by edgy police, and then probably more killings in return. Even if Trump loses, the politics in this country are so divided that nothing will change for better. Nothing. Things will only get worse. Trump has introduced white supremacist nationalism into the American mainstream, and as whites get more resentful in a nation that's less white, their anger will only get more powerful. Calls to deport or strip basic rights from Muslims have also been normalized by Trump. And if Trump wins...well, my mind cannot bear to contemplate such a catastrophe.

American politics will only get more uglier and more violent. Europe will only get more xenophobic. Erdogan will only get more authoritarian. Russia and China will only get more nationalistic. The mass shootings will only get bigger and more common. The center will not hold. Time for a beer.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Track of the Week: Yardbirds "I'm A Man"

I am almost done reading Jon Savage's 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, an impressionistic look at the pop culture of that year in America and England. I've really enjoyed the book, which has had me going back and listening to lots of Motown and the sounds of Swinging London. He makes the point early on that 1966 was the last point where singles mattered more than albums in music. (Well, at least up to that point, since these days albums have been eclipsed, though just as much by streaming as by singles.) For instance, I know the Stones' singles by heart from 1964-1967, but I have little knowledge of their album tracks in that era. Pet Sounds in 1966 and Sgt Pepper in 1967 would really begin to change things, and the acts that had relied on killer singles would take a hit.

The Yardbirds were one of those bands, churning out barn-burners influenced heavily by Chicago blues, but with a youthful spirit and some original touches. (Just listen to the minor-key dirge "Still I'm Sad" for proof.) While Eric Clapton's name is much more well known than Jeff Beck's, Beck's entrance into the band and Clapton's departure coincided with a great leap forward in sound. The Yardbirds would push the bounds of the pop single to its limits, and explore new ground that other rock bands would soon grab for themselves.

"I'm A Man" is the fountainhead of something entirely new, even though it's a cover. The Bo Diddley original is one of his best, a slow-burner with a classic, much copied blues riff underneath it. He was much covered by British beat bands and for the very good reason that his songs have irresistible grooves that even rudimentary musicians can copy. The Yardbirds took it in a different direction, drastically increasing the tempo, giving it a straight, headlong crazy drive, like a train speeding down a mountainside. This version is all untamed youth and amphetamine, and that's before it gets really nuts.

A minute and a half into the song comes one of the most important moments in rock history, the minute-long instrumental break that finishes the song. The guitars get louder and louder and the song gets faster and faster and faster until it comes crashing into a "whomp whomp wha-BAM!" blues ending. It is an exhilarating experience, and it's all over in less than three minutes. Later rock bands would go all the way, extending the breaks and the solos and the jams and making longer songs not meant to be played on the radio. The Yardbirds, recording this in 1965, had not broken that barrier yet, but they had shown the way.

Fittingly enough, in 1966 that band took in hotshot guitarist Jimmy Page, and after one failed album without the departed Beck morphed in "The New Yardbirds." Instead of that derivative name, they ended up going with "Led Zeppelin," and the rest was history. Zeppelin famously did not put out singles, and their magnum opus "Stairway To Heaven" was over seven minutes long (and never released as a single.) Nevertheless, it was the most requested song on 70s FM radio stations. It still gets overplayed on classic rock radio today, decades after mediocre stand-up comics mocked its ubiquity. You won't hear "I'm A Man" on any radio format, but it's the song I'd rather listen to.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

1968 And Using Historical Metaphors

Like it or not, we're still in his world

There's been a lot of talk comparing the current election year to 1968, which has me thinking about the right and wrong ways to use historical metaphors. They can be put to deadly effect, after all. During the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the ghosts of the Munich Conference of 1938 were constantly being invoked. The "lesson" to learn was that the dictator Hussein had to be stopped. Of course, the comparison was ridiculous, since Hussein did not have designs on expansion, as Hitler did in 1938. Nevertheless, it worked.

Comparisons of 2016 to 1968 are more valid, but also overstate things. We are seeing a great amount of social upheaval this year, but not like 1968's assassinations, burning of cities, and the raging of the Vietnam War. This does not mean that we can't learn anything from looking at 1968, but just to be aware that we are living in different times. The mass shootings of today were little known in 1968, apart from Charles Whitman's infamous actions in 1966. While Trump's campaign resembles that of George Wallace's that year, he has been running mostly on immigration, which was not a big political issue in 1968. While Trump has been borrowing Nixon's "law and order" rhetoric (which Wallace first pioneered), he does not have Nixon's ability to appeal to a new constituency, since Trump's main appeals are to constituencies that Nixon won over to the Republicans in '68 (white Southerners and white working class more broadly.) The Democrats, despite recent events, are much much more unified now compared to 1968, as yesterday's endorsement of Clinton by Sanders shows.

We are in very different times, but there are themes we can see both in 1968 and 2016: mass uprisings against racism, populist white nationalist backlash, major political party realignments, and a feeling that violence has become uncontrollable. What we are seeing in some respects is less a repeat of 1968 and more the consequences of its unresolved aftermath. As a recent book by Elizabeth Hinton shows, the urban uprisings and increased crime rates led to a massively increased police presence in black neighborhoods, and a feeling among white politicians that attempts to improve the economic prospects of inner city residents, as pioneered by the Great Society, ought to be scrapped because the dysfunction of their targets was too deep to correct. The current mass incarceration, militarized police, and death tolls from killer cops are the legacy of the failed and inhuman response to the urban uprisings of 1968.

Our politics also bear the scars of the late 1960s. As Rick Perlstein points out in his brilliant work Nixonland, Nixon gained power by exploiting the cleavages in American society brought on by the 1960s. By villainizing one side of the divide he knew he could unite the other side, and knew at that time his side was going to be bigger. That redefined our politics in a society where those cleavages over race, religion, and culture have become deeper and more intense with each year. "Liberals" came to stand in for everything wrong and evil and America, and they and their agenda had to be destroyed. This, not supply side economics, is the true heart of modern conservatism, and explains why Congress has taken the unprecedented step of refusing to vote on the president's nominee to the Supreme Court. Thwarting liberals has become the sum total of their political program. It's the same reason why so many rank and file Republicans who seem to really dislike Trump and even find him dangerous are still rallying around him.

2016 is not 1968, but we are very much living in the world that the upheavals of 1968 created. Time will tell if 2016 will be the year that takes a new direction, or keeps progressing toward the breaking point.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Dr Sillylovesongs, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Paul McCartney

Contrary to stereotype, Paul McCartney can make dark, introspective lo-fi music

Anyone who gets into the Beatles at a young age decides which Beatle is their favorite. This choice is not merely an aesthetic one, but also is meant to reflect the personality and values of the fan. In my teens, John was far and away my favorite. To me he was the rebel Beatle, the one who stood up for peace and was not afraid to speak his mind. I also valued his musical contributions more, seeing him as the true artist in the group. The Revolver album, my fave Beatles record, seemed to make the choice pretty clear.  The John songs on that record are searing and full of all kinds of spiritual angst, perfect fodder for an adolescent. What teen hasn't just wanted to not get out of bed, as in "I'm Only Sleeping"? The real kicker, however, was "Tomorrow Never Knows," which still sounds amazing and different fifty years later. It was almost impossible to think that the band responsible for "Love Me Do" had created it. Paul had some fine songs on that record ("Yellow Submarine," "Good Day Sunshine," Got To Get You Into My Life," Eleanor Rigby" etc.) but they tended to be less rockish and more poppy.

As my twenties progressed, I started gravitating towards George, rather than John. Much of this had to do with my friends Debbie and Brian, who were big George fans. I had also loved his wry perspective in the Beatles Anthology interviews. The more I read about the Beatles, the more I liked George and felt less of a connection to John. While John finally seemed to be getting it sorted out at the end of his tragically short life, he could be a mean drunk who neglected his first child and treated his first wife, Cynthia, poorly. I empathized with his bouts of depression, but he began to strike me as a rather unpleasant person. On the positive side, I finally heard Harrison's All Things Must Pass, and I still believe that it's by far the best Beatles solo album.

Ringo was never a candidate for favorite Beatle for me, but I've always loved him. I think his drumming is very underrated, and it pisses me off when people put his musical ability down. (Harrison and Lennon could have had anyone drum on their first solo records, but they chose Ringo.) Paul, of course, was the one I had the most mixed feelings about. The more I learned about the breakup of the Beatles, the more I realized that those who blamed Yoko Ono were completely wrong.  Of course, the four men growing up and developing their own separate personalities and interests was the root cause of the break up, which I now take to be a good thing, since it saved us from terrible reunion tours and the kind of mediocre music we've been getting from the Stones in the last thirty years. The Beatles break-up had its immediate origins in the death of manager Brian Epstein, which left a huge vacuum. Paul tried to step in and be the leader of the band, and to have his brother in law manage. I attributed this to Paul being a control freak, something I saw first hand in his unbearable antics in the studio in Let It Be. I'd also heard the story that he had forced the band to record eighty takes of the mediocre "Ob La Di Ob La Da," which is enough to make anyone quit any band, including the Beatles.

I also generally thought of Paul as "the cute one" who made, in his own words, "silly love songs." Could I really rate the guy responsible for "Honey Pie" above the man who wrote "Tomorrow Never Knows"? Plus, as a child of the 80s and 90s, I thought of Paul as a guy with a terrible mullet wearing fashion-victim vests touring the world playing his hits. This to me, in my punk rock phase, was the height of uncool.

In recent years, however, my attitude has been changing. Paul is most definitely a control freak, of course. In the Wingspan documentary his own daughter seems a bit exasperated at all of the lineup changes in Wings brought on by that tendency. At the same time, aren't a lot of great artists control freaks? Paul isn't someone I'd want to work with, but his exacting standards are probably responsible for the timeless nature of his best songs. I also came to realize that while his attempt to take a controlling interest in the Beatles after Epstein's death backfired, it might have been the right way to go. They ended up hiring the infamous Allen Klein over Paul's objections, who, as he often did with the artists he represented, ripped them off. At that point in the late 60s John, who had been the leader of the group early on, was beginning to check out and act more erratically. Somebody had to step in and do something. Paul did it maladroitly, but he intentions were in the right place.

Paul's iron will to keep things together is also what gave us Abbey Road, which next to Revolver is my fave Beatles record. Even though the band was falling apart, they managed to end on an extremely high note. Paul was chiefly responsible for the second side's pastiche of song fragments. I think that medley might be my favorite thing that the Beatles ever did. (George also has some fantastic songs on that record. John's are good, but not at the same level.)

Over the years I also came to realize that while John got the credit for being experimental and George for bringing in Indian music, Paul was not just the guy who wrote silly love songs. Imagine my surprise when I learned that "Helter Skelter" was a Paul song, since that totally went against narrative. While may have penned some schmaltzy numbers, he had a well-documented interest in experimental music, as well as decidedly non-schmaltzy sleaze like "Why Don't We Do It In The Road." On top of all of that, he was definitely the best musician in the Beatles. His melodic bass lines are really miles ahead of what most rock bassists were doing at the time. What really put me over the top musically with Paul were his first two solo albums, which I didn't hear until a few years ago, mostly due to my old prejudices. He recorded the first one completely by himself, and the second with only some background vocals from Linda. They are idiosyncratic albums with a great amount of looseness to them. Hearing them now, they sound like the earliest antecedents of lo-fi indie rock. They also happen to be really good, and daring in their own way. The fan reaction was not greatly positive, and McCartney would find great solo success after creating Wings and going for a big 70s pop-rock sound.

Beyond the music, I really started empathizing with Paul after reading the book Man on the Run, about his career in the 70s. He fell into a deep depression after the breakup of the Beatles (which he had worked hard to avoid), complete with overconsumption of alcohol. His relationship with Linda and the loose experimentation of those early records are what helped him cope and recover.  (I myself could certainly understand the difficulties that come with having to make a major career change in your thirties against your will.) I always get irritated when people mock Linda and her presence in Wings. Paul brought her and their children on tour as a way of keeping the family together, rather than indulging in the rock and roll party lifestyle. Learning this now that I am a parent made me respect him even more. (Not to be petty, but compare this to John's treatment of Julian.)

I am not sure who my favorite Beatle is anymore, probably because I'm no longer young enough for that to be meaningful. I can say that time and wisdom have made me appreciate Paul McCartney much more than before. And hey, if some people want to fill the world with silly love songs, what's wrong with that? I'd like to know.