Saturday, October 19, 2019

Chronic Town (R.E.M. Rewind)

[Editor's Note: It's been too long since I've done a series, and this is a topic I know some of my readers will find engaging. This post begins a new series, R.E.M. Rewind, an album-by-album reflection on the band's music.]

Living in a small, isolated Nebraska town in the late 1980s meant getting access to underground music was not easy. I was basically limited to whatever they stocked at the Musicland at the local mall, or what was played on top 40 radio and MTV. At that time one band had bubbled up from the world of college radio to a high enough mainstream level that I could access: REM. I heard "The One I Love" on the radio and loved it. Peter Buck's jangling guitar and Michael Stipe's keening sounded like nothing I'd heard before.

Beyond the music, REM had a special appeal from me. They hailed from Athens, Georgia, and did not seem interested in being big time. They had emerged from a small town world and their music being off the beaten track felt like an affirmation for those of us living in the sticks. A friend had an REM t-shirt with an image of an old Athens warehouse on the front, and it looked like a scene straight out of my railroad town hometown. To me this seemingly innocuous image was a signifier of identity.

It was perfect then that REM's first collection of recording was called Chronic Town. Living in a small town means a lot of time for dreaming and contemplation, especially if you're a person who doesn't fit into the rigid social conventions of small town life. If there's one thing I miss about living in small towns it's that time slows down enough there for my mind to wander distant fields it never seems to visit nowadays. REM's early music grabbed me because it sounded like the inside of my mind on a darker than dark rural night while I laid in bed, seemingly in another world as the train horns whined in the distance.

The first song, "Wolves, Lower" lets the listener know that REM is taking us to that liminal space, from the title to the mumbled lyrics to the mysterious noises beneath the guitars. While it sounds much more postpunk than future REM music, this song is an apt introduction to the band. There's Peter Buck's aforementioned jangle on guitar, Mike Mills' melodic bass and background vocals, Michael Stipe's haunting and illegible voice, and Bill Berry's driving yet subtle drums. I still have no clue what it's about, and that's fine. Early REM music is impressionistic and abstract, like a Kandinsky painting. It hits you with sensations that your mind makes meaning out of in its own way. Rock music rarely does this, and when it did before this it would be at the hands of someone more self-consciously experimental like Brian Eno. REM were still doing this as a scruffy band of young men from a college town in the South.

The lyrics didn't get any easier to discern on "Gardening At Night," but the sitar added splashes of psychedelia that was an obvious influence on the band as much as punk rock. The first side of the EP closes out with "Carnival of Sorts (Boxcars)," where the album's title comes from. REM's small town origins are most evident here in a song that evokes the rhythm of a freight train moving through a junction. I grew up in a town where two major railroads intersected, so it's something I know really well. The constant movement of trains was always a weird contrast to the quiet and empty streets of the town.

Side two of the EP starts with "1,000,000," which has a more anthemic sound that what had come on side one. The bounce of reigning new wave music is evident here as well. I think one reason for REM's success was how their sound drew from 60s psychedelia, post punk, and new wave without ever aping those styles and instead creating something original. The EP closes with "Stumble," which might be a song about growing up if I were impertinent enough to assign hard meanings to REM songs from this era. All in all it's a vital, original set of songs that still holds up extremely well today. It's hard to think of other groups so fully realized coming straight out of the gate.

While I bought up all of REM's back catalog of studio albums in the summer of 1991 after completely falling in love with the band post Out of Time, Chronic Town was the one exception, since it was so hard to find. (I also didn't know that the tracks were included on Dead Letter Office! Damn lack of internet!) I finally got to hear it two summers later when I was working in the corn fields in my summer job detasseling. Our foremen were all teachers earning extra income, and one of them, en elementary school gym teacher, learned I loved REM. He loaned me a cassette tape of the EP to listen to on my walkman as we worked. It turns out that this jock-y gym teacher fell in love with the band at the moment of their birth, and even saw them live in Omaha at a club show well before anyone knew who they were.

As we had to ride the bus to and from the fields to work I asked him about what that was like, but also just shared my REM opinions with him. It was rare to find one of my peers who shared my musical interests, so it was validating to see that an older person loved what I loved with the same level of devotion. As much as I love the music of REM, I can never separate it from those formative moments of developing my own interests and personality. I guess that's why I'm still listening to their music and bothering to write a lot about it over 25 years later.



Evidently this song was replaced by "Wolves, Lower" at the behest of the record label. I've always liked it, even if it probably isn't up to the level of the album. The drum pattern at the start is very Joy Division.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

The Weaponization of Cynicism

Donald Trump has been a major figure in American public life since the 1980s, and from the beginning he was the avatar of the complete cynicism that had overtaken the country in the Reagan years. Trump received accolades and wealth all while behaving like a completely amoral asshole. Despite his multiple bankruptcies millions of American workers tuned in to watch him fire people on television, gloating in schadenfreude. His victory in 2016 affirmed that he is the true representation of a country where consumerism and the almighty dollar have become the dominant religions.

Trump well knows that the worship of materialism and egotism creates a mentality whereby actually believing in something makes you a loser or a sucker. Whenever Trump is confronted with wrongdoing, or seemingly painted into a corner by his own stupidity, he relies on the cynicism of his audience.

Take this week, when he justified his abandonment of the Kurds to ethnic cleansing by saying that they were "no angels." The implication was that people who think anyone in the world is innocent and people who believe in altruism are dopes. The implicit statement is "The world is shit and everyone is guilty so who cares if anyone gets hurt as long as we benefit." It also reminded me of when he was confronted with Putin's brutality. Trump retorted by saying "we have killers too." His message there was essentially the same.

It is sadly an effective message because the vast majority of Americans, even those on the left side of the spectrum, are deeply cynical. Whenever anyone expresses shock at the latest atrocity, someone on social media will immediately respond and say "How is anyone actually surprised by this?" This response devalues human emotion and replaces it with an insufferable know-it-all ironic distance.

I have been limiting my exposure to Twitter because it is so drenched in the knowing cynicism eating away at society. Even people I agree with have so carefully crafted a persona where they are constantly above it all, always showing the world just how smart they are for saying "of course" whenever something bad happens.

I have resolved to be corny, to drop the knowing cynicism. I do not think positive social change is possible if we cannot give our whole hearts and souls over to a cause, rather than reserving some of our emotion for the sake of maintaining the cynical pose. Trump and his minions thrive on the cynicism of their supporters. They need the Bible thumpers who support a mammon worshipper, the isolationists who get behind sending troops to Saudi Arabia, the decriers of government waste who turn the other way when the president makes the government pay him to vacation at his properties. We need to oppose that cynicism with care.

The only way forward is to model a politics based on full-hearted emotional engagement and the willingness to actually believe in something. If we don't actually commit to those beliefs, we will always be at the mercy of the cynics.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Newest Episode of Old Dad's Records

Episode 44 of my podcast Old Dad's Records just dropped this week. I let life get in the way of recording a new episode, then let the dread of my bad feelings about that procrastination bother me a little too much.

In this episode I start by talking about Bruce Springsteen's "Tunnel of Love," a perfect autumn song and one of the Boss's most underrated. After that I dig out Tom Waits' Heartattack and Vine from my record pile. In the process you will learn a lot about my days as a visiting assistant professor in Michigan, as well as the sad recent death of my friend Bill. I end with a rave for The Downstrokes, a punk rock band I got to see live in New York City. (The bassist also happens to be a friend.)

I'm pretty proud of this episode, I think my skills as a raconteur are improving. It only took 44 episodes!

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Warren Zevon, "Lawyers, Guns, and Money"

Each day brings more revelations in the Ukraine scandal, a trickle turning into a flood. If I was a TV news producer I'd have set music to introduce segments on the issue. The song I would choose? "Lawyers, Guns, and Money" by Warren Zevon.

It's catchy and the heavy, repetitive riff would draw the audience in. Of course, the subject matter is just perfect. It's a song written from the perspective of a feckless elite American abroad, possibly a member of the intelligence community. His playboy lifestyle keeps getting him in trouble, which means he needs to call his "dad" to send in "lawyers, guns, and money" to save him. It's the ultimate parody of the typical stupid elite failson. I first started digging this song in the Bush II administration, for obvious reasons.

Watching the news today is surreal. I want to laugh, but I can't because the stakes are just too damn high. It all feels like a Le Carre novel if it was adapted into a film by the Coen brothers. Le Carre is brilliant in how he presents the pompous ineptitude of secret agents, and the Coens are the poets of the day to day mediocre stupidity and venality in American life. It's serious business, but it makes me feel a little better to mock the people responsible for it with a little Warren Zevon.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

On Being A Lone Protestor

Caring enough about local zoning laws to waste my Monday night in a public meeting probably means I'm a kook

Since the beginning of the Trump presidency I have been thirsting to get involved in political action. I call and write elected officials almost every week. I have attended all kinds of protests, from the "People's Motorcade" at Trump's golf course in Bedminster to multiple events at ICE facilities in Hudson County to anti-gun violence protests in Newark to a candlelit vigil in my hometown for the victims of police violence.

Something inside of me can't rest unless I feel like I am meeting my obligation to combat the horrible situation we find ourselves in. This has driven me to put myself out on a limb all alone. Back in the early days of the Trump presidency he was going to drive down the interstate in a motorcade to Bedminster. This was in the midst of the threat to the Affordable Care Act, and I'd heard there was a protest about it where people would line the overpasses on Trump's route and hold signs to show the level of opposition. 

This interstate isn't far from from home, but once I arrived I realized that I was the only person there. (You can read the fully story here.) A cop stopped to see what I was doing, a couple of people honked. Later one person joined me. I wondered if people below could see my sign. It was a chilly night, with the cold wind whipping my face. In the town I live in people are pretty big on being progressive and resisting Trump, but I was the only person who bothered to show up.

I had a similar feeling last night when I went to a local zoning board meeting. I've recently become committed to the gospel of YIMBYism, meaning I want the local government to support inclusive zoning, more density, and more walkability in order to lower housing costs and create opportunities for a more racially and economically diverse town. I went to the meeting to speak in favor of a proposed multiunit development. There would be eleven apartments located at a major intersection, right across the street from another apartment building.

When it came time for the public to comment, I was the only person there to speak in favor of it, which was tough with everyone else's eyes on me. I also had to go first, meaning that the people who were against got to attack my arguments without a chance for me to respond. Those opposed basically argued that housing opportunities should be limited and having housing costs for others driven up was good because the people there would reap the reward of their home's inflated resale value. (Of course, they claimed that the developers were the greedy ones.) As you could guess, the zoning board did not give a variance to the proposed development.

It was a bit of a gut punch, mostly because I was there alone. I've started a local YIMBY group on Facebook and I had hoped at least one other person would come along. Nope, it was just me, looking like an idiot for believing in a lost cause.

I don't say this to get on my moral high horse, by the way. The fact that I was there alone means I was doing something wrong. Perhaps moving to the suburbs was a mistake. Maybe I suck at organizing. Maybe this is the adult version of me eating alone at lunch in high school, too maladjusted and dorky to be able to relate to other people. Maybe the problem is that my caring too much about this stuff is less about being morally righteous and more about being a kooky misfit. 

The thing is, I can't help myself, because I cannot do otherwise. I am only hoping this means I'm willing to do the right thing, not that I'm just a hopeless case. 

Saturday, October 5, 2019

The Damned, "New Rose"

Last week I had the good fortune to see my friend Greg's band The Downstrokes perform at the Bowery Electric. The club is just a block north of where CBGBs used to be, and continues its spirit. Down in the basement a bunch of bands played hard, fast and loud.

Since then I have been revisiting the first wave of punk rock, music that had first energized me in my teen years. All the grunge bands I loved referred to this stuff as an influence, and the first time I popped Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols into the tape deck of my 1992 Mazda Protege I fell in love. This music was so much more vital, energizing, and just plain electrifying than anything I was hearing in the early 90s.

Around that time Rhino put out a series of compilations on early punk, and I played the one on the first wave of UK punk almost to death. This was where I first learned of X Ray Spex, Wire, and The Damned.

The latter were the first UK punk band to release a single and an album. That first single, "New Rose," was about the phenomenon of punk rock itself. The "rose" of the title is not a new girlfriend, but the new punk rock sound. It's about falling in love with this new music, and that swooning, intoxicating feeling of a new infatuation. (Appropriately enough, the Downstrokes' latest album is called Fall In Love With Punk Rock Again.)

That first wave of punk felt less like a new music and more like a new religion. The young and hungry Savonarolas had burst into the gilded palaces of 70s rock to smash the idols and erect a bonfire of the vanities to burn to the ground. It was such an exciting moment that there were people still chasing it in a bowery basement 43 years later. No song channels that feeling better than "New Rose."

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Remembering the "Malaise Speech" on Jimmy Carter's Birthday

Jimmy Carter turned 95 today, a minor miracle considering his recent bout with cancer. Growing up in the Reagan years (my first political memory was his inauguration) Carter was always played off as a joke, a typically embarrassing memento of the 70s like pet rocks and polyester pants. He gradually earned a lot of respect back for his post-presidential work, although this has not (with justification) changed the low ratings of his presidency.

I have always felt that Carter was not the kind of person suited for that job, although he is a brilliant person nonetheless. I guess I have felt a kind of kinship with him, in that his moral commitments made it hard to function in a job that required the abandonment of morality.

That tension probably came out the most in his supposed "malaise speech" in the summer of 1979. He gave the speech after a new spike in oil prices after the Iranian Revolution threatened a new bout of inflation after years of economic turmoil and energy crises. Carter went to Camp David for several days to meet with a variety of advisors, and the public anticipated the speech he was going to give.

Instead of offering a list of policy solutions, Carter gave a sermon. He spoke of the nation's "crisis of confidence" and how its inability to unite to make a collective sacrifice the underlying problem in American society. Like a typical sermon it started with an accusation of sin, pointing out how American society had become consumeristic and materialistic. He discussed the failures of Vietnam and the divisions wrought by the sixties. He then ended as many sermons do with a call for repentance and renewal.

As Robert Mattson's "What the Heck Are You Up to, Mr President" lays out, some people actually responded to the call issued by the speech. That good feeling was short-lived, since Carter then immediately fired his cabinet and asked for them to re-apply for their jobs. This move was meant to show his commitment to making big changes, but it came across as chaotic and desperate. A speech that could have been a risky shot to go beyond the usual political bromides now looked confused and inappropriate. Although he never used the word, Carter's message to the country would be dubbed "the malaise speech."

It deserves to be reconsidered. Presidents should probably not be delivering sermons, we expect them to deliver solutions. But torn from that context the speech seems remarkably prescient. Carter was getting at the "fault lines" that Kruse and Zelizer made the focal point of their history of recent America. He also understood the moral hazard of consumerist society, and how it rots community. We are living now forty years later with those trends having continued unabated in an atomized society where people are killing themselves and dying of drug overdoses so often that life expectancy is going down.

Carter's opponent in 1980 did not critique the consumerist mentality, he embraced it. Reagan asked "are you better off than you were four years ago?" It's a crass-sounding question that perfectly fit the new values matrix. Carter talked about the need to conserve and make sacrifices, Reagan said we didn't have to. Carter questioned America's human rights abuses in its foreign policy, Reagan told the nation they had nothing to be ashamed of.

The "malaise speech" is a prophecy, and for years after Carter was a prophet without honor in his own land. Today he has become a kind of avuncular mascot, but on his birthday I want to remember the Jeremiah who issued a challenge that the nation has failed to pick up to its detriment. As the seas boil and the country comes apart, that challenge is more important than ever.