Monday, January 16, 2017

What I Saw At The Rally

Yesterday there were several rallies held across the country to call for the preservation of the Affordable Care Act. The rally in Warren, Michigan, featuring Bernie Sanders got the most attention, but plenty of folks, like yours truly, attended other less grandiose rallies. Mine was held at the main ballroom of the Robert Treat Hotel in downtown Newark.

The east side of downtown Newark was quiet as always on a Sunday morning, but when we tentatively stepped through the doors of the building, I was immediately hit with a wall of body heat and a cacophony of voices. The inside of the building was ALIVE. There were people circulating petitions and assembling lists of attendees and generally a flurry of activity. I knew right away that this is something that I had been missing in my life, having last engaged in protest in a major way back in my grad school days.

And yes, the rally started half an hour late, and we had to corral our impatient daughters and eventually had to leave early to get them some lunch. But despite that, I really felt something good deep inside of me. It just felt good to occupy a space with people as concerned as I am about the future, and united in the desire to stop the Trump administration and its Congressional flunkies. I think it helped that this rally was organized primarily by unions. In my experience, union-organized events bring in a more diverse group of people, both in terms of class and race. The moral posturing and intellectual bullshit so prevalent in so many activist circles isn't here. Union people get to the point. Perhaps this is just my own social class prejudices showing, but when I am surrounded by people wearing SEIU shirts and Teamsters jackets I feel much more comfortable than at any protest that involves a drum circle or human microphone.

This event was also interesting in that it showed Democrats that their base is not so restive anymore. Senator Robert Menendez was one of the speakers, and there were several people there holding signs criticizing him for his vote against a Sanders-supported law that would open up importation of cheaper Canadian drugs. There was also plenty of booing when he came to speak. Those there to criticize him eventually relented, and he ended up giving a very fiery speech on the need to preserve the Affordable Care Act. Many speakers, including my former Representative, Albio Sires, openly stated, to the crowd's approval, that health care is a right. I fervently hope that out of the disaster that awaits us that bold statements like that will be Democratic Party's official position, and that those words be made into a reality.

That is something that people will fight for. I think what I saw yesterday was a sleeping giant awaking. A lot of the energy in the room had been directed last year towards the election, now it was freed of support for any one person. This is something that makes me very happy, partly because it should make the leadership of the Democratic party a little scared. At this rally I saw people who are enthusiastic about fighting back, and ready to put themselves out there. At one point I almost started crying, because it was the first time since November 9 that I have felt even a shred of hope for the future. If you are dreading the coming Trumpist nightmare, I beg you to get involved, if not for the good of the country, then at least for the health of your soul.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Billboard Top Ten January 13, 1973

We are currently embroiled in the biggest political scandal since Watergate. Richard Nixon's inauguration after being re-elected by a landslide in November was overshadowed by the Washington Post's stories about the break-in at the Watergate Hotel and potential cover-up. Similarly, Donald Trump will be taking office under suspicion that his campaign colluded with Russia. I wanted to do another top ten list, and figured this week forty four years ago was appropriate. Now, on with the countdown!

10. The Four Tops, "The Keeper Of The Castle"

By this point in the 1970s the Tops were far away from their Motown heyday, but still managing some hits. Their Holland-Dozier-Holland produced sound practically defined Motown, and they pushed a bunch of great pop songs off the assembly line as efficiently as Ford and Chevrolet. When Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles in 1972, echoing corporate America's growing abandonment of that city, the Tops stayed, and were picked up by ABC records. The wah-wah guitar intro was reminiscent of a blaxploitation movie of the time, but the lyrics are part of a genre you could call "patriarchal soul." Levi Stubbs sings not as the wounded lover as he once did, but as a solid family man. Their other big hit of the time, "Ain't No Woman Like The One I've Got" sounded a similar theme.

9. Elton John, "Crocodile Rock"

1972-1973 saw a huge nostalgia wave for original rock and roll (as opposed to rock.) Chuck Berry and Elvis would both be back on the charts, with "My Ding-a-Ling" and "Burning Love," respectively. 1973 was also the year that American Graffiti came out. Coming right at the end of the war in Vietnam and as the protest movements of the 1960s were fading, it reflected the usual fatuous longing for a supposedly innocent time that was anything but. "Crocodile Rock" is maybe the best of the nostalgia songs because it is self-aware, commenting on the silliness and simplicity of fifties music.

8. Curtis Mayfield, "Superfly"

Blaxploitation cinema created a lot of great soundtrack music, but Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack for Superfly was the best, in my opinion. He acts as a kind of Greek chorus, observing and commenting on the main character's drug dealing ways, neither celebrating or condemning someone who's "just trying to get over." The music just exudes cool, and Mayfield's falsetto was never used to greater effect.

7. Johnny Rivers, "Rockin' Pneumonia And The Boogie Woogie Flu"

Here's yet another nostalgia song, this one from perhaps the most significant hitmaker of the 1960s to be forgotten today. Rivers was known as "the king of the covers," which probably hurt his reputation as artists were more and more expected to perform original material. This song at least is copying the spirit of old rock and roll rather than trying to imitate its sound. A rollicking good time.

6. Loggins and Messina, "Your Mama Don't Dance"

And here we with yet another rock and roll nostalgia tune. This time was just sick with duos (Seals and Croft, Zager and Evans, etc.) but Loggins and Messina were the most paradoxical. Messina was of the past, Loggins the future. Messina had been in seminal sixties band Buffalo Springfield and in country rockers Poco, while Loggins would go on to pioneer yacht rock then later rule the world of 80s movie soundtracks. This song sounds like none of that, with a pronounced backbeat and yakety sax. It sounds like something a roadhouse band might jam on, but it's a little too self-consciously nostalgic to really work.

5. Donna Fargo, "Funny Face"

In the 1970s country music began crossing over to the pop charts. Fargo's got twang in her voice and there are faint echoes of the honky tonk in the piano. Later on, the slide guitar sidles right on in. As a country song it's pretty mediocre, but maybe that's why it was able to cross over so easily. A harbinger of bad things to come.

4. Gilbert O'Sullivan, "Clair"

This twee singer from across the pond was never as popular stateside as in the Commonwealth. The song is evidently dedicated to a little girl, but at least it's not creepy. The bounce is reminiscent of the Beatles, but the accompaniment is not all that interesting. O'Sullivan does at least give it his usual sheen of resigned melancholy. I miss the depressing undertones pop music used to have before it all became about partying.

3. Billy Paul, "Me And Mrs Jones"

This has got to be, without a doubt, the best song about adultery ever to make the top ten. Paul has such a tenderness in his voice, the emotion just drips out of the grooves of this record. I've always found his spiraling lead into the chorus to be one of the most beautiful things on oldies radio. The backing music has that impeccably lush yet not overdone quality that Philadelphia International made a trademark in the 1970s. Reflecting the sexual revolution, the listener feels sympathy with the singer's anguish, and the cuckolded husband does not make an appearance.

2. Stevie Wonder, "Superstition"

This is probably my favorite Stevie Wonder hit, and it comes from my favorite Stevie Wonder album, Talking Book. Its mood of darkness and warning fits so well for the age of Watergate. It's easy to forget that darkness, however, since this song is so wonderfully funky. Wonder has the groove absolutely locked in, and the horns are disarmingly tight and sound like a million dollars. The mood of confusion he describes also fit with the slow demise of the sixties social movements and counterculture, when many of its members drifted into communes and cults. Today I take this song as a warning against that kind of drift.

1. Carly Simon, "You're So Vain"

Well, this is just about the perfect #1 for a countdown list inspired by the impending ascension of Cheeto Mussolini. This is surely one of the best kiss-offs to hit the top ten, both due to the mystery of who its subject could be and due to the arch putdown of the hook: "you probably think this song is about you." It certainly fit with the growth of women's liberation movements in the early 1970s, as Simon is showing a former lover just how much his male arrogance underestimated her abilities. I've always liked this song because I always like hearing an asshole get his due. Here's hoping the next four years is full of that.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Why Professors Are The New Target For The Authoritarian Nationalists

Don't call them conservatives. Don't call them populists. Call them what they are: authoritarian nationalists.

With the embrace of Trumpism the Republican party has fully become a nationalist party as much as Alternative for Germany or The National Front. They have melded their preexisting free-marketeering more fully onto a nationalist message, evidenced this week by new bills in the state legislatures of Missouri and Iowa to strip tenure from professors there. The politician pushing the bill in Missouri has called tenure "un-American."

Academia is one of the few institutions in this country where the left has any level of real power. And the right, as I have been at labored pains to point out, sees themselves as the "real America" that must eradicate all "un-American" elements from society. They cast a wide net. They want immigrants deported, Muslims banned, African Americans terrorized by killer cops, gays in the closet, and trans people invisible. The professors who promote points of view that contradict this must have their power broken and to live in fear, and that is exactly what these nationalists want. They want loyal, obedient subjects with enough technical knowledge to run the machines and perform their jobs, but too stupid and ignorant to be able or willing to criticize the system that dominates them.

In former times they justified these anti-academic policies via cost cutting and efficiency. "Why are we offering arts majors when we need more coders?" Now they have crossed the line into wanting those oppose them crushed directly rather than indirectly. Without tenure there are going to be mass, wholesale firings as entire departments are scrapped, and any individual professor who teaches classes on race, class, or gender will be targeted by some dipshit in the state legislature. We will have the perfect intersection of austerity and nationalism. The states want to slash non-technical education anyway, now they can have the icing on the cake by destroying the careers of left intellectuals.

In other nations where authoritarian nationalists have come to power, intellectuals and academia have never failed to be a big target. It's time for academics who've been in the lifeboats as their adjunct brethren drown around them to wake the fuck up.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

I'm Sorry We Let You Down, Mr President

In January of 2009 we thought the war was over, when it had just begun

I am planning on watching president Obama's farewell speech tonight and am feeling very melancholy. It pains me to see such a warm, intelligent, thoughtful person hand over the office of the president to a boorish bigot whose ascension represents the death throes of American democracy. It also feels weird because I have been very connected to this president, since well before he held the office.

Back in 1999-2000 I worked as a library clerk for the University of Chicago's law library. I knew "Professor Obama" as the guy who was in the state legislature and had written a memoir I saw displayed at Powell's. Once or twice I'd seen his face as he came to the desk to check out books (usually we just delivered them to the professors' offices.) I was living in downstate Illinois in 2004, when he ran for the Senate and impressed the crowd at the DNC with his speech. He was the first politician to have their name on the bumper of my car. I had been drawn to him by his forceful opposition to the invasion of Iraq at a time when most Democrats had been cowards.

When he won the presidency in 2008 I was living in rural East Texas. I was out at a bar with some friends, In this reddest of red areas there was one TV with the election returns on mute in the corner, and when we started whooping and hollering, it was obvious from the hard stares that my friends and I were getting that we were going to need to watch Obama's acceptance speech at their house. I should have taken that as a sign of things to come, but didn't see it in the moment.

Sure, I thought all the "post-racial" America hype was a load of horseshit, but seeing the massive crowds on inauguration day made me think that the thirty year conservative wave had been broken on the rocks of a new progressive movement. My naivete became obvious in February of 2009, when Mitch McConnell, Rush Limbaugh, and others basically made it known that they were going to go into massive resistance mode.

In the end, they won. President Obama has been very quiet since the election, and I sincerely believe that he has a broken heart. He has to cede to White House to a man whose political career began with a racist conspiracy theory attack on him. I am sure he feels some amount of responsibility for the Democrats' failure in the last election. He thought Clinton was going to win, and so sat on the intelligence revelations that are now coming out so as to avoid having our electoral system being called into question. I can see the heartbreak over this in his eyes.

It hurts even more knowing that we who voted for him let him down. This does not mean that I think the president has been above criticism. He was too generous to Republicans on the stimulus and in general his first year. His use of drones is highly questionable. He should have gone for broke on health care. He did not do enough to use the organization he had built in the 2008 election to keep his voters active etc etc.

But....on that last point, it takes two to tango. We who voted for him can criticize Obama for all manners of things, but we need to acknowledge that we let him down. Did I go out and knock on doors in 2010 or 2014? Was I writing my representatives with the fervor that I am now? Were my friends calling Congress and circulating action plans when the public option was on the board the way they are fighting Trump's appointments now?  Nope.

I know what we did do. We placed unreasonable expectations on him. We watched as he dealt with unprecedented levels of disrespect and opposition and complained about what he didn't get done. We saw those massive crowds on inauguration day and got complacent. As my wife said to me tonight, we thought that being right was enough, and we were wrong. When the Republicans blocked his Supreme Court nomination we should have been in the streets. Instead, we were on Twitter.

Those of us who voted for him learned our lesson too late. I'm sorry we let you down, Mr. President.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Fairport Convention, "Sir Patrick Spens" (BBC sessions version)

We are now into my least favorite part of the calendar year. The holidays are over, and now there are no happy distractions from the oppression of winter's cold and dark. I almost always fall into a mental depression and get physically ill this time of year. I got spoiled by my three winters living in Texas, and have had a hard time with them in Jersey. While the weather is not as extreme as it is in my Nebraska homeland, the effect it has on my commute can be soul-destroying. There's nothing like spending an hour in Penn Station crushed cheek to cheek with other irate commuters waiting for a train that will be even more crowded. Snow also means shoveling, now that I'm a home owner, and there's nothing like ending a hard day of working and commuting with having to shovel my much too long driveway.

I try to warm myself however I can, from hot chocolate to dark beer to bourbon to lamb stew (made a big pot last week) to the right music. I lived two very very long winters in Michigan, which happened to coincide with my exploration into folk music. (This was assisted by the amazing music collection at the Grand Rapids Public Library.) I find it well-suited to the winter months, especially English folk music. 

Fairport Convention are one of my favorites, due to the combination of Sandy Denny's gorgeous voice, Richard Thompson's impeccable guitar playing, and Dave Mattacks' impressionistic drumming. I tend to like their originals best, but there's a special spot in my heart for "Sir Patrick Spens," an old Scottish folk song about a doomed ship. It's the tale of the Scottish king asking Sir Patrick Spens to sail a ship for him, even though Sir Patrick doesn't think he's up for the task. The ship sinks, and Sir Patrick assumes he's been manipulated by an "enemy" to going to his death. I love the way that Mattacks' drums roll like the waves of the sea on this song. It's also good to hear that all the way back in medieval times capricious bosses were setting their subordinates up for failure.

I like the BBC sessions version of this song from the Live At The BBC album best, since it has a rawness to it that I think all good folk music should have.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Top Ten Best Britpop Albums

(Is this a listicle? Well, I was writing listicles before content aggregators were, so sue me.)

Last night I started watching the new Oasis documentary and I was floored by how old everything looked. It was kinda depressing, since Britpop was my favorite music in college. I had been jamming to Suede my senior year of high school, and then picked up Definitely Maybe, Parklife, and Elastica's debut album in my first year of college (1994-1995). American "alternative" music was looking pretty bleak after the death of Kurt Cobain, and the likes of Bush and Silverchair were rushing to cash in. The Britpop bands were fun, catchy, and more sophisticated. It was a short-lived period, roughly 1994 to 1997, which also coincided with my college years. Anyway, here are ten albums that I think managed to stand the test of time.

10. Elastica, Elastica

Elastica were a one album wonder, but it's a great album. Lead singer Justine Frischmann brought a punky brashness and the band also sprinkled in elements of early New Wave. Sex was front and center in a frank and real way. Songs like "Stutter" talked about a boyfriend's impotence, "Vaseline" about well, you know. Like rock in general, Britpop was a male dominated field, but some woman fronted bands like Elastica, Echobelly, and Sleeper made their mark.

9. Oasis, Definitely Maybe

Oasis were the biggest band in Britain in this era on the strength of their catchy songs and don't-give-a-toss attitude. While the songs were catchy, the lyrics could be godawful. According to the new Oasis documentary, Noel Gallagher wrote the lyrics to "Supersonic" in the time it took for his bandmates to eat some Chinese takeout. I don't doubt it. The song has a great power to it, despite being slightly turgid with just dumbass lyrics. Liam Gallagher's punky John Lennon voice helps pull these songs off. Some of them, like "Cigarettes and Alcohol," make Oasis sound like the greatest bar band in the world. (That's a compliment.)

8. Suede, Suede

This 1993 record along with Blur's Modern Life Is Rubbish are the real kick off of Britpop. I saw the video for "Metal Mickey" on 120 Minutes and ran out to buy it immediately and it quickly became my soundtrack to that summer. Unlike the other groups, Suede were highly influenced by glam and engaged in gender bending and flirted with gay imagery (especially on "Drowners.") Lead singer Brett Anderson brought the androgyny and guitarist Bernard Butler just shredded in a creative way that seemed to have disappeared from the heavy riffing on alternative music. This record also has some range. "She's Not Dead" is the greatest Smiths song the Smiths never wrote. "See You In The Next Life" is a haunting ballad. It's a shame Butler left the band after this, they never recovered.

7. Pulp, His N Hers

Jarvis Cocker had been kicking around the Sheffield music scene for years before his band Pulp finally hit the big time in the mid-90s. They were not a typical Britpop band, in that their songs were not usually based on guitar riffs, and because the lyrics were perhaps the most important component. The music was reminiscent of 80s New Wave, but in an updated way that sounded fresh. Like Elastica, Pulp talked pretty frankly about sex and relationships in a way that was totally foreign to what American bands were doing at the time. The smart ones, like Pavement, tended to avoid love altogether and shroud everything in irony. There is perhaps no song about young love and sex more frighteningly real and awkward than "Babies," and that's only the tip of the iceberg on this album.

6. Blur, Parklife

This in many ways is the curtain-raising album to the whole Britpop thing. Instead of imitating the grunge blasting out of Seattle, Blur made a conscious decision to Anglicize their approach a la The Kinks. That was obvious from the packaging of the album, which featured racing dogs on the cover and the back, which was stylized like a racing form. I mean they had a song called "Bank Holiday," fer cryin' out loud! I was most struck by how they had rehabilitated the 80s in their music, from the synth touches on "London Loves" to the New Wave style of "Girls and Boys." The title song, with Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels providing Cockney narration, may well be the most British thing ever created.

5. Blur, Blur

1997's self-titled album, however, was a statement by Blur that they were not going to be confined by the strictures of Britpop. This album was clearly inspired by what was happening in the indie scene in America, especially the great blast of noise that was "Song 2." This was quite a surprise after the uber-Englishness of their previous outing. Along with Radiohead, by 1997 Blur had figured out that the old Britpop fields would no longer yield such a great musical crop, and began looking to reach out. Oasis, on the other hand, would fall flat on their collective arse with Be Here Now, a wet fart of a record.

4. Radiohead, The Bends

In this century Radiohead would become the bards of our fractured, uncertain world. Radiohead had first hit in 1993 with "Creep," which nailed the sweet spot of 90s grungy teen angst. The Bends was much more mature, Johnny Greenwood's guitar especially dynamic on songs like "My Iron Lung." "Fake Plastic Trees" foresaw the more adventurous musical direction was about to take as well as a focus on the daily uneasiness of modern existence.

3. Oasis, What's The Story Morning Glory

Yes, Oasis were a bunch of caveman blokes making straight-ahead meat and potatoes rock, but damn if they didn't make a perfect example of how good that music could be. Noel Gallagher may have lifted some rifts and melodies, but he had exquisite taste in which ones to choose. And despite all the bash and boom this album produced "Wonderwall," one of the best ballads of the 90s, and "Champagne Supernova," one of the great all time late night inebriated sing along tunes. The lyrics are perhaps even stupider than on the previous album, but the songs are so good you barely notice.

2. The Verve, Urban Hymns

The owl of Minerva flies at dusk. This is perhaps the last great Britpop record, coming in the autumn of 1997. The Verve had always been good, but much spacier and less poppy in their approach. On this album their cool sound finally gelled with some really strong songs from Richard Ashcroft, who looked like he was forged in a Britpop rockstar lab by a mad scientist. This album also happens to be the soundtrack to my life in the autumn of 1997, a very tumultuous time when I experienced love for the first time, a lot of drama within my circle of friends, and saw a couple of people very close to me go into some mental health troubles. ("The Drugs Don't Work" will always bring me to tears for this reason.) "Bittersweet Symphony" will last for ages.

1. Pulp, Different Class

Back in 1995 all the talk in the British music press was over Blur versus Oasis, and in the midst of it, Pulp beat 'em both. This is Jarvis Cocker's masterpiece. There are few love songs as genuinely affecting as "Something Changed." "Sorted Out For E's and Whizz" is a hilariously real description of a rave gone wrong. "Disco 2000" embodies the intersection of unrequited love, memory, and regret in ways that still makes my soul clench whenever I hear it. Most importantly, "Common People" summarized the working class attitude to affluent hipster poseurs perfectly, apparently predicting how common they would become in the next two decades. If this music doesn't move you then you have no heart.

The best British album from this period, Radiohead's OK Computer, is not on this list, since that album went well beyond the world of Britpop into something far less traditional and far stranger. A lot of folks who liked The Bends were flummoxed by it, but it soon became clear that Radiohead were operating on a totally different plane of existence. Straight-ahead melodic rock was nice, but this was an album that broke new ground and summed up the feelings of pre-millennial anxiety, a taste of the far less sunny decades to come.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Into The Fire

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made wretched nightmare by this son of Queens

In a little over two weeks, Donald J Trump will be the next president of the United States, and I fear that we don't stand a chance. In conversations I've had with those who voted for Trump, both online and in person, they simply do not have any concerns or reservations about what this man has done or anything he is about to do. In most cases they are people who want their version of America to triumph, and that's a version where gays are in the closet, immigrants deported, bosses control their workers, people of color are invisible, and women are in the kitchen. If Trump has to break a few laws and break a few heads for that to happen, they simply do not care.

Just think of all the violations we have already seen -by Trump and by his allies- that have failed to move these people. Republicans blocked the president from nominating a Supreme Court justice in an unprecedented breach of the Constitution that would have caused a crisis in an ordinary year. Republicans in North Carolina have a attempted a Reconstruction-era coup. Trump did not release his tax returns. What we know of his taxes shows that he does not pay them. He openly bragged about groping women. He mocked a reporter's disability. He insulted the parents of a soldier who died for this country. He insulted the service of a man who spent years in a POW camp. He received support from the hacking of a foreign government opposed to the United States, has praised that nation's dictator, and has now taken steps to kneecap America's own intelligence apparatus. He has appointed the editor of a white nationalist rag to a new advisor position previously unheard of. He has failed to give a press conference since July, preferring to use Twitter as a platform to kvetch, insult, and threaten. On Twitter he has made alarming statements about nuclear weapons.

None of these actions has swayed his supporters, because they have been fighting a low-grade civil war in this country for decades, and are convinced that an autocrat will finally give them the victory they crave.

So where are those who can check Trump's power, and call him to account? The news media has been servile, giving him credit for the Carrier deal and the House Republicans' retreat from scrapping independent oversight of Congressional ethics, even though he was not responsible. And those are the "liberal" outlets like the New York Times. With Fox News and Breitbart, Trump has a massive propaganda operation backing him. The Democratic opposition is typically pathetic. Bernie Sanders, the supposed champion of the left, greeted the election by talking about how he could work with Trump. Schumer has been playing the backroom buddy game. The left generally has been divided and disorganized. Time, money, and effort was put into a doomed recount campaign headed by the charlatan Jill Stein but supported by gullible liberals. So-called radicals have been downplaying the significance of the Russia hack and Trump's response to it, seeing it as yet another opportunity to chide liberals rather than to actually do anything constructive. Liberals have had a tendency to run around like chickens with their heads cut off. The united nationalist front behind Trump, which is drooling over itself at the thought of smiting the left and erasing its influence, will be the anvil on which progressives are smashed by the Trump hammer.

I don't like being such a downer, but if Trump's opponents remain this divided and disorganized, and the media continues to play into his hands, we are really and truly fucked. In two weeks we are headed into the fire.