Monday, June 27, 2016

A Jersey Shore Playlist

Clip from a doc about the Shore from the 90s, during the Shore's scuzzier days

Tomorrow I'm heading off to the Jersey Shore with my family, including my parents, who are in town this week. I am relishing turning my parents on to the magic place that is the Jersey shore, a place that makes me inexplicably happy. As a child of the Great Plains, nothing consoles my soul like wide vistas, whether they be the ocean or the broad expanses of the prairies. But on the Shore I also get a sea breeze, cool water, and the carnival atmosphere of the boardwalk. I have assimilated myself to New Jersey in so many ways, and not just out of the need to make peace with the fact that this is the place I have chosen to settle down. I do love so much about this wrongly maligned place, and the Shore is near the top of the list.

Driving down to the Shore is an experience in itself. There's the beauty of the Parkway once you cross the Perth Amboy bridge and the industrial grit gives way to trees that become increasingly pinier and more foreign as you keep moving south. There's also the anticipation of soon being able to bask in a summer that is more summer. (It's the only way I can explain the Shore this time of year.) Key to relishing that anticipation is a good soundtrack. Here's some of my favorite Shore songs.

Bruce Springsteen, "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
Okay, I am going to get the obvious pick out of the way first. Not only is The Boss from Jersey, he cut his teeth as a musician in Asbury Park, a shore city that had fallen on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. When you go there, you immediately understand his early sensibility. It is a ragtag place with a few monuments to its faded glory, a visible symbol of the realities beneath the shining, false propaganda of the American Dream, perhaps Springsteen's most potent theme. This song is the most direct one of his about The Shore, describing bands playing at the Casino (not a gambling casino, btw) on Asbury Park's boardwalk. It is an unjustly forgotten song of longing from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, perhaps his most Shore-centric album. (His previous record may have been called Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, but more of the songs seem to be about New York City.)

Tom Waits, "Jersey Girl"

Tom Waits has different modes, from the weirdo street poet to the cracked bluesman, to the wacko mad scientist of odd sounds. It's easy to forget his skills as a balladeer, and this song is probably his greatest ballad. It's about falling in love with a Jersey girl, something both he and I did in real life. It expresses so well the feelings of newfound love, the ecstasy that almost seems too good to be true, along with the anguish about being separated from the person that makes you so happy. The key line for our purposes here is how he expresses the ecstasy "Down the Shore everything's all right/Just you and your baby on a Saturday night."

Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'"

Don't judge me. On the Shore some things have never gone out of style, and that includes the big hair and big music of the 1980s. Folks there sorta decided around 1989 that they liked things how they were and were not too keen on changing it all that much. This song, as cheesy as it is, represents the kind of chance romantic meeting between two lost people that the Shore was made for. Also it doesn't hurt that it's associated so strongly with The Sopranos.

The Drifters, "Under The Boardwalk"

Wildwood, New Jersey, had its heyday as a Shore town in the 1950s and early 60s, when folks could motor on over from Philly for some fun in the sun. The amazing number of tacky mid-century motels in the town are called "doo-wop architecture," in honor of the music that dominated the Shore at the time. The Drifters sang the ultimate song about romance on the beach, about making out under the boardwalk. It's been covered many times, but nothing beats the original.

The Shirelles, "Dedicated To The One I Love"

And of course, some of the great vocal R&B music being played on the boardwalks during the Shore's boom times came from right within the Garden State. The mighty Shirelles hailed from Passaic, and pioneered the "girl group" sound well before Phil Spector came around. There's the boardwalk and all that on the Shore, but sometimes it's good just to relax and let the beauty of the ocean wash over you, just as these harmonies do.

Bruce Springsteen, "I'm A Rocker"

Okay, I just couldn't help myself with a second helping of The Boss. This is not one of his more famous songs, but just you see if you can find a better one to blast from your car as you shoot down the Garden State Parkway into the heart of summer on the Shore.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, "The Fever"

Not all of the Shore musicians got as famous as Springsteen, but many still cut some great tracks mining the same shaft of rocking riffs mixed with old-school R&B grooves. It's a sound that fits the Shore's imperative to dance and let the good times roll. I still want to see Southside Johnny play a show.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Age Of Resentment

I rarely tweet anything that more than two people retweet, so I was glad to see a bigger group of people respond to this tweet:
I was referring to the now deceased historian's four books on modern world history, The Age of Revolution, The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire, and The Age of Extremes. Broad based synthesizing histories are not in vogue anymore, but I love them for their sweeping scopes and big ideas. I was being a bit flippant, but I do think that resentment is currently an overwhelming force in world affairs.

That resentment has expressed itself in nationalist terms. Putin has harnessed the resentment over Russia's fall from superpower status to burnish his authority and invade Georgia and the Ukraine. Dating to Sarah Palin in 2008, America's hard right wing has put all of its money on the resentment-fueled "take our country back" meme, culminating in the rise of Trump. And a slim majority of British voters opted to leave the EU in a campaign driven by fear of immigrants and promises of restored national prestige.

How to explain these resentments? One response is what I call the "blame it on neoliberalism" school. They see Trump and Brexit as reactions by the economically dispossessed who relish the opportunity to smack down the elites. I find that this explanation has limited power. In the first place, the arguments for Brexit were made in explicitly neoliberal terms: less money being redistributed and fewer regulations will make the economy grow!  Just because a group of people is economically hurting, that doesn't mean that its political choices are all a direct response to that fact. That's a fallacy that a lot of people are falling into, partially due to their own life experiences. It always makes me chuckle when bougie Vassar grads lecture others for "punching down" on the Archie Bunker types. Coming from a lower-middle class background in rural red state America, I can tell you that a lot of these people are just narrow minded bigots, pure and simple. There is no great mystery to solve there, especially when white supremacy gets threatened.

It would be terribly short-sighted, of course, to just blame the Age of Resentment exclusively on racial fear, even if it is a key element. What appears to be happening is that larger resentments brought on by the forty year contraction of the middle class in the wake of neoliberal globalization are being channeled towards nationalism, which is inherently populist. This has happened in large part due to the weakness of the left. In Europe, the old social democratic and socialist parties have been in retreat. In France, with Francois Hollande in power, the socialists have been forced to compromise.  Across Latin America left-oriented governments have fallen, as in Argentina and Brazil, or are in serious trouble, as in Venezuela and Bolivia. In America the radical left has become so intertwined with academia that the people who claim to be pushing for popular revolution are incapable of making a political statement devoid of grad student jargon. That'll get the working class fired up!

With the left unable to properly harness resentment (partially due to the siren call of white supremacy), the radical right has had a field day. Anger and resentment at globalization is not being directed at multinational corporations, but at immigrants. As far as America is concerned, the Occupy Movement and the Sanders campaign certainly show the presence of left wing populism, but both tend to skew towards the young and the more educated, and both have had problems with attracting people of color. The right wing variety is much more robust, and it has a secret weapon in its media presence. In Britain, the Sun and other tabloids gushed out geysers of misinformation. In America talk radio and Fox News not only reach millions, but they crucially influence their outlooks. I still remember a relative one day who started railing about how "America is a republic, not a democracy," then realized they had been watching Glenn Beck.

What I would like to see coming out of this is a left self-critical enough to understand its shortcomings. I see so much leftist vitriol directed at liberals, for instance, without any analysis of why leftist ideas are not gaining traction. I see so many Bernie supporters wailing about a "rigged" system rather than thinking long and hard about how and why they could attract more voters of color. There is a lot of resentment out there, and it runs especially high in the white working and middle classes of this country, where it feeds on the power and attraction of nationalism and white supremacy. Combatting it will require a lot of hard work, as well as some political hard-nosedness. No more beautiful losers. No more elevating a single person in messianic status. No more blaming the right whenever the left fails. No more empty self-righteousness. In this Age of Resentment, it is time to put away childish things, and it is time to roll up our sleeves and give the fight of our lives. The loss will not be a noble defeat, it will be unthinkable.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Track of the Week: Ace Frehley, "New York Groove"

In 1978 Kiss was riding on top of the world. Their mix of catchy hard rock, shock horror/sci-fi tropes, theatricality, and clown makeup was like a tactical pop cultural ICBM aimed right at the sweet spot of suburban 70s adolescence. Late in 1978, perhaps consumed by hubris, each member of the band put out their own solo record simultaneously. If they had done a double album with each member getting a side it may have worked, but not too many people were going to plop down full price to hear a Peter Criss solo album.

While Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley have always been the core creative force of the band, the best song to come from those records by far was Ace Frehley's "New York Groove." In fact, I think I like it better than any of Kiss's songs. It has a glam rock stomp that betrays its origins: the song was originally performed by minor Brit glam band Hello in 1975. Frehley himself was the product of the Bronx, and he gives the song a bit more of the local swagger. It's skanky rhythm and funky feel instantly put me in the mind of New York City in the late 70s: a place simultaneously collapsing and acting as a cultural supernova. I'm not sure if I would have liked living there, but its contradictions and the amazing things it produced still fascinate me.

I hear in this song a kind of New York that's now been practically gentrified out of existence. "New York Groove" personifies the city as a swaggering street hustler with drugs and a roll of bills in his pockets and a bulge in his pants just living for today. A more accurate song today would personify the city as a financial analyst getting some cash from a Bank of America ATM and walking to get a cold brew at Starbucks while checking stock prices on his smartphone. I heard the song this week at a Mets game. The team broke a losing streak, and as fans filtered out of the stadium, the PA played "New York Groove," an almost perfect choice. New York doesn't have the same groove today, but this song still does.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Brexit And The Post Post-Cold War World

Things have changed since the days of the Marshall Plan

I know I am repeating myself, but it is a point that bears repeating: we are experiencing a worldwide resurgence of nationalism and the nation state and are now effectively living in a post post-Cold War world. This development frightens me, because a similar spike in nationalism, which came amidst the explosion of the global economy in the period from the 1850s to the 1910s, led two horrific world wars. It wasn't until the 1990s that the level of global trade returned to 1913 levels.

Evidence of this shift is everywhere, from Putin's invasion of Ukraine on nationalist grounds to China's invocation of nationalism to Donald Trump's appeals to ethno-nationalism to new nationalist governments in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Tomorrow the people of the United Kingdom are voting on whether to stay in the European Union, and right now the vote looks very close. While there is a tiny pro-Brexit left, most of the push is motivated by nationalists drawing on fears of immigration and the effects of multiculturalism. (The EU can be criticized on many legitimate grounds, but it is nationalism first and foremost that is driving this.)

This is a remarkable turnaround of events. The 1991 Maastricht Treaty, which turned the European Community into the European Union, was hailed in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall as the sign of a new, peaceful Europe free from the specter of war. Of course, the wars in the Balkans raging already in 1991 proved such hopes were overstated, and were perhaps a more accurate harbinger of the future than Maastricht.

There is no doubt that the EU has failed immensely in the last quarter century. It failed to meaningfully intervene in the Yugoslav wars. It overextended the euro, putting countries like Greece onto the currency that had no business being there, harming the Eurozone economy and making it difficult for Greece to recover due to it not having any control over its own monetary policy. The EU's organization itself is maddeningly bureaucratic, often undemocratic, and almost impossible to understand. When I taught a class on postwar Europe I didn't even bother trying to explain it to my students because I actually wanted them to be interested in their education.

So yes, there are reasons to want to change the EU, and I think it is in dire need of rethinking. However, the response in Britain (specifically England) has been motivated by notions of national sovereignty, rather than any desire to improve the EU or any real interest in its goals. So for me it is not the backlash against the EU that unnerves me, it's the nature of that backlash. Nationalism was responsible for a tremendous amount of bloodshed in the 20th century, including murderous campaigns blamed on communism that were actually part of larger projects of nation building. (I am thinking here especially of Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. Putin and Xi are just new players in an old and continuing nationalist narrative.) Not all nationalism ends in the concentration camp and bloody battlefield, but it is usually accompanied by narrowed minds and marginalization of the "other."

The European project originated out of a need, after the cataclysm of 1914-1945, to use economic integration as a way ensure peaceful coexistence. In that respect, it has been a massive success, so successful that so many are forgetting the fragility of that success. After World War I, the architects of the post-Versailles world system thought it would be permanent and were confident in its success. By 1933, it was already practically extinct, torn apart by nationalist demagogues and worldwide economic decline. Does that sound familiar to anybody? We are entering a new phase in world history, time will tell just what that means.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Last Night Is Why I Love Sports

In the internet age cultural tastes have become much more segmented and tribalistic. There is a misbegotten notion, for instance, that sports fandom and nerdom do not intersect. (When otherwise intelligent people like Chris Hardwick preach this line I get irritated.) All kinds of snarky folks use the term "sportsball" online as a sign of their contempt. And hey, they're welcome not to like sports.

It's just that according to the false lines we've drawn, I'm not SUPPOSED to like sports. I am on the left politically, literate, love sci-fi and comic books and am intimately acquainted with both the 20-sided die and the Dungeon Master's Guide. But I love sports, and have since I was a child.

And yes, I have soured on college sports, mostly because of the ways they exploit athletes and warp the missions of universities. And I am also the first person to call out pro sports franchises for making cities pay up for unnecessary new stadiums. I also condemn macho culture and rape culture and the ways that male athletes are allowed to get away with sexual violence. I hate how sports is often over-prioritized in many schools and communities.

But I still love sports, and last night illustrated exactly why. Game 7 of the NBA finals was among the best basketball games I have ever seen. The lead changed hands innumerable times and it all came down to the wire with the kind of drama that script writers could never create. (Sports never, ever seem right in the movies. The real-life magic is too spontaneous.) The two best teams with the two best players slugged it out, putting everything down there on the floor. It reminded me of the last rounds of the Thrilla in Manilla, two punch drunk champions giving it their all to the point that they seemed unable to go another minute. Watching that is unlike anything else.

In LeBron James I saw what I love still more about sports: seeing human excellence in action. There is nothing like watching a truly great athlete perform feats that seem impossible for others to do. Yes, it can lead to hero worship, but it can also inspire us to think about our own potential. I look at Lebron and I marvel that he and I are somehow members of the same species, that another fellow human can do what he does.

As last night also showed, sports fulfill an important community function. My advisor, when discussing the history of memory, always liked to say that "nations remember, but cities forget." I told him that he was wrong, because for many cities it is their sports teams that provide the glue of collective memory joining longtime residents with newcomers. Cleveland's identity was partially wrapped up in its identity of futility in sports. Last night's victory may not bring back the steel mills, but it does give people there a memory that they will be celebrating probably for decades.

I remember onetime being in a friend's basement watching a game, and we were in agony over our team blowing their leading. One of my friend's spouses asked why we watched sports if we didn't enjoy it. I kind of saw her point, and wondered if I was the member of some kind of religious cult. Last night, however, reminded me of the joy that sports can bring. Despite all of the things that need fixing in the world of sports, I know I will keep coming back.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

On My Thousandth Post

This right here is post number one thousand of "Notes From The Ironbound."  At moments like this, I do have to stop and think about just what the hell I am doing with my life.

I get between 5,000 and 8,000 views a month here, which actually isn't all that much. In the age of Twitter, blogging has become incredibly passe, especially a blog as unprofessional looking as this one with a weird title. Some days I wonder if I am just a pathetic relic of the oughts, a sort of internet Disco Stu. I'd like to get my stuff published in more notable places, but so far that's been going nowhere. I have resolved this summer to try to submit more pitches. Considering the barrage of godawful hot takes on the internet, I can't imagine how they can turn me down.

Hitting this milestone has me thinking about how I first started. This was not my first blog. I started right after the 2004 election, mostly to process what had just happened. I also used to send my friends extended rants over email, and decided that a blog would be a better platform for them. My first blog had the awfully unwieldy name "Fugitive Streets/Jackal Tombs," which I changed to the catchier "I Used To Be Disgusted Now I Try To Be Amused." That blog had a measure of success, but I had to kill it 2011.  A former coworker who had stabbed me in the back had previously been trusted with the knowledge that I was writing an anonymous blog that contained some pretty inflammatory opinions about academia and my own workplace. After my nightmare experience at my old job I needed to speak my mind without my former colleagues coming at me. One nasty comment on this blog makes me think that one of them found me, but I've deleted that post and brushed it off.

These facts make my continued blogging even more puzzling. Why keep going with something that hardly anyone reads and could be used against me? I think it comes down to the fact that I love to write about music, current events, culture, and history, and that I am not good enough, interesting enough, or connected enough to get published by others on a consistent basis. (I am very lucky to count the much more successful Chauncey DeVega as a friend, and he has given me many helpful signal boosts.) This blog is my turf. I can write and publish whatever the hell I want, and even if few people read it, I still get to derive a great deal of pleasure from the experience.

I really appreciate the fact that based on the comments and Twitter, I have some loyal readers. Thanks guys, it's good not to feel like I am just shouting into the void. I hope you stick around.

And while I am going to keep my current writing pace for this blog, this summer I think I really need to push myself out of the very cozy comfort zone I've established here, as Chauncey and others have urged me to do. If anyone can give me advice in the comments on how to do that, please let me know.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd, Meddle

When people talk about the great Pink Floyd albums, they'll mention Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall, those two staples of classic rock radio, Those with an appreciation of the band's Syd Barrett incarnation will talk about Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Wish You Here will get some attention, especially from the more serious fans, and there will always be some overly-intense young men who will name Animals as their favorite.

Rarely will you hear talk of Meddle, the album Floyd put out in 1971 that bridged the gap between their psychedelic years and the arena-ready sounds of Dark Side. Those who know Meddle know its power, however. I was not surprised years ago to read in an interview that Johnny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead, counts it among his favorites. This is an album of moods more than songs.

The one real rawk song is the first, the sinister "One Of These Days." It begins with the sounds of howling wind, and then an overpowering bass riff unlike anything on a rock record to that point. I hear this song as Pink Floyd throwing down the gauntlet and announcing a new beginning, much like the Stones' similarly up-tempo "Jumpin' Jack Flash."  The song sounds like a horde of horsemen sweeping across a wind-blasted plain out for blood, a feeling confirmed by the only words, spoken through a voice distorting modulator: "One of these days I'm going to cut you into little pieces"

"One Of These Days" grabs the listener's attention with its brute force, but the rest of the album is decidedly mellower as it segues into the appropriately named "A Pillow Of Winds." The tone is set by David Gilmore's gentle slide guitar, and million miles from the slash and burn we've just heard. While this song is a nice little gem, the following song, "Fearless," is one of my all time favorites. Just today I was bumming around Central Park, killing time before my school's graduation while I listened to this song as a cool summer breeze blew through the trees. The song and experience were a perfect, serene combination. Whenever I hear this song I feel calmed, uplifted.

I'm not the only person who loves it. In Everybody Wants Some, his most recent film, Richard Linklater devotes a whole scene to the characters listening to the song while smoking up and listening to the resident pothead philosopher's enthusiastic promotion of it. It's also an interesting example of Floyd bringing in outside noises into the studio, something that Dark Side would very successfully incorporate. The beginning and end use recordings of Liverpool soccer fans chanting "You'll Never Walk Alone," still sung today at Anfield stadium. The song gives real meaning to the lyrics; it's impossible to hear and think that you're alone in the universe.

And just to make things even less consistent, the next song "St Tropez," is a jazzy little number that sounds like something a 40s lounge band might've played. Again, it's less a song than a mood, one of detached decadence in the sun of the French Riviera. Refusing to stick to a theme, the last song on side one is "Seamus, " a joke song. It features David Gilmore playing Delta blues slide guitar over the sound of his dog Seamus howling and moaning. As a song it's not all the great, but on the record in contributes to the surreal feeling established elsewhere. There's an intimacy here, as well as the rest of side one, which has made this album a favorite of mine to play as I lay down to go to sleep.

Pink Floyd developed a reputation for concept albums later in their career, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any hard and fast concepts on the first side of Meddle. Side two has a very simple concept: an album-side length song: "Echoes." It starts with the crystalline sound of piano keys that ping like sonar or a faint signal from a distant star. Those pings come in throughout the song, which has few words and a lot of musical interplay. It's a song I love getting lost in for awhile. When I listen to all twenty-three minutes of it and clear out other distractions I feel greatly refreshed by the time it ends. Unlike a lot of other prog rock of the day the musicianship does not over power the song or kill the mood with excessive showiness. The feeling is the most important thing in this song.

The feeling that this whole album gives me is why I keep coming back. It is a feeling of comfort and belonging. In a day to day existence that is full of too much work and stress, these songs reveal the secret veins of the universe, the deep rivers of meaning beneath all of this material garbage. If you need 45 minutes to transport yourself off of this vulgar plane into a world of beauty and mystery, then look no farther than Meddle.