Sunday, August 30, 2015

Track of the Week: Jefferson Starship "Miracles"

As I mentioned last week, I'm about to turn 40, and am picking some tracks of the week based on their proximity to when I was born in 1975.  I looked up the album charts and found out that Jefferson Starship's Red Octopus, which can readily be found for a buck or two today at innumerable used record stores, was #1 the week I was born.

Jefferson Starship are certainly of their time, a band forgotten and lesser known than the one from the 1960s it came out of (Jefferson Airplane) and the one it morphed into during the 1980s (Starship.)  In that respect Jefferson Starship is the perfect representative of the forgotten years of a much maligned decade.  The band included Airplane stalwarts Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, and Marty Balin rejoined for Red Octopus.  His smoother, more melodic stylings are in evidence on "Miracles" which has strings and an chiming electric piano that sounds straight out of a fern bedecked singles bar circa 1975.  This is a long, long way from the psychedelic rock of the Jefferson Airplane, and perhaps symbolic of what had happened to the spirit of the 60s.

The song has a whole tone of world-weariness about it, and Balin gives the line "If only you believed like I believe we'd get by" a real wistful sadness.  It perhaps tells the spiritual story of the band, which went from talking about revolution on songs like "Volunteers" in 1969 to crafting softsational smooth music in 1975 to being responsible for insanely cheesy fare like "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now." (Listening to Starship is akin to watching bad movies for the cheese contact high, the pop cultural equivalent of sniffing glue.)  In between the band would also craft some passable arena rock in the late 70s, going from a trendsetter to a savvy trend exploiter.  (They also appeared on the Star Wars Holiday Special, speaking of pop cultural glue sniffing.)

As I've been mentioning on here recently, the mid-1970s are the true heart of that decade's malaise, containing the triple shock of Watergate, the fall of Saigon, and the oil crisis and resulting recession.  "Miracles" is perfect malaise music, a harbinger of a specific genre of music I like to call "downer easy listening" or "Quaalude rock."  While this genre would find it's perfection in Gerry Rafferty's "Baker Street," Jefferson Starship can get some credit for capturing the Zeigeist a few years earlier.

Friday, August 28, 2015

It's Okay To Like What You Like

Don't be this guy

I've always been wary of subcultures, because they seem so limiting.  When I was a teenager I loved punk rock and devoured books about it, but was never a punk.  I didn't pierce anything, I didn't spike my hair, and I didn't go pogoing at all ages shows.  I also loved the sixties counterculture, watched the Woodstock documentary in awe, and listened to psychedelic music and read boatloads of Hunter S Thompson, but I was never a hippie.  In college and grad school I marched and stood on picket lines for various causes, but I was never an activist.  While I knew some punks, hippies, and activists, entree into that world seemed to require a uniform, both physical and mental.

This used to confuse me, I began to think that I just wasn't cool enough to be one of them.  Once I graduated from college, I matured a little and realized that my tastes and thoughts were too broad to be jammed into a limited framework.  Instead of hating all popular music because that was the punk thing to do, I admitted that I actually liked ABBA and disco and Frank Sinatra.  (A book called The Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll by Chuck Eddy helped me find this path, since he got as much meaning out of disco and Italian teen pop as others did out of the Velvet Underground.)  I still remember meeting a self-professed punk in grad school who said he didn't like Joy Division's second album because he wouldn't listen to anything with synthesizers on it and I thought "there but for the grace of God go I."

These days things are going in the other direction, where the modern cultural Puritans love to point out how much they enjoy cheesy Top 40 music.  It is a kind of faux populism that says "despite my graduate degree from a private college I am down with the people because I like Beyonce."  Hey, there's absolutely nothing wrong with liking Beyonce, but Jesus Lord don't make it into some kind of political crusade.  It's okay to like what you like because that's what you like.  You don't need to justify your love of Fury Road by doing a feminist analysis of it, or feel deficient because you just enjoy it as a well-crafted action movie.

This new pop cultural moment feeds into frankly idiotic binaries that less sophisticated cultural consumers like to enforce.  All of the overblown snark directed at Jonathan Franzen, for instance, has nothing to do with his actual writing, and is more a statement with identifying with a certain leftist cultural mindset.  I find it all so ridiculous.  I think The Corrections and Freedom are great novels, and I really don't care if he is a prickly curmudgeon in real life.  I just. don't. care.  People act as if he is the first prominent writer to be a difficult crank.  And hey, even though I like those Franzen novels, I still think Zadie Smith is great.  I can appreciate Joseph Conrad and Chinua Achebe, even while accepting Achebe's critique of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  I love Dickens and Catcher in the Rye too, even though Salinger thought of Holden Caulfield as the anti-David Copperfield.  I enjoy genre fiction like Carl Hiaasen novels but also like to pick up difficult, thick stuff like David Foster Wallace.  These false binaries are less politicized in film and television, but we still have them.  Star Wars versus Star Trek, Marvel versus DC, etc., who the hell cares?  Isn't it better to like them all or none of them at our own leisure?

I should also say it's okay to not like what you don't like.  Don't like young adult fiction because it's emotionally simplistic? (This is one of my peeves.)  Fine!  You're not a snob.  Don't like Breaking Bad because of the level of violence? Fine! You don't have to like violent stuff to be cool.  Don't like Birdman because it's too stagey?  Fine!  That's a reasonable critique even if I don't agree with it.  Think Thomas Pynchon's novels are overblown and too showy?  Fine! That doesn't make you unsophisticated.  That guy who wouldn't listen to anything with synthesizers?  That seems rather limiting to me, but if he doesn't like them, he doesn't like them, and that's his loss.

See how easy that was?  Trust me, life gets a lot easier when you let your tastes roam free without any need for explanation and justification, and when you stop trying to be an evangelist for your own particular cultural denomination.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

I Was a Teenage Doors Fan

I was driving around running errands the other day while listening to WFMU, and Scott Williams' fine show was on.  In the middle of some obscure art rock he threw in "Not To Touch The Earth," one of The Doors' real far-out songs.  He mentioned he was happy not see any negative comments about that selection on the website, because he was expecting flack for playing The Doors, whose appreciation has fallen off a bit.  I hadn't heard the song in years, and had forgotten how much I'd liked it back in high school.

Back then, especially in 9th and 10th grade, I was a complete and obsessive Doors fan.  I read No One Here Gets Out Alive, the tell-all biography of Jim Morrison by Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugarman, multiple times.  This is something I am a little embarrassed about today.  The Doors put out some good music, but my obsession went far beyond what was necessary.  They are a group that seems to inspire this madness, especially from teenage boys.  (Hence the great Kids in the Hall sketch posted above.)  Looking back on it, it was hilarious that a kid like me could see Jim Morrison as a model.  Unlike the Lizard King, I didn't wear leather pants, go around shirtless, drink or do drugs.  I had zero interest in the occult, and couldn't get a date.  I wore jorts and oversized eyewear.

My interest made sense in the context of the early 1990s.  It was the early spring of 1991, and the Oliver Stone biopic of Morrison and the band was coming out.  This was right before the onset of Nirvana and grunge, when contemporary popular rock music was just utter shit.  (Living in rural Nebraska I didn't have access to the good stuff underground.)  Perhaps because of the film the local hits station, which still allowed a commendable level of DJ freedom, started playing "Break On Through" in rotation.  The song just blew me away, it was miles ahead of Poison and Motley Crue.  I went to my local Musicland at the mall to get some of their music, but noticed that since their greatest hits comp was two discs, it cost over twenty bucks.  I started looking for something else, and noticed that their self-titled debut had "Break on Through" on it, as well as "Light My Fire," the only songs of the band I knew, and for the much more acceptable price of $14.99.  (Goddam Musicland was expensive back in the early days of CDs.)

I brought it home, and was instantly and utterly blown away.  Perhaps from my time in church I had developed a love of the organ (which I still have), but I had never heard it sound so dark and ethereal.  Morrison was not some screeching hair metal dude, but kinda crooned out his poetic lyrics.  (And yes, I though stuff like "Day destroys the night/ Night divides the day" was supremely profound.)  Sitting there listening to it, I noticed that length of the last track, "The End," was over eleven minutes long.  I'd never heard of such a thing before, and that song in particular was something completely new to me.  Yes, some of the lyrics are overblown, but damn if it does not evoke a mysterious mood, in the religious sense.

My school's spring break was the next day, and my family was going to go down to the Ozarks for a few days.  In preparation I dubbed the album onto to tape so I could listen to it in my walkman, but didn't have any time to dub something on the other side.  I purposely brought my boom box with me so I could rewind the tape and listen to it over and over and over and over again.  That tape also had a personal touch to it, since while I was dubbing it my mom put some clothes in my dresser, knocking my first generation CD player off track, causing one of the lines in "The Crystal Ship" to repeat.  Even today I expect to hear that glitch when I listen to the song.

The group never equaled that first album, and I always consider it a massive stroke of luck that when I went in to buy a Doors album, I chose the perfect one almost by complete accident.  Today I might cringe at how I tried to write poetry that imitated Jim Morrison, or that I covered my high school notebooks in doodles of The Doors' logo.  Then again, they were my gateway into both classic rock and psychedelia.  And because Morrison liked Nietzsche and Baudelaire, I sought those authors out and gained a lot from the experience.  As corny as it sounds, I also felt like I wasn't alone in the world as a death-obsessed kid with poetic ambitions and a love of the mystic.  There was probably no time in my life as lonely as my freshman year of high school, and it was music that helped pull me through, as it did so many other times afterward.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Are The Democrats Going To Blow It (Again)?

I had a good exchange on Twitter with Gerry Canavan this morning about the Hillary Clinton email kerfuffle that's got me thinking about the next election from the Democrats' point of view.  It's been easy not to, with the whole GOP circus happening and all the attention of Trump.  I am beginning to think that the Democrats are quite possibly headed for some major problems.

This is usually what happens after the Democrats are in a good position.  They take such a passive approach to politics, and often just seem to sit back and hope for the best when the climate appears to benefit them.  Right now they are probably thinking "The Republicans are being such troglodytes on immigration that we'll automatically get a big Latino vote and therefore are assured of victory."  That's the kind of passive thinking that lost them a Senate seat in Massachusetts (of all places) to Scott Brown, and which has contributed to midterm shellackings in 1994, 2002, 2010, and 2014.  Winning midterms requires getting the vote out, and the Dems try to hard to appease donors and corporate interests that their base has little motivation to come out.  When the president is elected the stakes are too high to ignore, but that again is the Democratic party trusting that conditions and political climate will carry them forward.

When it comes to this year's presidential race, Democrats and others have just assumed that Clinton is going to win it all.  The email scandal around Clinton has not been taken too seriously on the left, most likely because all of the many, many fake Clinton "scandals" over the years.  Those were bullshit, so why not this one?  I am beginning to think, though, that Clinton did something that could result in an indictment, even if her malfeasance was rather minor.  It might not be jail worthy or anything, but it could certainly make it difficult for her to win with a legal cloud over her head.  I don't know enough about the accusations to know how this will turn out, but I think there is a significant risk that it could be bad, a risk that the Democrats simply can't afford.

In years past this might not have been an issue, because traditionally Democrats have not just nominated the obvious candidate and have always had a big (sometimes too big) slate of candidates.  This year, the roles are reversed.  The Republicans have a wide range of candidates contending, and the Democrats are just hoping to nominate the obvious successor.  What happens if that doesn't work out?

Right now the alternatives are Sanders, who is much too far to the left to have a chance in the general election, and O'Malley, who has zero name recognition and whose support of mass incarceration alienates much of the base.  Biden is thinking of jumping in, but it is very rare for siting vice presidents to win (George HW Bush was an exception, not the rule), and he has too long been -justified or not- the butt of jokes to be taken seriously by many Americans.

Even more worrisome, there does not appear to be a "bench."  It should be noted that Clinton is 68, Sanders is 73, and Biden is 72.  This is telling.  The Democrats elevated Barack Obama, but since then have not managed to sustain a new generation of national politicians.  Much of this is the fault of their inability to win in the midterms, meaning that "blue" states like Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, and Wisconsin now have conservative governors, effectively cutting off their farm system (to use a baseball metaphor.)  If you look to the big states, Jerry Brown of California is too old, and Andrew Cuomo would be selling cars in Massapequa if his father wasn't Mario Cuomo.  Deval Patrick now works for Bain Capital.  The Dems do have some promising younger pols, but they are either too young or too uninterested in the big time.  (I am thinking Julian Castro for the former and Kristen Gillibrand for the latter.)  Elizabeth Warren, the one real new star in the Senate, is (tellingly) 66, and appears to be sitting this one out.  I'd give her my vote over anyone (including Sanders, who I will have more to say about later), but it looks like I'll never have the chance.

The Democrats have benefitted wildly from the ideological extremism of the Republican party.  Their professions of hatred against immigrants have shielded them from criticism on deportation.  Attempts by conservatives to suppress the votes of African Americans have motivated black voters while the Democratic party has done little to help them.  Walker and others have made unions the enemy, so union members then vote for a party whose president supports free trade.  Teachers are being made into a target by conservatives nationwide, and so they vote for the party of Rahm Emmanuel and other ruthless education "reformers."  The Todd Aikens of the world say horrible things about women's health, leaving Democrats off the hook for actually having to push for new initiatives.  The Democratic leadership still cozies up to corporate interests, but has maintained its base because the alternative is too much to bear for them.  While this has worked somewhat in the short term, in the long term it has robbed them of a slate of interesting candidates and of any sense that they ought to be actively trying to win, rather than passively letting events play themselves out.

So yes, I will continue to vent my spleen about a Republican party that has become a mere vehicle for the extremist beliefs of an ideological movement.  That does not and should not absolve Democrats from their sins.  Get off your asses and fight, for crying out loud.  The rot is already setting in.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Track of the Week: The Isley Brothers "Fight The Power"

[Editor's Note: In two weeks I am turning 40.  In honor of that momentous and depressing occasion, my next few tracks of the week will be taken from the charts around the time I was born in 1975.]

I got into history and historical thinking at way too early an age, when I was still in elementary school.  I think even as a ten year old I was interested to know what important historical events had happened on my birthday, and what was going on in the world on the day that I was born.  That interest has dovetailed with my obsession with music, and a desire to know what songs were hits when I first entered the world.  A lot of time has passed in my life now, and the world I was born into is pretty foreign to the one I am living in today.

Looking back to the charts in September of 1975, I am struck by the broad range of stuff in the top 20, from Bad Company to the Carpenters.  I was most surprised to see a political song by the Isley Brothers, "Fight The Power" lingering near the top of the heap in the weeks around my birth.  It has a very funky feel and very complex rhythm with some almost overbearing wah-wah bass that dates the song immediately to the mid-70s.  It lies on the cusp between funk and disco, which is only appropriate for an innovative band that made some of the best dance music of the sixties.  (The breadth and diversity of the Isley Brothers' output never ceases to amaze me.)

"Fight the Power"'s strong political nature and criticism of authority are also very striking.  (Public Enemy would quote this song in their own "Fight The Power.")  While the music is VERY 70s, the lyrics are reminiscent of the 60s.  The mid-70s, and 1975 in particular, were a kind of transitional period, when the social movements of the sixties and early seventies seemed played out, but the conservative tidal wave that would wash over the country in the late 70s had not yet coalesced.  Musically "Fight the Power" is pointing the way to the future and the sounds of disco and hip-hop, where rhythm would eclipse melody.  Lyrically, this song points to the past, and the great period of change and protest receding into the distance.  That makes it perhaps the most representative song on the charts in September of 1975, and one still worth listening to.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Endurance of Mid-Seventies Malaise Cinema

I can't totally account for it, but I have an abiding and all-consuming obsession with the culture of the mid-1970s.  Perhaps it's because I am fascinated by the world as it was when I was born into it, but I really do think the 1974-1976 time period was a unique turning point.  It coincided with three cataclysmic challenges to the American order: the end of the Vietnam War, Nixon's resignation, and economic instability that marked the end of the long post-war boom.  Understandably, these events led to films that reflected a sense of malaise and deep questioning of American society.  I happen to believe, despite recent revisionist thoughts to the contrary, that mid-70s cinema generated the best films about America, ones that really questioned this society before the era of blockbusters and Reagan washed it all away.  I think that these films endure because the questions they ask and the themes they explore are still with us.

I had a lot of these thoughts re-watching Nashville (the new Criterion version) last week.  Since I have been researching the mid-70s for a book project, that film's themes are even easier to trace.  It deals with the death of the dream of the 1960s, which has fallen into either wistful nostalgia (as in the Barbara Baxley character's sad lament about the Kennedys) or counter-cultural pleasure-seeking nihilism.  While third-party candidate Hal Phillip Walker (who you hear but never see) represents himself as a populist, his political henchmen are conniving and slimy.  Entertainers like Haven Hamilton sing treacly songs like "Keep A Goin'" that tell their working class listeners that they will escape misery if they just try hard enough, as if the game isn't rigged against them.  I could go on and on.  The film ends with a concert for Walker cut short by an assassination of one of the singers, and the startled crowd soon joins in the chorus of a song called "It Don't Worry Me."  In this film Robert Altman uses the city of Nashville, which proclaims its American-ness at every turn, as a symbol of a nation adrift and lying to itself.

Network is probably the only other film of the era to so completely critique American society writ large.  Decades before Fox News, it predicted the devolution of news programming into mere entertainment, and television audiences as easily manipulated.  In one of the most daring scenes in film history, the news anchor Howard Beale is treated to a mad sermon on capitalism by Ned Beatty's character, a reduction of the world into money that I am sure gave Reagan a boner when he first heard it.  (Beale's "mad as hell" monologue, which is an encapsulation of mid-70s malaise, is more famous, but not as good.)  I find it wonderfully insane that a major Hollywood studio once produced a scorch-earthed film that savaged both television and its audience, while containing a critique of corporate capitalism.  In 1976, in the midst of military defeat, economic decline, and Watergate, it probably didn't seem all that radical.

Although it's a period piece set in the late 1950s and early 20th century, The Godfather Part II is very much a product of the mid-70s malaise.  In the first film, for all of its gore and violence, you are kind of rooting for Michael Corleone as a man who is trying to protect his family even as he is losing his soul.  In the sequel, he's much less sympathetic.  He treats his wife poorly before she leaves him, and he has his brother killed.  Michael's story is juxtaposed with that of his father, and how he was able to make a way in America.  In this version of the tale of the American Dream, it is a quest that ends in soul destruction and even the destruction of the very family whose life was supposed to be secured in America.  It's also no mistake that the film portrays the Cuban Revolution and the imperial hubris of American mob bosses in that country, an obvious reference to America's adventure in Vietnam.

The first Godfather suggested a world where violent, shadowy men meet behind closed doors and plan all kinds of nefarious deeds, an image that would be even more powerful after the release of the Watergate tapes.  Watergate seemed to unleash a whole slate of paranoid films suggesting dark forces at work behind the scenes.  The lesser-known Parallax View suggests a cabal carrying out political assassinations and framing patsies. In The Conversation we follow a surveillance expert who finds himself the target of surveillance and who witnesses a horrific act undertaken by powerful elites, but also is unable to stop it or even keep himself from being watched. Also from 1974, Chinatown's noir mystery ends with the knowledge that powerful men behind the scenes commit unspeakable acts without ever being punished.  1973's Executive Action took that notion to its explicit extreme, and theorized a conspiracy to murder JFK.  After the revelations of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate tapes, it seemed downright foolish not to expect such nefarious deeds from the powerful.

Taxi Driver in 1976 may well have been the culmination of malaise cinema.  It presented a New York City full of crime, violence, and decay.  The main character is an alienated psychopath who almost assassinates a presidential candidate, one whose campaign is shown to be more concerned about rhetoric and grabbing power than actually improving anyone's life.  Travis Bickle is unable to carry out his deed, and instead "rescues" a teenage prostitute by carrying out a brutal triple killing.  That action turns a potential villain in the eyes of the public into a hero, but in either case he is a psychopath committing murder.  (It's also implied that Bickle is a Vietnam vet, and scarred by his experience.)  The film implies that our society could easily elevate someone like that into a hero.

As I am finding in my own research, in the midst of all this malaise, the public began to look for redemption.  Beyond its greatness as a film and its groundbreaking nature, when Star Wars came out in 1977 it directly hit that desire for uplift in a huge way.  That, I think, contributed mightily to the film's destruction of box office records.  I love it, but I also love those malaise films, which while they are a lot less fun, stick with me for deeper reasons.  Surveillance, the nefariousness of elites, America's loss of imperial prestige, economic decline, media manipulation, and political apathy are all quite relevant today.  Yes, I will be with the hordes seeing the new Star Wars flick, but when I want to contemplate the state of the nation, the malaise films are the ones I'll keep turning to.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Nationalism and the 14th Amendment

The diverse nation envisioned by Thomas Nast in the late 1860s after the passage of the 14th Amendment. Today's Republicans aren't in favor of it.

I wrote last week about how Donald Trump, like Ronald Reagan before him, has managed to harness the power of political nationalism, a force that Americans refuse to name, but which has had major effects on the political order throughout this country's history.  Predictably, now that Trump has shot to the front of the ranks by espousing nativism and ginning the dark forces of white racial resentment, the lesser lights competing against him have followed suit.

Scott Walker and Chris Christie, both corporate conservatives who appeal to the Koch brothers rather than the talk radio crowd, have questioned birthright citizenship.  In case you didn't know, that principle is enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, a document that conservatives love to use as a defense of their policies, whether it agrees with them or not.  That amendment is perhaps the most radical in the Constitution.  Unlike the original Bill of Rights, it was not derived from pre-existing traditions in English common law.  As radical as abolition of slavery was, by the time the 13th Amendment was passed, it was already a fact on the ground.  The 15th is very radical in granting universal male suffrage, regardless of color or race, but it is merely following in the spirit of the 14th.

The 14th Amendment essentially says that all people born in America are citizens (regardless of race or color,) and that their citizenship is universal and may not be violated.  By "universal" I mean that they maintain the same rights no matter what state that they live in.  Those who crow about "states rights" essentially want to have the power to violate the rights of people they don't like in the areas that they control.  Conservatives in many states have been fighting hard in recent years to do this, from strict voter ID laws to "show me your papers laws" to refusing to comply with the SCOTUS decision on gay marriage.  As we all should know, the 14th Amendment was not used to maintain universal citizenship after Reconstruction, when the imposition of Jim and Jane Crow was given the blessing of the Supreme Court.  It has only really held force, like the 15th Amendment, in the last fifty years or so, and has been the key factor in the victory of so many civil rights cases.

As it was originally constructed, the 14th Amendment's universal citizenship was a radical break from pre-Civil War America, and motivated by a kind of nationalism.  It was a progressive nationalism, one that gave all Americans, regardless to what state they lived in, equal citizenship.  The nationalism of the Republican party today could not be more different from the one that animated the likes of Lincoln, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner.  It is at base a racialized nationalism whereby whites are to maintain a privileged position with the help of the state.  (It is ironic that the party of Union has become the party of Confederate values.)  By ending birthright citizenship, the Republicans would effectively be creating different legal categories of people, some enfranchised, others not.  This certainly fits with their support of harsh voter ID laws and tendency to support state-level laws that keep former felons from ever voting again.

The fact that business-oriented conservatives like Christie and Walker are going down this road is a sign that Republican party is increasingly a vehicle for Herrenvolk nationalism, and is no longer bothering to hide it.  This strategy will either result in a victory too terrible to contemplate, or political suicide in a changing nation.