Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Old King Trump

Trump recalls an aged Henry VIII in my book

Perhaps because Hilary Clinton was very close in age to him, there has been precious little discussion of the fact that Donald Trump was the oldest president on the day of his inauguration in history. Considering that our last aged president, Ronald Reagan, seemed pretty senile in the last two years of presidency, you'd think we talk about this more. Trump's recent behavior signals to me that his age is having an impact on his performance, and it is something that his advisors and the Republican leadership are exploiting.

Now I want to be clear, I am not assuming that old age in itself makes someone unfit for high office. Konrad Adenauer became chancellor of West Germany at the age of 73 and served until he was 87, and today may well be the most admired political figure in that nation's history. I've known plenty of folks who were sharp as a tack into their 90s. But as we know from life, some people age faster than others. The mind is a muscle, and if you don't use it, it atrophies. In the case of Donald Trump, we are seeing the effects of neglect.

He has done quite a job in his recent political career of maintaining his old image as an energetic, virile man. Like everything else with him, it's a lie. His suits hide what his golf shirts can't: the man is very overweight. His lax working hours reveal something else: low energy. (Remember, his insults are usually projections.) At the end of last week it appeared that the rigors of the job were getting to him. On Friday he seemed to talk in a halting, feeble way. People have interpreted his unwillingness to shake hands with Merkel as petulance, but at that moment he looked a little lost to me.

Of course, he still has his moments of forcefulness, such as at his rally last night. But if you've ever actually watched one of his rallies he just kind of rants and rambles like a professor who should have retired five years ago. In his senile years Reagan could still get up and give a speech, that kind of thing was second nature to him. But away from his comfortable environments, he looked as lost as Trump did on Friday.

I think the Republicans have so far very deftly exploited this situation. Trump does not want to be a president, he wants to be king; he does not want to govern, he wants to rule. But like a king, he has no interest in the day to day grind of politics, that's for mere commoners. He said whatever bullshit he needed to say to working and middle class whites to get elected, but now that he's in office, he's outsourced the health care issue to the congressional Republicans, who have taken the opportunity to try to get their radical agenda pushed through. As old man Trump lounges in his throne, holds court at his winter palace, and thunders down his pronouncements on Twitter, the Republican party controls the actual legislative agenda. His feckless ministers and privy council are left to incompetently write the travel bans that the courts reject while the king, like all monarchs, is most concerned about his image. I would guarantee you that he has spent more time analyzing Sean Spicer's press briefings than he has reading intelligence reports.

Having old king Trump around is a godsend for the GOP. They signed a blood pact with him at the convention last year, but whenever anything goes bad, they can blame him, and not themselves. The myth that Trump is somehow apart from Republicans is an extremely useful one for the party, which must know that there's a good chance this thing will crash and burn. While he's still going, they get to exploit his populist aura and pretend they are not soulless servants of the wealthy. Old king Trump won't ever want to know the details, old king Trump won't ever get in the way of anything, since that would require effort. As long as Republicans remain loyal, old king Trump will be happy, even if he can't remember where is he is.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Thoughts On Visiting The LBJ Library

I'm at the end of a short spring break jaunt in Austin, Texas. It's been great to hang out with an old friend and do the kinds of things together other people might find lame, like exploring a historic cemetery and trolling for old country music records. Yesterday we went to the LBJ presidential library, which prompted a great deal of reflection on my part.

I've been to a lot of presidential libraries, and for the most part they are their to burnish the historical reputation of their subjects. I know that when the library was being built that Johnson himself wanted it to not shy away from mentioning things like Vietnam. The exhibits have been recently updated, so I have no way of judging what they used to be like. While there is a great deal of elision when it comes to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the museum was not simple hagiography.

As I looked at the exhibits, I could not help but contemplate the current occupant of the White House. The LBJ library shows well Johnson's commitment to the poor, and his desire to use the government as a mechanism to help the less fortunate. Exhibits touted accomplishments like Medicaid and Head Start, as well as non-poverty related initiatives like the NEA, NEH, and PBS. Everything was something that the current president and his gang of supporters wants to destroy. A great deal of space, as you would imagine, was devoted to the Voting Rights Act, passed in 1965. We are now living with a president who decries "illegal voters" and a Republican Party that has successfully rolled back many of the Voting Rights Act's provisions. Being confronted yesterday by all the things about to be destroyed by the current regime was profoundly depressing.

As greatly flawed as Johnson was in regards to Vietnam, his occasional foot-dragging on civil rights and his inability to make the recommendations of the Kerner Commission a reality, he used his power to do more good for common people in this country than any president since at least FDR. There's a clip of him at the end of his presidency on a film at the library, and he basically says that improving the lives of regular Americans was his primary goal, and that he wanted to be remembered for doing that, or at least trying. The party and the man in charge of this country today seem to have the opposite impulse. They want to punish the poor, enrich the wealthy, and disenfranchise voters. The modern day Democratic Party has failed in many ways, but its inability to get this very basic message across to the voters may have been its biggest one.

Beyond the fact that the current regime is poised to destroy what's left of the Great Society, I was particularly struck by the Oval Office exhibit, common to many presidential libraries. In that section there's an audio portion where Johnson is talking about the awesome responsibilities of the office, and how humbling they are. As far as I understand, this is something that all of the presidents in my lifetime, good or bad, took to heart. All except the current president. He has shown absolutely no sense of responsibility, no sense of public service, no sense of the possible negative consequences of his actions. Johnson agonized over escalating the war in Vietnam, while I imagine that Trump would not think twice about launching a nuke if the fancy struck him. If someone like Johnson could get America mired in Vietnam, I can't even imagine what someone like Trump is capable of doing. So far his incompetence has been our saving grace.

To keep my sanity while living in Trump's America, I have to wake up each morning and not contemplate the total, full, enormity of what I am living in. I tend to focus on little pieces of what's happening at a time. Yesterday I was confronted with the big picture again, and the fact that the full power and might of the American state is in the hands of a dangerous person driven by a bigoted, nationalistic ideology. I am fighting as best I can, but I am fighting with the understanding that things are going to get a whole lot worse, possibly in ways that we will never recover from in my lifetime.

Friday, March 17, 2017

X, "We're Desperate"

Last week I re-watched the original Decline and Fall of Western Civilization documentary about the early 1980s LA hardcore punk scene. It's an amazing cultural document of a subculture, one that we're lucky to have. I do have to say watching it made me cringe a bit.

For about three years in my teens (16-19) punk rock was the music that mattered most to me. It was the most real, the most primal, the most immediate. As a meek, good little Catholic altar boy, it also spoke directly to all of my buried anger and feelings of alienation. I was not a well-liked kid at school, but putting on a punk record made me feel like I was part of a secret fraternity of people a whole lot cooler than the jocks and burnouts who mocked me in turn. (Both of these types jump on a meek weirdo like sharks on chum.)

For a time my views on music got stupidly doctrinaire, and I was obsessed with authenticity, something I now find to be highly overrated. Anyway, because no club ever wanted me, I never became a punk. I didn't chop my hair at an odd angle or wear safety pins in my face. Because I lived in the middle of nowhere, there were no all ages shows to go to. Then as now I am very wary of subcultures, they remind me too much of religious zealotry. I remember hanging out with some goths in my Chicago days. They were nice people, but the efforts they put into being goth seemed ridiculously overwrought. So I listened to and loved punk, but never came close to being punk.

LA punk was cruder and even less musical than other forms of punk rock. It produced only two bands that I can still listen to and enjoy: Black Flag and X. In the documentary both come across as thoughtful, rather than just being droogs out to shock people for the hell of it. X is also interesting for not entirely following the punk formula. Guitarist Billy Zoom could actually play, and there's a touch of rockabilly in his riffs and solos. The lyrics of John Doe and Exene Cervenka could be shocking, but it was a deeper, more considered kind of shocking. "We're Desperate" is among my favorites by them. It's pretty self-explanatory: the narrators are desperate characters behind on the rent and one step ahead of the bill collector. It's the stop-start sound of living a life on the margins that's falling apart. Lesser punk bands would have turned it into a diatribe, X make it a kind of character study.

My favorite part about X, of course, were their vocals. Male-female vocal duets are not the first thing to spring to mind when anyone mentions punk rock, but here we have a kind of extremely twisted, gutter rat version of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton. A friend of mine one joked that they made "harm" not harmonies. Their voices clash, but it is a beautifully damaged clash. Punk rock's raw spontaneity was always its saving grace, even if I cringe now at much of the rest of it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Classic Music Videos: Genesis "Land Of Confusion"

I know this may sound a bit silly, but this music video was a key moment in my political awakening. In the late 1980s I was first beginning to be aware that all was not well in Reaganland. AIDS, the crack epidemic, and the Iran-Contra Affair were stories I was picking up from the news at the time. In 1987 I turned twelve years old, and around that time was beginning to develop a more independent understanding of the world. That's also the year that the video for "Land of Confusion" was in heavy rotation on MTV.

It came along as the same time as former Genesis frontman Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," another video that stretched the form. Whereas Gabriel used stop motion animation, Genesis relied on puppetry supplied by The Spitting Image, a satirical British show. I had no clue what that show was, but the grotesque puppets freaked me out a bit. All of these familiar faces, from Phil Collins to Reagan to Gorbachev to Thatcher, looked misshapen and distorted. It implied that I was living in a world ruled by fools and monsters. In a few years I would realize that my hunch, first sparked by this video, was correct.

More than anything, it portrays Reagan as ineffectual and ridiculous, a senile old man playing at being Superman. Beaming that into millions of homes in the heartland did more to damage his reputation than a whole army of liberal college professors. This image came out right when Reagan's senility was becoming more obvious. The late Reagan years really were a land of confusion, one with crumbling cities, rising violence, numerous scandals (Iran Contra, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, etc.) and a raging epidemic that had been ignored by a president who seemed increasingly distant and removed. In 1988 it would be revealed that Nancy Reagan had been relying on an astrologer for help in setting the president's schedule. It was a telling revelation.

The song itself is pretty straight-forward corporate rock, which Genesis pretty much perfected on their Invisible Touch album, a million miles away from the prog rock experimentation of their early years. It bore about as much relation to The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway as a tire iron does to a plate of sushi. The political sentiments of the song are outweighed by the music, which is a pretty clear example of Boomer compromise. Now, when I hear Phil Collins say "my generation will put it right" in this song I laugh and laugh and laugh. We're still living in a land of confusion, alright.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Can Republicans Hold Together On Health Care?

For the past few months it is the Democrats who have seemed in disarray, still litigating the primaries of 2016 instead of looking to the future, like a bunch of losers. However, the Republicans have had their first real attempt at passing new legislation turn into a shitshow faster than you can say Louie Gohmert.

The attempt to repeal the ACA has exposed the many fault lines in the conservative coalition. On the surface things looked united because Ryan's plan had the support of president Trump (I feel like I need to wash myself after writing that phrase.) However, the "freedom caucus" (snicker) was immediately upset because it was not cruel enough to the poor. The official plan reflects an understanding of the political reality that a lot of people who vote Republican would be better off in the status quo than a world with the ACA completely repealed. Ryan is trying to boot people off of health care while still convincing his voters that their new shit sandwich is actually freedom pastrami on personal choice rye. The ideologues like Cruz and Paul don't care about that, they want their right-wing Bolshevik revolution to be implemented at all costs.

This new proposal is also causing problems for the fascistic elements on the Right. Trump had told the white masses that their entitlements would be kept safe, a common gambit by populist nationalists. All members of the Herrenvolk were all supposed to be protected. However, the AHCA does no such thing, and fascist outlet Breitbart has flipped its lid. The ACHA is the proverbial compromise that makes nobody happy.

But will it nonetheless pass? With the party leadership and president behind it rebels have an uphill battle. That being said, the whole reason Ryan is the Speaker in the first place is due to a riot by Tea Party conservatives in the House. The Republican congress has been very good at unifying around defying a Democratic president, but completely inept at passing legislation. You know, the thing legislators are supposed to do.

Instead of breaking, I think the Republicans might do what they're best at, shitting on the opposition party and using their obstructionism to force an outcome to their liking. They could easily deprive the ACA of support by cutting the taxes on the wealthy that fund it, letting Medicaid and the exchanges collapse. They will then turn around and claim the Democrats did it because Obamacare was doomed from the start. Usually the party in power gets punished when things go to shit, but the current political moment is hardly typical.

What I hope happens, and doubt ever will, is that the Democrats seize the bull by the horns. Instead of defending the status quo, they need to be advocating for single payer, or at least a true universal health care system. At the very least, "health care is a human right" needs to be rallying cry. The Republicans will not defeated by simply standing aside and watching them turn into a shitshow. If 2016 taught us anything, it's that.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 6, Baker Street

I've just posted my sixth episode of my podcast. I had to take a week off due to a dire illness, and you can still hear me coughing in this episode. For the song I went with "Baker Street," one I have written about on this blog before. It is a song about moving somewhere looking for your big break and not finding it, something I can definitely relate to from my time in academia. It was a song that was a friend to me during a particularly dark night of my soul. I also discuss Rod Stewart's first album and why I live his early stuff so much, as well as contemporary band Vulfpeck.

Right now I am trying to figure out my upcoming lineup. My main issue is that I keep wondering whether the individual song I am choosing to lead off the episode is enough of a "hit" to qualify. In the future I might start getting less orthodox about the format.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Billboard Top Ten March 13, 1976

It’s been way too long since I’ve done a top ten list. I choose this week pretty much at random, and liked what I saw. I tend to see 1976 as a big turning point in popular music, one where disco and punk were coming in and upending everything. The wildly different songs on this list are evidence of how unsettled things were getting. And now, on with the countdown!

10. Larry Groce, “Junk Food Junkie”

In 1976 silly novelty songs could still find their way into the top ten. This is a jokey folk song about a hippie who professes to love health food, but who secretly eats junk food like a drug addict. In a lot of ways it's a sign of the times, the earnest counterculture losing sight of its values and personal freedom devolving into the pure pleasure principle.

9. Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, “Sweet Thing”

This right here is some smoooooooooth music. 1976 was the opening year of the Yacht Rock genre, and I think this song definitely qualifies to come on the boat. Chaka Khan’s vocal work in the 1970s is highly underrated, and really helps sail this melodic ship out to sea.

8. Nazareth, “Love Hurts”

This is one of those songs for me that’s defined by a movie, namely the scene in Dazed and Confused when the eighth graders are slow-dancing at their last junior high dance. One of the characters is about to have a romantic moment, but his buddies drag him away, the girl looking hurt. It echoes the song, and also how its over-emoting is more fit for the Sturm und Drang of middle school rather than the more controlled, cool adolescence demanded by high school, which the characters in the film are anxious to participate in.

7. Rhythm Heritage, “Theme From SWAT”

In case you didn’t believe me already, now you’ve got proof that 1976 was the year that disco truly broke. And nothing is more disco than a discoed up version of a 70s cop show theme song. Those wonderful disco strings just swing away like nothing else. Disco in fact may have been the last genre of popular music to really utilize strings in an interesting way, before synthesizers replaced everything.

6. Captain and Tennille, “Lonely Night (angel face)”

A guy in a captain's hat playing piano for a toothy-smiled singer with a Dorothy Hamill haircut wearing disco dresses might be the most seventies thing ever. This song hit the top ten, but you never hear it nowadays. It's actually pretty musically complex, as if Darryl Dragon was trying to write a song for Steely Dan or imitate a deep cut on a 10cc record. There's twists and turns and weird doo-wop flourishes. It sounds very odd for a pop song, but when a group gets this popular, I guess they are able to get their stranger stuff on the charts.

5. Gary Wright, “Dream Weaver”

This is probably the only soft rock hit of the 70s that routinely finds its way onto classic rock radio playlists. Very catchy on the chorus, but the over the top studio effects are almost a parody of 1970s production techniques. The bass is pretty funky, though.

4. Eagles, “Take It To The Limit”

The Eagles suck.

Just wanted to get that out of the way, so you don’t take what I am about to say the wrong way. They were a band with several talented members, including original bassist Randy Meisner. I have a special affection for him, since he, like me, hails from the great state of Nebraska. This is a pretty little wistful song, so much less overwrought than the decadent tales like “Hotel California” and “Life in the Fast Lane” that came from the same album. They’re supposed to be edgy takes on life in 70s LA, but I find them to be hilariously silly.

3. The Miracles, “Love Machine”

Some great acts from the sixties managed to find a way back onto the charts this late in the seventies (more on that in the number one slot.) Known as the backing band for the great Smokey Robinson, the Miracles managed to put out this wonderful slab of discofied funk on their very own. It’s catchy, fun, and danceable, but the voices a little more weathered than the average disco tune, which gives it an air of authority.

2. Eric Carmen, “All By Myself”

The seventies was the golden age of mopey pop ballads. On this song Eric Carmen gives even Gilbert O'Sullivan a run for his money in the sad sack sweepstakes. In an era when the divorce rate was skyrocketing, I think this song must've really struck a nerve.

1. The 4 Seasons, “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”

The Miracles weren’t the only 60s act to ride the disco train in the spring of 1976. The 4 Seasons’ trademark harmonies of their heyday were very old fashioned already by the Bicentennial, so they smartly put them to the side on this track. It’s groovy and enjoyable, the nostalgia for the time right before the sixties exploded mixing uneasily with the very modern disco sounds underneath. Somehow the combination works, and this song never fails to get me moving.