Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Mark Lanegan, "Carnival" (Track of the Week)



I find it very hard to listen to indie rock from the 90s these days. This isn't because I think the music is bad, rather because of its associations. That music was "my music" in my youth, the music of my generation and music obscure enough that it made me feel like part of something. I saw Pavement at a club show in 1997 and the vibe in the room was like everyone there should be my best friend.

Back then I thought the world could be heading in a better direction, and that my generation would be a part of it. The following decades quickly abused me of those naive thoughts. I recently read a political history of the USA since 1974, and once the book got to 2000 the knots started forming in my stomach. Each event felt like a punch to the gut. The stolen election of 2000, the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Iraq, George Bush using homophobia to get reelected, Hurricane Katrina, economic collapse in 2008, the rise of the Tea Party, Donald Trump. In the 90s the bad things were minor, like the president getting a beej followed by an inept and opportunistic push for impeachment.

Listening to 90s indie rock brings me back to my naivete and a time that wasn't great by any means but that beats what we've got now. I now totally understand the nostalgia some in Europe had after 1914 for the "belle epoque," despite its many problems.

Luckily for me, there's some great 90s indie rock I discovered after 2000, and thus can listen to without the poison of nostalgia. One artist is Mark Lanegan, who I knew at the time mostly as the lead singer of The Screaming Trees, a minor Seattle grunge band who had a well-deserved hit with "I Nearly Lost You."

Sometime circa 2007 in the midst of a raging Michigan winter I turned to folk music for solace, and picked up Ballad of the Broken Seas, the first duet album Lanegan did with Isobel Campbell, former member of Belle and Sebastian. I loved it, and through it discovered Lanegan's solo work from the 1990s.

On these songs Lanegan's voice is in a lower register than with the Trees, which suits him better. They are mostly acoustic, and reminiscent of the great spooky sound Nirvana got on their Unplugged show, a sound that still haunts me a quarter century later. If you want a fine example that will have you asking for more, listen to "Carnival" from the stellar 1994 album Whiskey for the Holy Ghost. The violin is scratchy and eerie, and Lanegan's voice a mix of bourbon and bluster. It sounds like something that gets played at open mic night at the bar in Hades.

I've never bothered to analyze the lyrics, since the mood is so evocative. This is not the ironic detachment of a lot of 1990s indie rock, but something dredged up from the depths of the soul. In the past eighteen years I can't remember the number of nights I've sat up wondering if things will ever stop getting worse. Some music helps distract me from these emotions, but Mark Lanegan's stuff is perfect when I really want to lean into the skid.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Greenland Conversation We Should Be Having


One of my favorite reads this summer was Daniel Immerwahr's How To Hide An Empire, an episodic history of America's overseas empire. The book continually emphasizes an uncomfortable fact that was recently exposed by Hurricane Maria: there are millions of American citizens living in island territories who lack proper representation, and suffer for it. Beyond those places, like American Samoa, the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guam etc there are American military bases around the world that are de facto American colonial possessions.

One of these is Thule Air Base in Greenland. Established during World War II, during the early days Cold War it became essential as a potential launching point for nuclear-armed bombers to strike the Soviet Union. Evidently in the late 1940s the United States had offered to buy the entire island from Denmark. The Danish government refused, and this also came at a time when such blatant imperialism was no longer the norm in world affairs.

Flash forward seventy years, and Donald Trump has evidently been floating the idea of purchasing the island, which is not for sale. It's the kind of ridiculous proposal that fits so well with his infantile mindset. Born into privilege he loves nothing more than buying things, and assumes anything can be bought. His love of size must make him salivate over purchasing the biggest island in the world. His childish nationalism, a throwback to a much older time, still thinks in terms of territorial expansion. (Not a surprise considering that his trade policy is reheated mercantilism.)

There's been a lot of discussion of this in the media, but I have been disappointed at the unwillingness to grapple with the deeper issues of American empire it raises. The response has either been laughter at the surreal nature of the proposal or taking it seriously and seeing if it can be done. So little discussion concerns whether it OUGHT to be done from a human rights, as opposed to strategic, standpoint.

In fact, plenty of Trump supporters have already warmed up to the idea. A friend who hails from Tennessee and has lots of ultra-conservative friends and family posted something on Facebook about how a local radio DJ was touting the colonization of Greenland. My friend was shocked, but a bunch of people chimed in below about how great they thought this idea was. The same people who would take him to task for being pro-gun control and talked about the need for guns to ward off government tyranny were totally in favor of subjecting a group of people to American rule against their will.

If you understand guns as totems of settler colonialism, the contradiction makes perfect sense, of course.

Instead of chasing the shiny ball of Trump's childish fancies, we should be talking about American empire. Particularly, we need to recognize that the mainland's relationship to its territories is entirely inconsistent with democracy. We need to discuss the history behind this, how the Supreme Court's "Insular Cases" used racist reasoning to deny full citizenship. Hurricane Maria showed the price of inaction. We should resolve that something like that never happens again.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Consolation of Baseball

Whenever I have a bad day, I just watch this

I have mostly kept to my summer resolution to be politically engaged. Last night I showed up to a local planning meeting to support the building of a new apartment building, which is currently being fought by NIMBY contingent. This means that I have been willing to engage in the most mundane forms of political action. Hopefully this weekend I will have a chance to go to Bedminster and protest there again.

It's become more and more obvious that I need small consolations in life to recharge and keep me from despair. It's especially good if those consolations aren't beer and bourbon. Music has been my first, and a close second has been baseball.

My team, the Mets, has been surging after a typically dismal start. Last Friday I went to a game with a friend, and witnessed the most amazing contest I will likely ever see in a lifetime of going to the ballpark. The Mets came back from three runs down in the fourth, then fell three runs down again, only to win it in an insanely dramatic ninth inning. There was playoff-level intensity in the park, with fans standing for the third strike in the first inning. When Todd Frazier's three run homer brought the Mets even in the ninth I thought that stadium was going to collapse. If felt like the last three seasons of frustration and dashed hopes were being expelled from the souls of the fans.


As we walked out of the stadium on a high, my friend turned to me and said "Kind of makes you forget what a messed up country we live in right now, huh?" I was so happy that the reminder of the reality outside of the ballpark did not harsh my baseball buzz.

Even if the Mets were still as bad as they were at the start of the season baseball would be a consolation in these times. One of my seven year old daughters has thrown herself into the game. She likes to collect baseball cards, look over the standings, and sit and watch games with me. I switched the channel when I saw that there was a rain delay today, and she objected. "But Daddy, I WANT to watch the rain delay!" So instead we looked at YouTube videos of Mets moments past. This summer so many days have ended sitting on the couch with my daughter, watching baseball. In those moments I feel a sense of calm and happiness that seems so elusive these days.

Sitting there on the couch the familiar rhythms of game take over. The announcer's musical boilerplate at the end of an inning "No runs one hit no errors." The quiet poetry of a shortstop fielding a slow grounder and throwing to first. The sounds of the ballpark and the low murmur of voices punctuated by the cries of hot dog vendors. It's my version of ASMR.

The long shadow of baseball's past provides its own comfort. I went to a Yankees game with my father when my parents visited, since he had never been to Yankee Stadium. My dad does not follow baseball as a sport, but truly understands it as a game. We could sit together, discussing pitching motions and infield defensive shifts. That might sound boring to a lot of people, but for me it was absolute bliss.

Most comforting of all is baseball's dailiness. From April through October, it's there for me very day. Except for the two days after the All-Star Game, which always leave me in a down mood without my daily friend. Those days fall during the height of summer, and having a baseball fast when conditions are ideal for baseball feels like being a monk wearing a hairshirt. I guess it helps remind me of how much I cherish the game.

I'm planning on going to a game next Thursday, and I am looking forward to it. I heard a sportswriter once say that his mother liked going to church because it was the only way she could be in church, and that he felt the same way about the ballpark. The only way to be at the ballpark, where I feel transported the second I gaze on the green field after walking through the gates, is to be at the ballpark. For that reason I get the feeling that November is going to be especially hard this year.

Monday, August 12, 2019

New Episode of Old Dad's Records (1983 and Duality)


The newest episode of the Old Dad's Records podcast is up!  This time around I was inspired by old music from 1983 I that's popped up in my life.  I start with "Photograph" by Def Leppard, which I heard at a Mets game this week. It is perhaps the starting point of hair metal, a genre I despise. At the same time, it is one of that genre's few real gems. 1983 wasn't just about hair metal, it was also the year that launched REM onto the college radio stations of America with Murmur, an album then gave me a lot of comfort in my youth, and still plays that role in these dark days. I end with a recommendation for Weyes Blood, who has crafted a lovely art folk sound.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Nixon's Resignation, 45 Years On

Take a good look at this because something like it will never happen again

I have been obsessed with Richard Nixon and his times since I was young. I blame the box of my uncle's old Mad magazines from the early 70s that sat in my grandparents' basement. Through them I saw Nixon and Agnew skewered, but also glimpses of a not long ago world that seemed so much more volatile and interesting than the height of the Reagan years I was living through.

I was fascinated at how a man could be President of the United States and yet be so despised. In the 80s Mad was critical of Reagan, too, but the intensity of contempt towards Nixon was something deeper. Then, in doldrums of the summer of 1992 one TV network (I forget which) ran a special on the anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Seeing the story laid out there before me only interested me more, and my interest continued even as I went on to grad school studying nineteenth century Germany instead of America in the 70s (which is now my field of choice.) Books like Nixon at the Movies became my refuge from my dissertation research.

Back in 1992 Watergate was not the distant past, it was a thing that happened the day before yesterday, so to speak. Now, as my middle aged self hates to admit, the 1990s are now the day before yesterday and the 1970s are fading into the distant past. Because of the scandals around Donald Trump, that history has been resurrected. Watch MSNBC on any given night and you might see John Dean or one of the Watergate lawyers on to talk about the current president. All the President's Men has been on TV quite a lot in the last year.

I fear that these comparisons are creating a false sense of security. People who believe in the justice of the current political system MUST trust that the system will work, that good will triumph and evil will be rebuked. That helps explain the ridiculous cult in some circles around Robert Mueller, who was supposed to be the avatar of our institutions' worthiness. History is something that does work in the present, and the work of Watergate comparisons today has only fed complacency. If a corrupt president got taken down before, it will happen again.

It's not going to work out like that this time. I guarantee you that Trump will never resign. There is an outside chance that he could removed through impeachment, but only if the makeup of the Senate dramatically changes, which is highly unlikely. The comparisons fail to take into account the ways America has changed over the last four decades. Richard Nixon's party was in the minority in both houses. More than that, members of his party were more likely to put principle and the law above their devotion to their president. The current Republican Party is a gang of right-wing Bolsheviks who take a strict "end justifies the means" praxis to the extent where they suppress votes and gerrymander districts down to the city block.

Beyond having a majority in the Senate that will follow him to the gates of hell, Trump benefits from a vastly altered media landscape. Fox News (started by Nixon operative Roger Ailes) and other forms of conservative media have created an alternate reality where the president's crimes simply do not exist. His administration and Fox work hand in glove, forming the biggest and most effective state propaganda apparatus this country has seen since World War II. That media has also fed into the "all or nothing" mentality that now dominates the electorate. In our low grade civil war the other side can never be allowed to win, no matter the reason. In 1974 Republicans could admit that the president was a crook. To do so nowadays would be to impugn their very identity and so cannot be done. (Just think about how guns have become an extension of identity for conservatives, and you'll get my drift.)

Ironically, Watergate's "lesson" for those in power has mainly been that they will never be brought to account. Ford infamously pardoned Nixon for "any crimes he may have committed," robbing the country of justice and even a full accounting of what he had done. Future leaders understood the usefulness of "plausible deniability" so that they would not get caught. This is what saved Reagan during the Iran-Contra scandal and Chris Christie during the Bridgegate scandal and Dick Cheney in the Valerie Plane affair (remember that?). Dubya started an illegal war on false pretenses that has killed thousands and he gets to paint in his mansion.

It's high time that we stop using Watergate's history as a way to praise our institutions. Instead we need to reckon with our failure to hold our leaders accountable since that fateful day in 1974.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

REM, Murmur, and Solace in Hard Times


I took my parents to the airport this morning, which means after two weeks of enjoyable distraction I have lost my last remaining shield against the horror of the recent news cycle. In the summer, when I am not immersed in the constant crisis mode of teaching, I find myself on Twitter way too much, more deeply engaged in the happenings of the world. 

In times like this, to quote Alex Chilton and Big Star, it's hard to hold on, but the guns wait to be stuck by. I have resolved to spend the rest of my summer engaged in the struggle, but that also requires having a refuge to escape to. My favorite has always been music.

This hit home on Sunday, when I took my parents on a short day trip to Princeton. While there we made sure to visit the Princeton Record Exchange, my favorite record store in the entire Tri-State area. My parents, who are not part of the current wave of streaming, got some used CDs at bargain prices. I found a copy of REM's Murmur on vinyl and quickly snatched it up and have been listening to it endlessly.

It's an album I first bought on cassette in August of 1991, since at that time back catalog albums were especially cheap in that format and cars still only had tape decks in them. (I later bought it on CD, so this is one of a handful of albums I own in all three formats.) That summer I had become an REM superfan after buying Out of Time with some lawnmowing money in the spring. By winter I owned the band's entire back catalog (except Dead Letter Office) and played it incessantly. 

Murmur was special to me because it sounded, and still sounds, like nothing else ever made. I usually listened to it late at night in the dark on my Walkman, lying on my bed and giving it my full attention. With my other senses dimmed I felt transported into some kind of dream world, one that was as mysterious as it was comforting. Michael Stipe's infamously mumbled lyrics (which are not as illegible as sometimes claimed) allowed me to derive the meaning of the songs by intuition, much like looking at an abstract painting. In those moments listening in the dark I felt more calm and at ease than my volatile teenage emotions ever let me feel in the agitating light of day.

The following school year, my sophomore year of high school, would be a crucial one in my life. I started to gain back the confidence that was beaten out of me in the 8th grade when my "friends" decided I wasn't cool enough to hang out with them. I was too dorky even for the nerds, but embraced competitive debate and started winning. I have a very clear memory of riding a school bus back from a tournament in Omaha to my hometown. I had managed to get to the semifinals, and I listened to Murmur in the antediluvian December darkness of a rural Nebraska night all the way. It was the best way to savor my first feeling of accomplishment in years.

And so I listen to it again, 28 years later and feel that same warm embrace. Just as it gave me comfort in the worst slough of my teenage emotions, it is giving me solace in the midst of the worst slough this nation has fallen into in my lifetime. We need to fight, but we need to draw strength and protection, too. I hope you find it where you can, because we are all going to need it.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Reflections on Summer Travels Around America


I have been on the road a lot in the past month and a half. Back in June I took a group of students on a trip through the South, visiting several historical sites, most of them connected to civil rights and African American history. A couple of weeks later I flew out to Amarillo, Texas, to visit a friend, then we drove up to Colorado for a grad school reunion. Today I have just returned from a trip with my family (including my parents) to Boston and Maine. I've been all around the lower 48, except for the West Coast and Midwest, which I visited last summer.

My travels have taken me to very "blue" places like Boston and "red" places like the Texas Panhandle. What struck me most consistently was a country seemingly oblivious to crisis. When I was with my friends and family I was less connected with TV and internet news sources than I usually am, and without them it seemed as if everything was just humming along. From Alabama to New Hampshire, ferment was not in the air. Even among my grad school friends, who are very politically committed, we seemed to talk less about politics this year than when we last met two years ago.

I sense an increasing air of fatalism. Those who oppose the president seem defeated. They fought hard to turn the House to the Democrats, and what has it accomplished? Even after Robert Mueller essentially said in front of Congress that the president had obstructed justice, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders have refused to make significant moves on impeachment. The president's recent bigoted outbursts are not just random ravings, but they are actually calculated to win the votes of racist white people. We all know that he is a racist who is breaking the law, and that nothing will be done about it.

There's a fatalism on the other side as well, especially among the Republicans who were never hardcore Trump supporters. Like Thomas Jefferson and slavery, they know deep down in their heart of hearts that they support something evil, but have found every rationalization possible to justify their complicity. They put their consciences in the hands of the devil, willing to let their souls be stolen for lower taxes and watching the people they don't like suffer more than they will.

While the country seems united in fatalism, the divisions were easy to see out of the car window. In the "red" areas I visited I saw lots of giant crosses and giant Confederate flags on the roadside, along with the random anti-abortion billboard. In "blue" America I saw countless pride flags and Black Lives Matter signs, stickers, and graffiti. This to me highlighted the ultimate stupidity of the media's "both sides" narrative. One side uses symbolism to assert its superiority and dominance over other people. The other side uses symbols intended to support marginalized people and fight for their equality. In this fight there can be no equivocation.

But despite this firm division of values, there seemed to be little action. Contrast this with Puerto Rico, where protestors drove a bad leader out of office. Mainlanders ought to learn a lesson, but they are too paralyzed by their own fatalism to see it. We have sadly treated the current crisis like something to be watched on television and to be affected by, rather than a play where we all take part. That attitude has had and will continue to have disastrous consequences. As for me, I have resolved to lean my shoulder harder on the wheel, and I hope you join me.