Monday, October 31, 2011

Classic Albums: Neil Young's Harvest

[Editor's Note: With the added stresses of starting a new job and all of the heavy work that entails, I have not been blogging all that faithfully. I think starting a new series on one of my favorite topics to kibbitz about, rock music albums, ought to make it easier for more to find engaging things to write about.]

I'd like to start my new series of essays on classic albums with Neil Young's 1972 record Harvest not because it's one his best (it's not), but because it provides such fertile ground for analysis (pun totally intended.) Harvest was by far Young's biggest seller, spawning his only #1 single, "Heart of Gold," and "Old Man," which still gets airplay on classic rock radio. This album also happens to be the first by Young that I ever owned, and that began a long-standing love of his work on my part. (I still remember getting it on CD for Christmas in 1992, and consequently, many of my memories of that winter come rushing back to me whenever I hear it.) In many ways it was the perfect Young album to start with, since his songs tend towards the adolescent emotions of heartache and loneliness, things I was feeling very acutely at the time.

Despite all that history and its classic status, I find it to be highly flawed. Some of the songs just aren't that good, for starters. The orchestral accompaniments on "A Man Needs a Maid" and "There's a World" are overbearing and bombastic, drowning the small, personal gestures of the songs in an avalanche of symphonic goop. "Words (Between the Lines of Age)" lurches like a drunken elephant, and "Are You Ready for the Country" is about as stiff and wooden as Al Gore circa 1993. Worst of all, "Alabama" is a less interesting version of "Southern Man" from 1970's After the Gold Rush.

The biggest sin of the album from our contemporary standpoint is something that you really can't blame Young for, namely how it fits the template for the soft folk rock of the 1970s, a genre responsible for the likes of Bread and America. Whenever I troll through the bargain bins at used record stores, this genre of music is very well represented. Popular in its time, it has not received the kind of revival that has made old garage rock LPs scarce commodities. You can't blame the man because the good tracks blow those of his competitors out of the water.

Case in point: "Old Man." Hearing this song on classic rock radio made me want to listen to the whole album; it captures that uncertain feeling of being trapped on the borderline between childhood and adulthood and the crazily desperate adolescent longing for love. It also features the heart-stirring steel guitar of Ben Keith, the kind of touch rarely found on a Dan Fogelberg record. That mournful country glow is present on "Harvest," another stellar track of heartbreaking beauty, and "Out on the Weekend," one of the best songs about starting over ever written.

Keith was one of the Stray Gators, the moniker for backing band on this record. These guys were Nashville pros a little too scruffy for Music City's crew-cutted establishment in the pre-outlaw country days. The best tracks on Harvest betray their impeccable sense of feel, something that has a lot more to do with what makes a great recording than pure virtuosity and flash. (Listen to any track from Motown's golden years to know what I am talking about. The Funk Brothers, like the best Nashville players, knew how to keep their prodigious musical abilities locked tight into the needs of the song.)

And yet what may be the best song on the album is not with the Gators, but a live recording of Young solo on his guitar: "The Needle and the Damage Done." Unlike many of his peers, Young was quick to see the dark side of the hippie ethos of drug taking as mind expansion, and he confronts it head-on in this song about the ravages of heroin addiction. The line "every junky's like a setting sun" has always stuck with me. He wrote it around the time his friend Danny Whitten was being slowly killed by the needle; the anguish in his voice is real. How many songs start off with a line so ominous as "I caught you knocking at my cellar door." The way that the song ends with a burst of applause that is suddenly cut off only adds to the dread.

I wonder how the average music consumer who bought this record back in 1972 (it was the top seller that year) reacted when they heard that song. After all, they probably bought Harvest after hearing the smash-hit "Heart of Gold." That song managed, in one shining moment, to wed the Stray Gators' hippie country vibe with Young's lovelorn lyrics and the kind of catchy melody one normally associates with the likes Paul McCartney. As that extra little bit of cream on top, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt sang the high, soaring backing vocals. Never before and never again would Neil Young ever write such a Top 40-friendly song. He would famously say that after spending some time in the middle of the road, he decided to drive into the ditch. (I wrote about his Ditch Trilogy awhile back.) Re-listening to Harvest, I don't think he actually went all that far into the middle of the road in 1972. The songs are uniformly melancholy, and even "Heart of Gold" is shot through with loneliness.

What made such a collection of depressive songs about being sent to Vietnam ("Are You Ready for the Country"), heroin addiction ("The Needle and the Damage Done"), racism ("Alabama"), and divorce ("Out on the Weekend") palatable to the mainstream was their presentation. This is especially the case with "Heart of Gold" and the two orchestral pieces. A couple of years ago Young released a recording of a show from 1971 when these songs were being written that did a much better job of showcasing their raw, confessional emotion. "There's a World" goes from being an overwrought clunker to a spooky, introspective number. "A Man Needs a Maid" is drained of its hokiness and becomes a harrowing, soul-baring account of the inability to love. (A BBC version from the time also demonstrates what I'm talking about.) The Neil Young responsible for harrowing ballads of wasted oblivion along the lines of "Tonight's the Night" actually isn't all that far off here.

So Harvest isn't a perfect record or the foray into the mainstream it's been made out to be. It is really good to listen to on a cold, dark autumn night when harvest has come and the fields are ground down to stubble. Give it whirl before its window of optimal power closes and you have to wait until next year.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Pleasures of Classic Horror

I've spent today snowed in due to the freak weather here in the Northeast, which I used as an opportunity to get into the Halloween spirit via classic horror films. By "classic" I am referring to horror movies made before the ratings system allowed film-makers to be much more explicit in their use of gore and violence.

Old school horror flicks relied less on shock than on atmosphere. As I was watching The Pit and the Pendulum today, a Roger Corman guided Vincent Price vehicle drawing from Edgar Allan Poe, I realized that its slow pacing was not antiquated, but intentional mood-setting. This was something meant to be shown in a theater on the big screen, not at home on a television. Imagining myself in a dark theater surrounded by the sights and sound on screen, rather than my living room and all its distractions, the lowing cellos of the soundtrack, lush torchlit interiors, and creaking doors evoked a vividly sinister mood.

When blood and gore are used sparingly, their appearance on the screen attains special power. For instance, the great fifties Hammer reboot of Dracula, The Horror of Dracula, features very little screen time for the great Christopher Lee as Drac. It's the threat of his appearance that brings so much tension, and when he finally bares his teeth, it's quite frightening.

Of course, when we think of classic horror, our minds immediately conjure up images of the Universal films of the 1930s. Last Halloween I sat down and watched many of them for the first time, and was amazed at how well so many of them stood up. The 1931 James Whale adaptation of Frankenstein was especially good, in that it managed to create both sympathy and revulsion in the audience for the monster. This scene from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from the wondrously naughty pre-Code years, is more than steamy by today's standards.

Modern horror can give us much more graphic images than the films of the past, but their ability to powerfully evoke moods of dread and suspense ought to be more studied by the film directors of today.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Expanded Academic Misery Quiz

My Academic Misery Index Quiz seems to have struck a nerve, and since I enjoyed writing it so much, here's an expanded version. As I said before, one's level of bitterness towards academia is dependent in large part on one's institution and department. I spent three years at a regional state university Moloch whose dysfunction was only matched by its ability to crush sensitive souls. I know other folks who work at institutions with similar missions and numbers of students, but who are much happier because they work in supportive departments overseen by competent administrators. Use this quiz as a guide to determine your ability to endure your current academic job with your sanity intact.

Part One
Each "A"answer is worth zero points, each "B" answer one point, each "C" answer two points, and each "D" answer five points.

1. How would you describe your university?
A. A nationally recognized institution with a stellar reputation.
B. A solid school that's not quite the big time, but with plenty of name recognition.
C. A "first rate second rate" university with plenty of faults but a basic commitment to upholding the standards of the profession.
D. A dysfunctional, bottom-feeding fly-by-night operation so obscure that when you go to conferences and tell people where you're from, they give you a blank stare or judgemental glare.

2. How would you describe the students at your university?
A. They are self-motivated, mature adults with a love of learning.
B. They are smart yet entitled children of privilege who need some prodding.
C. They are middle of the road intellectually and see their classes with a mostly vocational understanding, i.e., "why do I have to take this class?"
D. They are barely literate and seem to have no clue whatsoever as to why they are in college in the first place. The few brain cells they have left after nightly games of beer pong are devoted to texting.

3. How would you describe the town where your university is located?
A. A world-class city brimming over with fine dining, cultural events, and like-minded individuals.
B. An idyllic college town with a relaxed atmosphere and lots of cultural amenities.
C. A non-college town, mid-sized city that's a little boring, but at least has all the stuff you need, and the occasional cultural event.
D. A backwoods 'burg lacking a decent sit-down restaurant where the locals actively resent the university community for making them look like the countrified rubes that they are.

4. What are the politics of your department like?
A. What politics? We all love each other and most of us are good friends.
B. There are minor disputes, and we aren't all that close, but mostly because we're too busy to fight.
C. The silverbacks and the young'uns clash from time to time, but mostly inside departmental and committee meetings. We all know the two people who hate each other's guts, but the rest of us stay out of that mess.
D. They make Renaissance Florence look like an eight year old girl's tea party. Long-held grudges, character assassination, and intentional sabotage are the norm.

5. How would you describe your chair?
A. A far-sighted leader who tirelessly strives to protect the best interests of the department.
B. A competent technocrat who gets the job done but lacks vision.
C. A well-meaning buffoon who mostly tries to avoid doing work.
D. A malicious control-freak who plays favorites and considers any alternative viewpoint to be treason.

6. What is your institution doing with assessment?
A. What's assessment?
B. Writing standard boilerplate to keep the accreditation people happy but little that faculty have to deal with.
C. There's lots of pointless meetings and discussion and it's a big annoyance, but profs are not really told what to do in the classroom.
D. Faculty have lost control over what material is taught in their courses and spend a great deal of their time filling out asinine forms and getting reprimanded for failing to follow hopelessly labrynthine policies to the letter.

7. What happens when you report a plagiarism case?
A. I have to hold back the chair and dean from nailing the student to a cross.
B. There's lots of paperwork and I am asked to give the student the benefit of the doubt, but if I want to punish a student, I am able to do it.
C. I am reluctant to push cases because I am usually asked to lessen my penalties.
D. The chair and other higher-ups immediately take the student's side, and get irritated with me for taking up their time.

8. How would you describe your university's priorities?
A. To achieve educational excellence and foster world-class scholarship.
B. To provide a quality education for its students and give some support to research.
C. Mostly football and manipulating the categories in the US News rankings.
D. To keep distracting outsiders from the fact that the place is a complete joke and ought to be shut down.

9. What's the financial outlook of your institution like?
A. We are a wealthy private school with a huge endowment that our regents swim in like Scrooge McDuck.
B. We have had to make some cutbacks in course offerings and travel budgets, but faculty have mostly been spared.
C. Our state government is run by anti-intellectual GOP blockheads who force us to make do with less with each passing year. There's less money for research and few raises, but our jobs are relatively safe.
D. We have a psychotic governor hell-bent on destroying whole programs and firing tenured professors with budget cuts/we are a poor private school running on a showstring budget always begging alumni for money which is only keeping us afloat for just one more year.

10. When you talk to your faculty friends outside of class, what sentence are you most likely to utter or hear?
A. "Wasn't the pinot grigio at the faculty reception last night delightful?"
B. "With the cutbacks it looks like I won't be able to get the library to order all of the books on my list."
C. "I don't know how they expect me to teach more students with these increased tenure and service requirements."
D. "If I can't get a job somewhere else this year I will end up dying of alcohol poisoning."

11. How would you describe a typical departmental faculty meeting?
A. A welcome opportunity to get everyone together and be collegial.
B. A minor annoyance that is usually blessedly brief.
C. A prolonged, unorganized exercise in silverback resentment and junior scholar superkeenerism that rarely solves anything.
D. A horrifying parade of stupidity and malice so nerve-wracking that I have to take a xanax to be able to endure it without crying or running out screaming.

12. What is your school's attitude towards office hours?
A. We are supposed to hold them at some point, but I'm not sure when they are, exactly.
B. We have three mandated office hours, but it isn't much of a burden.
C. We have five office hours a week and are expected to keep our doors open at all times during them.
D. We have ten office hours a week, and the chair will call me at home if I happen to duck out five minutes early on a slow day.

13. How does your department handle academic advising?
A. We have peons for that.
B. A couple of poor saps do it as part of their service, but get a course reduction.
C. We all have to pitch in and do it, but at least we share the burden.
D. I am one of the people press-ganged into doing it without a course reduction, and typically have two weeks of my semester rendered unproductive by a constant stream of slackjawed idiots who want me to figure out their schedules for them.

14. How would you describe your dean?
A. A wonderfully engaging ally who is always willing to listen.
B. A careerist looking to climb the ladder to another school, but at least competent.
C. A meddling dolt who spends meetings mouthing every trendy administrative catchphrase, from "accountability" to "sustainability."
D. A ruthlessly authoritarian presence constantly forcing departments to conform to their vision of the university.

15. Which type of conversation among faculty are you most likely to hear as you pass down the hallway?
A. A witty and engaged discussion of the finer points of research and pedagogy.
B. The usual small talk.
C. Lots of complaining about the latest administrative initiative.
D. Resentful white men decrying their own supposed marginalization with plenty of borderline racist, sexist, and homophobic comments thrown in.

Part Two
These questions have more points at stake because they make the difference between a tolerable situation and soul-crushing anomie. Each "A" answer is worth 0 points, each "B" answer is worth five points, each "C" answer ten points and each "D" answer fifteen points.

1. Which best describes the kind of academic job that you currently have?
A. You possess the great golden ring of tenure.
B. A tenure track position with the tenure clock ticking away.
C. A "visitor" or lecturer position with limited appointment and substandard pay.
D. A temporary adjunct position with no security paid by the course.

2. How far away does your job force you to live from your significant other?
A. You get to live with your significant other.
B. You have to live in different towns, but are able to see each other on the weekend.
C. You live so far apart that you cannot see each other more than once a month.
D. You used to have a significant other until your forced separation destroyed your relationship/you are forced to live in such a benighted rural outpost that Ron Paul has a better chance of getting elected president than you do of finding a suitable partner.

3. When you show up at work on Monday morning, what statement best describes your thought process?
A. It's great to be back to doing the thing that I love.
B. This week will be good if I don't have any more bullshit excuses from my students and just plain bullshit from my administrators.
C. I'd like this job a lot more if I was on the tenure track.
D. How can I get to my office without crossing paths with the colleagues who make me want to stab myself with a dull butter knife?

After tallying up your scores, look the misery index below:

0-15 points: Shangri-La
Congratulations, you are living the academic dream! The next time you think about complaining about your job, please do the rest of us a favor and shut the fuck up.

16-30 points: The Good Life
You have the right to the occasional gripe, but things are looking good. If you can avoid the tendency in this profession never to be satisfied, you'll have a happy and fulfilling time at your institution.

31-50 points: The Danger Zone
If you don't absolutely love academic work with all of your heart and soul, it might be time to explore other options.

50+ points: Soul-sucking Misery
Get the hell out while you are still young and relatively sane. If not you will end up like the senior colleagues you respect who always have looks of bemused sadness on their faces.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


This weekend my and wife spent a lot of our time immersed in New Jersey's past. (We're full time history geeks, and proud of it.) This had a elegiac quality, since we visited sites and heard stories related to the Garden State's once formidable factories and its once bustling canal villages, turned into ghost towns by the iron horse and flivver.

Friday we went to an event at the American Labor Museum in Haledon, which is located in a house that played a crucial role in the IWW strike by Paterson silk workers in 1913. (The Botto family that owned the house allowed strikers to use it as a meeting place.) The speaker discussed a catastrophic factory fire that took place in a Newark garment factory in 1910 that killed over twenty workers, and with similar overtones of the more well-known Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that took place the next year in Manhattan. A door had been locked, the victims were mostly women, and many of them died after jumping to their deaths. In an especially gut-wrenching detail, I learned that some of these women were impaled on the iron factory gate.

I say this just first just to let you know that the sense of loss I am about to describe in relation to the past is in no way leavened by sentimentiality or misplaced romanticism.

Once the speaker was done, he discussed the site of the factory itself, which my wife realized was right across from a Newark landmark we like to call "the giant pile of dirt." (We were actually married in a church a stone's throw away from said landmark.) We soon learned that pile had once been a Westinghouse factory and a key location in America's industrial history. It housed the second radio station in all of America, for example. The speaker, who lives in the neighborhood, lamented that such an important place would be demolished and then not even replaced. (There are some old factories in the area converted into apartments, and others that are dead-eyed derelicts, beautifully ugly in their own way.) Even someone as obsessed with the past as myself had heretofore only seen the site as a giant pile of dirt, totally unaware of its significance. This idea got me thinking about how the tides of time inevitably wash away all that we know in this world. After all, it is not the thought that I will die that upsets me as much as knowing that everyone I know will die someday, and hence anyone and anything I ever knew in this world while I was in it.

Those thoughts were more pronounced on Saturday, when we went to Waterloo Village, a mostly abandoned ghost town on the old Morris Canal. It's the most well-preserved canal town in the state, although the trust for its preservation is broke and now the village is only open on select weekends. I'm glad we got to go, especially since the aging volunteer docents indicate that Waterloo Village will soon be a ghost town twice over, first as a community, and next as a public historic site. The period of canal-building holds a great deal of fascination for me, since it encapsulates the modern industrial economy's tumultuous nature. The canals, built in the early to mid-1800s, practically changed rural communities overnight, linking them with urban areas. Whole new towns, like Waterloo Village, sprang up on their banks. And then, almost as quickly, railroads began to criss-cross the nation, rendering the canals quaintly obsolescent. (The Morris Canal lasted until 1924, but from what I was told, it was pretty much a secondary means of transport already by the Civil War.)

Wandering about the ruins, I was struck most by the hulking Italiante Victorian mansion owned by the most prominent trading family in the town. Much like some of the newly built yet vacant McMansions in so many Florida sub-divisions, it was a monument to the destructive capacity and unpredictable nature of modern life. Much of what we consider to be completely stable today can turn out to be quicksand tomorrow. In the midst our own current economic bust, so reminiscent of the speculative bubbles and harsh reversals of the nineteenth century, it is worth remembering that we are not living through anything new.

Perhaps this explains why I get so irritated at people exciting themselves over the next "G" of cell phones and Apple products. Yes, they are wonderful toys, but just more symptoms of our own eventual obsolescence, and yes, irrelevance. The universe will keep grinding on in its interminable fluctuations, we and all that we consider to be new and innovative will fade with time, and in not all that much time, either.

This came home to me when we saw a rather odd site on our way into the village: a pay phone disguised in a quaint looking wooden house, built once upon a time so as to make the modern communications technology look suitably rustic in order to keep visitors in the mood. With my iPhone in my pocket ready to take a picture of such a newly rare device, the pay phone had become just as much an artifact of the distant past as the Italianate mansion, the general store, and the grist mill. Someday, perhaps quite soon, even my shiny iPhone, like these others, will be buried under the sediments of time.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Historical Narrative for OWS

One of the most nefariously effective strategies of the radical Right in this country has been identifying themselves with the heroism of the American past, and portraying any progressive policy as a kind of alien, anti-American imposition. (Notice the upsurge in references to "European socialized medicine" recently.) Today I happened to be in lower Manhattan, and within minutes I gazed on Alexander Hamilton's grave at the Trinity Church graveyard, and then walked a block north and saw the protesters at Zuccotti Park. This got me thinking about the long history in America of opposition to the capricious and undemocratic power of concentrated wealth. Occupy Wall Street and its allies need an antidote to the tricorn-hatted, Founder rim jobbing of the Tea Party set, and need to start reminding Americans of their traditional historical aversion to the financial industry's chicanery.

Hamilton's financial policies, which greatly benefited the rich creditors who held Revolutionary War debt, raised plenty of protest already in the 1790s, at the birth of the new republic. To pay off those creditors, the government instituted taxes on the whiskey stilled by farmers, many of whom protested during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion. The issue wasn't just taxes, but the fact that the government was sticking it to the lower orders in order to make sure that the wealthiest made themselves even richer. That state of affairs sounds awfully familiar today, doesn't it? Bankers wreck the economy, they get bailed out, and the rest of us are told there's no money left for Social Security, public education, or infrastructure.

Calls to break up big banks met with great popular approval in America's early days. Jefferson helped nix the First Bank of the United States, and Andrew Jackson's destruction of the Second Bank of the United States was met with popular adulation. Although I don't think it was a good decision, it nevertheless shows that resentment of concentrated wealth is not some kind of "Marxist" alien imposition, but as American as it gets. That popular disgust with banks, especially strong with farmers and rural folk who were turned out of their homes with little recourse, has been a mainstay of American culture. My grandfather despised banks, not because he was a socialist, but because as s farmer he was well aware of who was on his side and who wasn't. As Woody Guthrie sang back in the 1930s about bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd, "Some rob you with a six-gun, some with a fountain pen."

For a time, the popular disapproval of reckless, unaccountable banks actually led to some real reform. From the Panic of 1819 to the Great Depression, unfettered banks kept ginning up the same boom and bust cycle of speculation whose many convulsions fell hardest on the ordinary people who lost their jobs, farms, and livelihoods whenever speculative bubbles burst. Finally, during the New Deal the Glass-Steagall Act put greater regulations on banks. This law was not perfect, but it kept financial institutions from staking their depositors' money on speculative chicanery that risked blowing up the economy. It also reflected the desire of leaders to listen to the people rather than the bankers. FDR won re-election by a landslide telling crowds that the banks were "unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred" and that "government by organized money is just as dangerous as government by organized mobs."

In the era of financial regulation, from Glass-Steagall in 1933 to the Reagan years, we did not have one single financial crisis. Then came deregulation. First it was the Savings and Loans who were set free to enjoy the wonders of the market, which promptly allowed them to wipe out the entire system and force a bailout of hundreds of billions of dollars. In the 1990s Clinton and the GOP Congress repealed Glass-Steagall in the name of "innovation" in the same decade when hedge funds were basically left completely unleashed. Lo and behold, ten years later the "innovative" mortgage financed securities and credit default swaps inflated to a massive bubble whose bursting has still left the economy in shambles. We have been returned to the cruel roller coaster of the 19th century economy, with its wrenching disparities of wealth and chronic instability. It's high time that the 99% in this revive an old and venerable tradition of telling the banks that we, not them, are in charge in a democracy. After all, it's the American thing to do.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Musical Interlude: Countercultural Country Music

Today while I was at a record store in Brooklyn, of all places, I managed to buy some great vintage country LPs, including Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee. As I listened to and enjoyed it, I was struck at how much it reflected the counterculture of the early 1970s, from "Blame it on the Stones" skewering square attitudes about the new generation to "Sunday Morning Coming Down" getting inside the horror of a hangover better than any song has before or since. Music critics talk a lot about "alternative country," "country rock," and "outlaw country," but I think some of the stuff within these categorical silos, especially back in the seventies, can be grouped into something that I'll call "countercultural country."

Kristofferson acts the country hippie in the ironically titled "Law is For Protection of the People," knocking the capricious power of the police. The sentiment is less Nashville than Woodstock.

Johnny Cash, who in the mid-60s befriended Bob Dylan, the godfather of the counterculture, took Kristofferson's epic "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and made it his own. Not only does Cash sing about "wishing Lord that I was stoned," he breaks with the obligatory piety of country music by describing Sunday morning not as a time of worship, but as a soul-sapping moment of excruciating boredom. "There's nothing short of dying/ That's half as lonely as the sound/ Of a sleeping city sidewalk/ And Sunday morning coming down."

Gram Parsons was the ultimate country hippie, a man who could combine the country soul of Merle Haggard with the drug regimen of Timothy Leary. This song of wandering in search of home holds a very special place in my heart; I listened to it a lot in my car on my move from Texas to here in New Jersey. Call me an old softie, but when Gram and Emmylou sing "Twenty thousand roads I went down, and they all led me straight back home to you," I get a little misty-eyed.

Tompall Glaser hails from my home state of Nebraska, and was one of the more prominent figures in "outlaw country" back in the seventies. In this tune he makes a rather sly feminist statement about the piggishness of a certain breed of "traditional" men, but in a way that always brings a smile to my face.

Most folks remember Mike Nesmith for being the knit-hatted guitarist in the The Monkees, but he also cut some great country music in the seventies that borrowed from the spirit of sixties rock music. His 1972 album, rakishly titled And the Hits Just Keep on Coming is one of the true hidden gems of its time. Using a stripped down sound of just Nesmith's voice, his acoustic guitar, and some fantastic steel guitar playing from Red Rhodes, Papa Nes turns out the kind wistful, California folk and rock inflected country songs the Eagles were known for in this era, with an important difference: his stuff doesn't suck.

Alright, I'm cheating more than a bit with this last song, since Buck Owens is not somebody anyone would think of as countercultural. The man hosted Hee-Haw, fer chrissakes. That being said, he was willing to incorporate ideas from sixties rock and folk music into his sound, and in the process managed to craft what I believe to be one the greatest covers ever of a Bob Dylan song, which is high praise indeed.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Occupy Wall Street Matters

A while back I commented rather archly about the new wave of global protests that lack organization and coherence, and worried that Occupy Wall Street would of little consequence. For once, I am rather glad to be proven wrong. Since the city is starting to push the protesters a bit on their use of the park, it looks like the occupation might not last much longer. With the end perhaps nigh, I thought I'd take the opportunity to look at what has happened.

It took awhile, but the protests found a strong voice and garnered significant attention. In fact, the New York police may have inadvertently made the protests newsworthy through their mass arrest of protesters on Brooklyn Bridge. In general, the protests have put the issues of wealth inequality and corporate greed front and center, and it's about time. To my mind, along with unemployment, these are our nation's most pressing domestic issues. We have spent the last thirty years hurtling towards a new Gilded Age where the wealthiest have a stranglehold on politics and amass ever-larger fortunes at the expense of everyone else.

This was an issue that the Democratic party has been loathe to address, even despite president Obama's apparent concern about systemic inequality voiced in his 2008 campaign. During the budget negotiation in last year's lame duck session, Obama extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, which have starved the government of revenue, and helped bring on the debt ceiling hostage crisis, which did a great deal of damage to the economy.

The Democrats' consistent cowardice and reticence to do anything about inequality points to their constant fear of being labeled "class warriors." Never mind that the opposing party fights the class war with relish. They retain tax breaks for corporate jets while slashing Pell grants and wages for teachers, cops, and firefighters. Back in the Bush years, Thomas Frank's pathbreaking What's the Matter with Kansas? took Democrats to task for failing to fight for the economic interests of the working and middle classes. If both parties are owned by the corporations, wedge issues like abortion and gay marriage override economic concerns. The mainstream Democratic party is entirely incapable of rousing its base, which is why it had to be done by Occupy Wall Street. Instead of lambasting the protesters, Democrats and the mainstream Left have been falling over themselves to claim their cause. These protests might have been the kick in the ass the party has been needed for years.

Occupy Wall Street's response also shows that the grass roots Left still lives. Since the rise of the Tea Party, it had seemed to almost disappear. Much of this had to do with the Obama administration's triangulation tactics, which rewarded his fervent supports with derision in a political game to claim that ever-retreating middle. I have a feeling that these protests are only the beginning of a new national conversation that will focus on social injustice, and one that will make the GOP look horribly retrograde. Now that the spell of apathy for those on the Left has been lifted, it's now time to organize organize organize. If this spark ignites a fire of political zeal for greater social justice and equality, the Occupy Wall Street protests may very well be remembered for decades to come.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Major Advantages Barack Obama Will Have Against Any of the Republicans

Since I fell off the wagon yesterday to write about politics, I thought I'd go whole hog and give y'all a double barrel blast of election musings. President Obama will face some major challenges next year, from the sluggish economy to an irate base to GOP obstructionism to a tendency to back down from a fight to his inevitable inability to live up to the ridiculously high standards placed upon him in 2008. (I will admit some guilt in this regard, it wasn't just the ballyhoo of his campaign that put him in this bind.)

That being said, he has some major advantages on his side against any of the Republicans who might get the nomination, regardless of who that person will be.

He's a likable guy
President Obama has a winning personality, and comes across with a great deal of dignity while still remaining plenty of the common touch. (Those who argue that he is some kind of distant intellectual are bullshitting, imho.) Romney is slightly robotic in a Sears catalog menswear model kind of way, the Republican answer to John Kerry. Gingrich, Bachmann, and Cain are buffoons, and Perry is a blustering fool who makes George W. Bush look dignified. In a debate, all of these people will seem pretty silly by comparison to Obama, although Romney will at least look presidential.

I don't really need to say much here.

Foreign policy
In case you haven't noticed, the Republican debates have featured next to nothing related to foreign affairs. That's no accident, since the GOP wants to distant itself as much as possible from memories of the horrible failures and unpopularity of the Bush administration's neo-conservatism. If they try to claim, as Romney has, that the president has somehow been "soft," Obama will only have to remind America that he has bombed Libya, ordered the shooting of pirates and jihadists, and gave the order to take down bin Laden. I do not think all of these decisions were good ideas, but there's no way he can be attacked from the Right on foreign policy, as Democrats often are. He has proven himself to be a respected world leader, no matter his domestic failings or the smear tactics used against him.

The "are you really going to vote for them?" factor
The current Republican party and the Tea Party have a symbiotic relationship, which has pushed the GOP candidates harder to attack immigrants, bash gays, beat the Bible, engage in Islamophobia, and play racial politics of the most noxious kind (Exhibit A: the enthusiastic reception on the Right of Herman Cain's remarks about black Democrats being "on the plantation.") The president could have done a lot more to help the groups being demonized by the Right, the alternative is becoming increasingly unpalatable to anyone who is not white, straight, or fervently Christian. Our nation's demographics do not favor the Republican strategy of pandering to white resentment.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Thoughts on the Race to the White House, Now That It's Really Begun

Oh politics, I wish I could quit you, but I can't. The sideshow quality of the Republican nomination race just makes it too hard for me to look away. After lots of dithering and speculation about who would run, the field has finally solidified. More importantly, the candidates have started to go after each other with hammer and tongs, rather than just lambasting the president.

On the first point, it was hardly surprising that Chris Christie and Sarah Palin opted out. As Palin's decision to leave the governorship of Alaska mid-term manifestly showed us already, she is not interested in holding political office. She doesn't want to be president, she wants to be queen. I must admit that it is heartening to see the most grotesquely brazen fame whore of our times fade into utter irrelevance, including among her formerly fervent supporters. Christie wised up once he saw what happened to Rick Perry. Very quickly after he entered the race, the rest of the nation soon realized what most Texans already know: Rick Perry has more hair follicles than brain cells. The news media, entranced as usual by the Next Big Thing, touted Perry as a far-sighted, pragmatic leader, skipping over the fact that he is a goddamned moron. Christie probably figured out that when the nation outside of New Jersey got exposed to him, they'd soon realize that when the media calls him "brutally honest" they really mean "overbearing, insensitive, bullying asshole."

With the field set, and Perry falling out of the clear front-runner spot after making his complete inaptitude to be a world leader manifest in recent debates, the candidates have taken off the gloves and bared their teeth. The attacks by other candidates on Romney have gone beyond the political (his record as a moderate governor in Massachusetts) to now making his Mormon religion a campaign issue. At the so-called "Values Voters" summit this weekend, the preacher who introduced Rick Perry used it as an opportunity to spew bigotry against Mormons and effectively claim that Mitt Romney is a cult member. Other candidates, like Cain and Bachmann, have refused, when given the opportunity, to say that Romney is a Christian. It's hardly surprising that this low blow has come so soon in the campaign, considering the GOP has invested a great deal of time in making Barack Obama into an "other" embodying anti-Americanism.

Romney is not the only candidate whose personal life has become an issue. For a very short period of time this week, Herman Cain went after Rick Perry on the issue of his family's connection to the "Niggerhead" hunting ground, before backing down amidst heavy flak from the hard Right. Republicans have pretty much written off the black vote, but they also know that if a guy considered "one of the good ones" accuses Perry of racism, the charge might actually stick and turn off white moderates in the general election.

Ironically enough, Perry has also been getting more rigorously raked over the coals over immigration policy, the favorite issue of those "real Americans" who want to keep America white, er, I mean, "take their country back." The attacks on a states' rights secessionist like Perry from the Right, rather than the center, tell us just how insane the activist wing of the Republican party has become. Their members' continual dissatisfaction with the candidates on offer reflects a fundamental problem for the GOP: they are bound to their ideology so completely that no one candidate will be able to conform to it. This is a huge boost to Hermann Cain, because he does not have a legislative record to compare to his ideological pronouncements.

In the end, the result looks just as predictable as ever: Mitt Romney getting the nomination. He has the vote of moderate Republicans (as small as that is), and now that the knives are out, the candidates trying to claim the conservative mantle will cut each other to pieces. In fact, this will make it all that much easier in the general election, since he can point to how he is less doctrinaire than other Republicans. Then again, this election had already exceeded the weirdness quotient, so who knows what will happen next.

My Conservative Side

As our politics have become more polarized and tribal in nature (I listen to NPR not Hannity, watch MSNBC not Fox News, eat local instead of Applebee's, etc) the shades of grey and ambivalences that we all have in our hearts have become blasphemous to utter. Since I am all for honest blasphemy rather than dishonest doctrinal purity, I thought I would volunteer my own conservative sympathies on certain subjects.

Much of this, of course, is small "c" conservatism, conservatism in the literal sense meaning wanting to conserve traditional, older things threatened by modern life. Those who call themselves "conservatives" today are in reality the most destructive of radicals. In their crusade to make all society submit to the will of the capitalist market, they attack the public spirit in the name of a soulless individualism that reduces all social relations to the almighty dollar.

Most of my opposition to free market orthodoxy has to do with more Leftist values of social justice. At the same time, however, I shudder to think at how unrestrained capitalism wrecks social bonds, undermines the family, and turns education and religion into consumerist businesses. This reflects a general distaste on my part for ideology, whether it be of the Left or the Right. In some respects, I have taken to heart some of the observations of that ur-conservative, Edmund Burke. He was ultimately right to decry the Enlightenment gospel of human perfectability as the gateway to failed experiments and misery on a vast scale. (Exhibit A: the Jacobin stage of the French Revolution, Exhibit B: Communism, Exhibit C: Neo-liberal capitalism). I obviously find his defense of inherited political power and the aristocracy to be bullshit, but I must recognize the validity of some of his other insights.

While I am still in the political confessional (which makes you all in cyberland my priestly confessors), I must admit that I find many liberals to be insufferably smug and naive. When I was in Texas there were so few liberals, and we were so surrounded by people that hated us, which meant that we tended to be a little more aware of what other people thought of us, and maybe restrained us. Now that I work every day in New York City, I am surrounded by ultra-PC liberals who seem completely unaware of their abnormality. They are quick to talk about social consciousness and globalization, but seem wholly ignorant of how the bus drivers and bodega owners in their own neighborhood see the world, much less those rural people clinging to their guns and religion whose paranoia may very well decide the next election. (I agree with the president's controversial remarks about rural America, because in my experience, they are true. Unfortunately, most liberals seem to have failed to understand the implications of that truth, and why it means they will be on the losing end.) It pains me to say this, but the average conservative, in my experience, is much better connected to the public pulse than the average liberal.

Wow, that is going to net me a hefty penance of novenas and rosaries.

Last, but most importantly, I think values do matter, and that while my values are mostly very different than those of the conservative movement, I think that the Left has failed heartily to talk about values, while conservatives have emphasized the importance of values. There is a fundamental contradiction in the modern conservative philosophy that extols the virtues of rapacious capitalism, and then laments the loss of "traditional values," when it is our nation's ideal of consumerism ueber alles that's to blame. Well I do think that things like having a work ethic, treating people fairly, being honest, and not compromising one's integrity are really important and need to be stressed. It's just that I think these values of fairness mean letting gay people marry and combating racism and sexism. Because I think hard work ought to be valued, I think it's criminal to let the people who make money from money amass fortunes that would make King Midas blush, all the while busting unions and taking away health insurance. I am optimistic about the Occupy Wall Street protests because they are actually forcing the Democratic politicians, who seem to only value staying in office, to actually think about what they stand for. Once we get away from ideologies, party lines, and parroting the talking points of our news media of choice, there might be some positive change.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Thoughts on a Trip to Wal-Mart

I wrote this during my time in Texas, and I am rather proud of it. Reading it again, I am also glad not to be living there anymore.

Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" has long been one of my favorite poems. In it he imagines meeting Walt Whitman in a supermarket, that most modern of locales in postwar America, with the old poet puzzled by the passing of the land that he once knew and loved so well. As sterile as supermarkets may be, they can at least inspire such reveries. A Wal-Mart, however, cannot.

I typically avoid going to Wal-Mart at all costs, which is difficult in the town where I live. As in my hometown (which is about the same size) there are few retail options available, and there are more people at the Wal-Mart than at any other place in town at any given time. It is the marketplace, the Agora, the Forum, of small-town America, and what a bitter patrimony it is.

I went tonight because I needed to load up on supplies for my road trip to New Jersey, including items like a blanket for my cat carrier, summer sausage for the road, and a small aluminum tray to serve as a compact, traveling litter box. I made my trip during the dinner hour to avoid the crowds, but my timing seemed off. The place was swamped, loud, crowded, and deeply unpleasant.

In moments such as these, a trip to Wal-Mart seems to encapsulate all that it is wrong with this country. It is a cathedral to empty commerce, completely utilitarian and lacking in any value other than selling cheaply-priced crap. All is bedecked in a faux, shallow, and emptyheaded redwhitenblue patriotism manufactured with cheap Chinese labor. The lack of civility is striking, I always feel as if I have stepped onto the set of the movie Idiocracy. This time I was at least spared something I've seen in the past: spousal yelling matches cut with many a loudly spoken profanity. (The website People of Walmart seeks to document the vortex of taste that is Walmart, although in fashion that I find more than a bit classist.) Still, I got to witness screaming children ignored by their parents, relatively benign children upbraided sharply by their elders, and an endless parade of fat kids. For some reason my brain can assimilate the many swollen people who move themselves forward by shifting their weight side to side, but the sheer numbers portly children disturbs me. (This situtation has already eroded our military readiness.)

I spend so much time by myself or in the relatively removed environment of the university that I sometimes forget that Walmart is where you find out what the score really is. We have given up the downtowns and the civic bonds of old for inexpensive DVDs, cheap towels, and low-price ham under one roof. We are a nation anaesthetized by consumerism, sated with massive quantities of shit and uninterested in quality. Wages have been stagnant for so long that few can hope for much better. I often hear conservative intellectuals crow about the wonders of the unfettered free market. If they actually had to shop at a rural Wal-mart, the ultimate outcome of their economic ideas, they might not be so praiseful, and I'm sure Walt Whitman would be struck speechless with horror.