Sunday, April 29, 2012

Will the 2012 Election Resemble 1980, Or Be More Like 1996?

With the Republican primaries over and the conventions months away, we have entered into the big lull of the presidential race.  With the drawdown in activity, I have been in more of a reflective mood, and as is my wont, have been thinking about possible historical precedents for this year's contest.  Both 1980 and 1996 spring immediately to mind, since these were the last two times that an incumbent Democrat faced reelection.  A repeat of 1980 would be a disaster for Obama, a copy of 1996 is the best case scenario.

There are plenty of similarities between the current situation and the two past elections I've mentioned.  In each case the Democrat in question came to power on a wave of hope and high expectations after a Republican administration.  Also, Carter (in 1980), Clinton (in 1996) and Obama (in 2012) came into the presidency with limited experience in Washington.  (At two years, Obama had more than the others, who had been governors.)  Each of these candidate also faced rocky first terms and a very divisive climate on Capitol Hill.  Carter governed in the midst of massive inflation, high unemployment, an oil shortage, the reheating of the Cold War, and the hostage crisis in Iran.  All of these things coincided with the coalescence of the New Right and its effective combination of monied business interests, neocon Cold Warriors, and evangelical Christians.  In 1994, two years after Clinton was elected, Republicans controlled the House and Senate for the first time since the 1950s after blowing Democrats out of the water at the polls.  Clinton had to deal with House Speaker Newt Gingrich shutting down the government, a trumped-up Whitewater "scandal," and constant harassment from newly resurgent right wing radio.  President Obama, as we well know, has to contend with a sluggish economy, a patently obstructionist opposition party, scary levels of racial resentment, and a propaganda machine masquerading as a news network.

Clinton had one ace in the hole that Obama lacks: a healthy economy.  The current levels of unemployment do not bode well for an incumbent president, and there's a good chance that troubles in Europe could send the American economy back into recession.  If that happens, I really doubt that the president can win.  He also must deal with the capricious whims of a partisan Supreme Court which could very well destroy his signature legislative achievement during the heat of the general election.  Even as an incumbent Obama will be forced to fight this election uphill, because the aforementioned Supreme Court's decision have allowed his opponents in the corporate plutocracy to spend their millions at whim.

However, Obama is most decidedly not a Jimmy Carter.  Carter's leadership style made him seem amateurish at times, and his strict moralism often got in the way of practical action; whereas Obama exudes pragmatism, confidence and competence.  In terms of foreign military interventions, Carter will be remembered for the botched Desert One rescue mission in Iran, Obama for Seal Team Six.  (However, the volatile situation in Afghanistan still holds plenty of potential pitfalls.)  Unlike Carter, Obama has not had to face challengers from his own party in the primaries, as Carter did with Ted Kennedy in 1980.  The Democrats look pretty well united right now, they just need to be able to get their base out to vote.

Obama's unflappability and no-drama style are quite different from Clinton's personal failings and his lack of discipline.  That being said, Obama possesses an asset that served Clinton well: likability.  As the president's appearance on late night TV reasserted, the man has a winning charisma and sense of humor.  His opponent, Mitt Romney, possesses neither.  We might remember Bob Dole today for his wit and self-effacing style, but he only developed these after quitting politics.  When he ran in 1996, he appeared charmless and mean-spirited.  Just as Dole fit the stereotype of the calculating old Washington hand, Romney is easy to pigeonhole as an out of touch technocrat without firm beliefs or common touch, mostly since he keeps opening his clueless mouth.

All of that being the case, I still fear that this election will be more 1980 than 1996.  The economy is too much of a wild card, the vehemence of Obama's opposition (and ability to mobilize its base) is too fearsome, and the media climate is such that a bunch of nameless plutocrats can use their lucre to fund Super PACS to spread all manner of scurrilous lies.  I can only hope that it is the more recent historical scenario that repeats itself.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Damn It Chappy, I'm Doing it My Way!"

These immortal words come via the unforgettable (for all the wrong reasons, I wish I could forget it) film Iron Eagle, one of the many cultural artifacts of the eighties that glorified war and martial values.  During my 80s childhood you couldn't swing a cat without hitting a Cold Warrior movie. This fact might indeed say more about America in the 1980s than anything else; even though our nation was not at war (except for those little incursions into Grenada and Panama) Americans went to the theater to have their wet dreams of the din of battle fulfilled by the likes of Rambo, Red Dawn, and Top Gun.

Disturbingly, a lot of this stuff was pitched at teenagers and children. God knows how many hours of my youth I spent playing with my GI Joe toys, and how many more I spent watching the corresponding TV show, which was really a half hour commercial for the toys. (Except for the fig leaf of the obligatory PSA at the end, which someone out there in Internetland has lovingly parodied.) The heroes of Iron Eagle, War Games, and Red Dawn were teens, and Top Gun really did the best it could to make flying Navy jets the place to be for teenage boys looking for good, homoerotic fun. (And you have to admit, that movie is one of the most homoerotic ever made, if not for the beach volleyball scene alone!) It all seemed designed to ensure that the next time there was a war my generation would duitifully rush to the colors instead of burn its draft cards. It couldn't have been any more different than the New Hollywood in the 1970s. One example will suffice: Tom Skerrit played one of the irreverent doctors in the anti-war satire M*A*S*H in 1970, but in 1986's Top Gun he was one of Maverick's square-jawed instructors.

It all fit so well with the general jingoism of Reagan's America, pervaded by a nationalism that sought to rhetorically exorcise the demons of Vietnam time and time again. The 'Nam revenge fantasy got its full expression in Rambo, when the barely articulate Stallone mumbles "We get to win this time." Chuck Norris, the poor man's bearded bemulleted Stallone managed to have not one but three 'Nam adventure movies with the Missing in Action trilogy. (Sidenote: his poster for Invasion USA might be the most brilliant of all time. Chuck holds not one but two uzis, and is dressed like a hired stripper while sporting a trim, blow dried mullet. Wow. Perhaps after seeing that image Gorbachev decided it was time to end the Cold War.)

Even films that were primarily about something else would indulge in a Cold War moment. Anyone remember the beginning of Predator? It starts with a bunch of commandos blowing up dozens of people in an unnamed country, referencing the many conflicts of the time in Central America. (And also bringing together a kind of action movie holy trinity never again to be equaled: Schwarzenegger, Carl Weathers, and Jesse "the Body" Ventura.) I guess slaughtering scores of brown-skinned commies on screen was considered box office gold at the time.

The militarization of pop culture extended beyond the movies, I remember wearing an outfit with camoflauge pants as a first grader, and my father bought himself a leather "bomber" jacket in the late 1980s. Toy guns started to look a lot more like the real thing, perhaps giving youngsters a little practice for being cannon fodder. Doubt me? Check out this commercial for Entertech squirt guns. (I wanted one of these babies so bad, but my parents would only buy me the cheap $.99 water pistols found at the local Walgreens.)

Yep, the 80s were a two uzi kind of decade. My father was no pacifist, but even he was disturbed by my childhood interests in war via Top Gun and GI Joe. As a result, in 1987 he took me to see Platoon, which did a good job of draining to the glory out of the bloody, blundering, business known as war. Too bad our President's father never did anything similar. Like a lot of people back in the 80s he had never heard a shot fired in anger, but glorified combat all the same. These days, knowing the realities of war contained in a still growing casualty list, the fevered jingo dreams of the 1980s seem a little quaint, and a lot misguided.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: The Steve Miller Band

Steve Miller's appeal is inscrutable.  He doesn't reel off guitar solos, he doesn't rock that hard, he can't sing too well, and his lyrics aren't exactly Dylan-esque.  But if you throw Greatest Hits 1974-'78 on the turntable, I'll know each and every note by heart.

Much of this has to do with the fact that my debate coach during my first year of college always put this album on our van's stereo on all of our long-distance road trips.  Steve Miller was our accompaniment to the endless Nebraska plains rolling by on I-80, a reliable musical companion.  We always teased one member of our team because she never failed to mis-time the handclaps on "Take the Money and Run."  (Here's the secret: the claps come after each mention of Texas, and are thus meant to be a kind of parody/homage/reference to "Deep in the Heart of Texas.")  One time my coach went into a kind of reverie about Miller's stoner vibe while "Rockin' Me Baby" played in the background.  He imagined Miller in the studio taking bong hits while strumming his guitar, so stoned that the line "be with my sweeten baby yeah" resulted from THC induced amnesia.

His records certainly have more than a faint whiff of ganja about them; they sound as if they should come with rolling papers.  Appropriately, Miller penned "The Joker," one of the great stoner anthems of all time, with its lazy vibe, silly jokes (the guitar cat-calling when he sings "some people call me Maurice"), half-baked lyrics (what the fuck is "the pompitous of love"?), and the declaration that "I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, I'm a midnight toker."  The echoing effects on "Fly Like an Eagle" seem tailor made to accompany a really good high.

High or not, though, the man could write a catchy song, songs so hummable that you forget their inherent ridiculousness. Don't believe me?  Just listen to "Abracadabra," when Steve sings that he'll "reach out and grab ya" to the tune of overdone guitar and synthesizer sound effects.

But what keeps me coming back to Steve Miller, despite my best judgment, are those memories of going down the highway with my debate teammates, many of whom I sadly haven't seen in years.  I remember those days best when I listen to "Jet Airliner," one of the better songs in the "life on the road in a rock band" genre.  (Certainly better than Grand Funk's "American Band," but not as gritty as Bob Seger's "Turn the Page," as funny as Tenacious D's "The Road," or as gloriously overdone as Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive."  That song will likely be the subject of another blog in this series on sheepish pleasures.)  Sometimes a car stereo is the best time machine of all.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The MTV Videos That Brightened My Adolescence

Between about 1989 and 1994, I watched a lot of MTV.  It was pretty much my fall back activity when I got bored, although I had to watch it on the television in basement because my parents almost always objected to what they saw on that channel.  In fact, I now realize that I started watching MTV so much in 1989 because that's when my folks got a new TV for the basement that was actually hooked up to the cable outlet, unlike the ancient massive console set so old that it was not "cable ready" as they used to say.  (That's right kids, there was a time when televisions were made without cable attachments.)

This period was the sunset of MTV as a music channel primary dedicated to videos.  The seeds of its change into its current pastiche of bad reality shows began with The Real World, a program whose ground-breaking nature cannot be underestimated.  At least back then the people on the show were pretty ordinary, and it even occasionally touched on the social issues of the day.  (The outlandish asshole Puck on the second season pointed the way to the decadent future.)

I will admit, I was both a very awkward and a very horny teenager.  The hormones and urges coursed through my body with frightening intensity, but I didn't have a solitary date until my senior prom, which ended with my paramour dancing with another guy.  This was also before the internet and its attendant flood of readily available pornography.  My main mode of relief was provided by the more flagrantly exploitative MTV videos.  I can't say I'm proud about these sometimes misogynistic artifacts today, but here are a few that stick out in my memory.

Billy Idol, "Rock the Cradle of Love"
A young comely women (perhaps 18, perhaps not) shows up at a yuppie's apartment and asks to play a Billy Idol tape (I'll explain what that was later, kids) on his stereo.  He obliges, and the girl starts gyrating to the music before stripping off her blouse after she spills wine on it.  She then takes her sexy dancing into the bedroom, where she performs the famous Tawny Kitaen video vixen leg split on top of the bed.  During the summer of 1990 my life was made much better by the fact that this was in heavy rotation.

Aerosmith, "Cryin"
It's as if some time around 1993 Joe Perry and Steven Tyler told the world "if you thought we were lame in the 80s, you ain't seen nothing yet!"  The band who once rocked hard as hard can be in the 70s had degenerated into spinning a huge oeuvre of overblown ballads.  Perhaps aware that the boys in the band were getting a little long in the tooth to be cavorting with babes in their videos, they made the brilliant decision to just show the adventures of a young and highly nubile Alicia Silverstone.  Those were the juicy lips that launched a million groin pangs in the mid-1990s.

Bell Biv Devoe, "Poison"
I ain't too proud to admit that I had this song on cassingle back in the day.  This video has more hot women in tight dresses than any other ever made.  The brief shot of the lady with ample cleavage leaning over at four minutes in has permanently been burned onto my psyche.

Chris Isaak, "Wicked Game"
This song had become a surprise hit with a different original video, but then someone made the brilliant decision to bring in a Norwegian model, a white bikini, and volcanic ash.  Much sexier and more convincing as soft core porn than the Shannon Tweed flicks they used to show late at night on Cinemax.

Prince, "Get Off" (video doesn't have original audio)
I could never fault Prince's taste in women, and Diamond and Pearl might very well be the steamiest of his babes.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Cranky Bear Returns for Another Jeremiad on the Politics of Higher Ed

[Editor's note:  I have had quite the busy week, and just haven't had the time to write anything.  When this happens and I get desperate, I reprint one of my more acerbic friend Cranky Bear's missives.  Be forewarned: he's much less elegant and refined than I am.]

Hello folks, Cranky Bear here with a bourbon and coke in his hand and righteous indignation in his heart.  With all of the campaign hoopla, most citizens seem to have been distracted from the actual policies and decisions being made by our Congress critters.  As many of you may know, the so-called Buffet Rule, which I call the "common sense idea that billionaires should pay taxes at the same rate as the people who work for them" got nixed by Republicans in the Senate.  As aggravating as that is, you probably aren't too shocked about it.

On the surface, it seems like a pretty typical example of the GOP doing everything in their power to protect the wealthy at all costs.  However, put in context of other decisions, it shows their desire to give the American public a Texas-sized rogering with the white-hot poker of plutocratic capitalism.  During the same week when Republicans refused to make the fat cats pay their fair share, they have been poised to allow the interest rate on subsidized student loans to go up.  This at a time when student loan debt has surpassed a trillion dollars, even more than is owed on the nation's credit cards.  Apparently the billionaires swimming in money ought to be coddled, while the young workforce, already much unemployed and underemployed, ought to be squeezed by the banks until their pips squeak.  It's a load of unmitigated horse shit, but the Democrats are fucking busy hiding behind the couch to avoid charges of "class warfare" to connect these things together.

They do this in spite of the fact that conservatives still keep providing them with free ammunition on the issue.  In fact, Representative Virginia Foxx of North Carolina, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, has recently broadcast her contempt for students with large loan bills, apparently never considering that her education in the 1960s at UNC cost a little over a thousand dollars a year.  College was so cheap that she didn't have to take out any loans.  It's gotten a lot more expensive since then because the state and federal governments have simply stopped funding public higher education, and have cynically pushed student loans forward into the breach.  Effectively, politicians have gutted universities while keeping them on life support via long-term debt displaced onto younger Americans.  Now, when the people THEY victimized complain about it, they get all huffy about personal responsibility, even when they were able to pay for their tuition each year with a summer job.

But will anyone with any power than little ole Cranky Bear call anyone out on this shit?  We are the midst of a horrific generational warfare that is destroying the life prospects of millions so that politically-connected oligarchs can buy an extra Leer jet instead of subsidizing the universities that are essential to create the workforce that they rely on to make their money.  These assholes have been outsourcing labor for decades, now they are outsourcing public education, too.  And yet when any number of states in this country have budget troubles, higher ed is one of the first things on the chopping block.  The hole just keeps getting deeper.

Many students now can't find places in community colleges and public universities due to the catastrophic lack of funds, and are turning to for-profit universities.  Quite a few of these institutions use their ill-gotten wealth to lobby to government for protection and lax oversight.  And where do their less than affluent students get the money to go to for-profit college?  From federally-financed student loans, of course.  The government is basically subsidizing fly-by-night shysters to bilk many of this nation's citizens, give them a second-rate education, and put them into deep debt all so a bunch of parasitic investors can make a buck.

I don't mean go all conspiracy theory on your asses, but I'll be goddamned if there aren't some dots here just begging for connection.  The whole fucking shell game is rigged to allow billionaires to make big money off of their investments in for-profit schools and in the interest paid on the loans necessary to attend those schools, after which those very ill gotten gains are taxed at a lower rate.

I guess this is all about enabling the "job creators," but guess what, we're the fucking job creators.  When I go to the store and buy (another) bottle of whiskey, that creates jobs,  When I have enough money to afford to buy a house, that creates jobs.  Folks, we are the fucking job creators, but it's awfully goddamned hard to create jobs when a huge chunk of your paycheck goes to paying off student loans.  Instead we have a vampire squid elite that is trying to suck out as much money from the public as they can, whatever means necessary.  We are dealing with a many-tentacled beast that doesn't give a flying fuck about quality education, public institutions, or a healthy standard of living for the majority.  It just wants the fucking money, and that's all it wants.  This grotesque beast that feeds on pure greed seems to have neutralized any and all institutions in public life, including our once august universities.  The biggest campaign issue this year ought to be what to do about it.  One of the party's is too busy sucking its cock to be critical, and the other one is full of a bunch of fucking cowards.

Higher ed and student loan interest rates are just one part of the problem.  I tell you this, if no one on the ballot bothers to make a fucking stand on this issue, Cranky Bear will just stay in his compound on election day this year, because a vote would be meaningless.  

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

1981: Classic Rock's Last Gasp

I listened to a lot of "classic rock" stations in my time, and as a teenager I noticed that the stuff played on these stations began in 1967, and ended sometime in the early 1980s. Classic rock meant The Beatles after "Strawberry Fields" and Sgt. Pepper, their early Merseybeat material was strictly for the "oldies" stations.  The format at that time also excluded metal (although early Van Halen still got airplay), meaning no Sabbath or Iron Maiden. (This has changed recently now that people my age are into nostalgia, I now hear classic rock stations play plenty of Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, etc.) It wasn't until very recently, however that I discoverd that 1981 is the last febrile year of "classic rock" as it is classically conceived. (By that I mean "blues based, guitar centered rock music that is not punk or metal.")

Here's a rundown of bands and their highlights:

Rolling Stones
In 1981 the king daddy of classic rock bands, The Stones, released Tattoo You, their last album of any great worth. Overly optimistic fans usually declare the latest mediocre Stones record to be "their best since Tattoo You" (or "their best since Some Girls if especially hopeful.) This album, which is mostly a collection of outtakes and reheated false starts, contains their last two enduring songs, "Waiting on a Friend" and "Start Me Up."   Charlie and Keith really found a groove on this record, and it's a shame that they never got it back.  So good it almost makes up for Emotional Rescue.  It can't make up for three decades of lame output by supposedly "the greatest rock and roll band in the world."

Foreigner, a band which I despise, put out 4 in 1981, their biggest seller. (Nothing makes me cringe more than Lou Gramm's overblown singing style.) OK, I'll admit that I kinda like "Urgent," especially the killer sax solo courtesy of the legendary Junior Walker and that "Waiting For a Girl Like You" has a nice vibe to it.

Apart from "Mr. Roboto" I loathe Styx too, even if "Lady" can lay claim to being first power ballad.  (It's either that or Aerosmith's "Dream On.")  1981's Paradise Theater is their last classic rock album before they delved into the New Wave electroworld on Kilroy Was Here.  The album's nostalgic and elegiac themes in songs like "Best of Times" certainly reinforce the notion that mainstream rock music was running out of gas.

Blue Oyster Cult
BOC didn't survive long into the 1980s, but 1981's Fire of Unknown Origin brought us "Burning For You," their last memorable single and perhaps their best.

REO Speedwagon
I am cheating a little with this one, since High Infidelity dropped in 1980, but it became the #1 rock album of 1981, spending 15 (!) weeks in the top slot. Even though I have ties to Champaign, Illinois, (their city of origin), I can't get over the fact that REO is pretty lame. That being said, High Infidelity manages to be the one moment where they transcend mediocrity and approach greatness. Case in point: "Keep on Loving You" is THE definitive power ballad, capable of launching a thousand awkward high school slow dances.

Like REO, Rush saved their best album for the early 1980s: Moving Pictures. They did so by embracing synthesizers and a more modern sound, most famously on "Tom Sawyer." If you can get past the rockstar navel-gazing of the lyrics, "Limelight" rocks pretty feckin' hard, too.  With Rush's current renaissance among the young, their contributions to classic rock's dusk might be the most enduring.

And then there's Journey, a group which I had professed to hate for years, but now acknowledge a semi-secret, sheepish affection for. At a time plagued by histrionic hard rock vocal theatrics, Steve Perry was the only guy who could really pull it off while still keeping his dignity. 1981's Escape spawned the only power ballads that can challenge "Keep On Loving You" for the crown: "Open Arms" and "Don't Stop Believing." I am not embarassed to admit that the latter gives me goosebumps every time when it kicks into "streetlights people" section. (And not just because my Chicago White Sox used it as their theme on the way to the 2005 World Series.) Don't just take my word for it. In our digital age, so contemptuous of the past, it is among the most downloaded songs. On top of that, they crafted one of the great moody songs to drive down an empty highway to at 4AM: "Who's Crying Now," which my childhood Top 40 station kept in rotation into the nineties.  If 1981 is classic rock's dusk, Escape is its owl of Minerva.

Billy Squier
Yet before I lavish too much praise upon the classic rock era's autumn, we must remind ourselves that 1981 barfed up Billy Squier's "The Stroke," perhaps the genre's absolute nadir. (One rock station I used to listen to in Chicago actually had commercials bragging that it didn't play this song!) It's about as subtle as a fart in a spacesuit, and just about as tuneful.

Let's face it, the best rock of 1981 doesn't hold a candle to any year between 1967 and 1972. By 1981 seventies giants Zeppelin had broken up. The next year former greats The Who put out the underwhelming It's Hard, their last original record. In 1983 Roger Waters helmed the good ship Pink Floyd into the self-indulgent, unloveable rocks of The Final Cut. By that time a pop revival led by Michael Jackson and Def Leppard's cotton candy brand of metal, along with MTV and its merry band of British New Wavers, made what we now think of as "classic" rock obsolete. Given the choice, I'll take "Rio" over "The Stroke" any day.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

My Favorite Reality Show Is Over: Why I'll Miss the Republican Primaries

I tend not to like reality television, mostly because it's exploitative, stupid, and full of moronic fame whores.  That said, I finally found a reality program full of the worst kind of fame-mongering jerks the world has to offer that I could watch: the Republican presidential primary.  Each day I would eat in the faculty lounge with one of my fellow teachers, and gab about what was happening in our favorite show.  We were sad to see Bachmann, Perry, and Cain voted off the island, but ecstatic once it was apparent just how crazy Frothy McSweatervest would act just to get attention.  I especially enjoyed how the primary let the conservative id run loose, perhaps forever letting the public see conservatism's true colors.  Guys like Reagan and Shrub had managed to wrap legalized torture and cold hearted supply side economics in the warm trappings of folksiness and charisma.  For  years conservatives did an impressive job of finding likable men to front rather unlikable ideas, but their luck seems to have run out.

The warmest candidate in the bunch was Herman Cain, a former lobbyist and fast food pizza executive who demanded not to be taken seriously until his penchant for sexually harassing co-workers went public.  Their second folksiest candidate in this race is Ron Paul, a man whose ideas normally require a tinfoil hat accessory.  Apart from those two they had a crazy church lady (Bachmann), a fatuous know it all forced to leave office in disgrace (Gingrich), a lame-brain Texas governor who accomplished the impossible feat of making George W. Bush look smart (Perry), a snarly-lipped modern day Savnorola with even less of a sense of humor named after anal leakage (Santorum), and a pandering robot who reminds most Americans of their clueless boss (Romney.)  Watching these clowns in action falling all over themselves to say the most outrageous things to curry favor with the bitter clingy crowd made me wonder if I had stepped into an Evelyn Waugh novel.  I will miss the show.

Since the media focus moves so fast today, I'd like to remember some of my favorite moments from the campaign, since they are already vanishing into the ether.  Please add your own in the comments if I've missed any.

The debate crowd yelling "let him die."  So I guess the party preferred by the Army of God thinks Jesus was misquoted when he told his followers to heal the sick?

Every single time Bachman opened her mouth.  Remember when this woman won the Iowa straw poll, and people were actually listening to what she had to say?  I cannot think of any greater indictment of our entire political system.

Rick Perry can't remember what federal departments he wants to eliminate.  As a former resident of Texas, I relished watching Governor Goodhair reveal to the world the true extent of his chuckleheadedness.  This man was once the presumptive front runner!

Mitt Romney declares himself a "severely conservative" governor.  He makes it sound like he had some kind of disease, like a severe case of the measles.

Herman Cain joking about killing immigrants.  This man was a front-runner for a major party presidential nomination?

Mitt Romney generally acting like a rich plutocrat out of a comic book.  He casually tried to make a ten thousand dollar bet, acted like his wife's two Cadillacs were something every family would own, and bonded with NASCAR fans by laughing at their cheap ponchos and letting them know he knew NASCAR owners.

Newt Gingrich claiming he was paid by Fannie Mae to be a historian.  Yep, a historian who has never produced a single peer-reviewed publication.

Robo-Romney telling Michiganders "the trees are the right height" and awkwardly trying to guess facts about complete strangers since he seems incapable of actual human conversation.

Debate crowd cheers Perry's record number of executions.  Perry himself appears pretty non-plussed about the possibility that he killed an innocent man to boot in this debate.

Santorum denigrates "blah people."  There are too many hateful things to choose from, but this statement is the worst, and his lying attempt to walk it back the most deceitful.

Three degree holding Rick Santorum calling the president a snob for wanting more students to go to college. My God the resentment of these people is crazy.

Herman Cain quotes Pokemon to add gravity to his farewell speech.  Words fail.

Pope Santorum attacks birth control.  Oh yeah, he also supported the Blunt Amendment.  And Republicans wonder why women prefer to vote for Obama by such a large margin.

Newt's moon colony.  As Colbert says, Gingrich wasn't running for president, but trying out for Bond villain.  Don't forget, he was once the front runner, too.

Let's be serious for a moment, folks.  Look at the list of stupidity, hatred, and buffoonery I've laid out above, and tell me how the Republican party has not become an ideologically extreme movement that would be a sad joke if it did not hold so much power.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Used Records You Can Always Find For Cheap

As part of her job, my wife had to go to Princeton today, and I decided to tag along.  I did so mostly to keep and enjoy her company, but also so I could visit the Princeton Record Exchange, among the best record stores in the Garden State.  In the last few years that I have had a turntable and have been buying records, I have noticed that some albums, artists, and genres are found with alarming regularity.  Since folks want to hold onto their Beatles LPs, it turns out that finding them used is a lot harder than picking up something by Steve Forbert.  Many formerly popular albums simply failed to stand the test of time (at least in the minds of their owners), but still have subtle charms to offer.  Some of the albums I discuss below can be had for a couple of bucks, but can give you a C-note worth of musical enjoyment.  Of course, most are so cheap cuz they suck.

Singer-songwriters of the 1970s
In the first place, most joints that sell used records are full to bursting with 70s singer-songwriter albums.  If you want to get Dan Fogelberg, Nicolette Larson, Carly Simon, or James Taylor on wax, you will have no problem.  Music made for sensitive types to drop Quaaludes to while sprawling on the shag carpet has aged just as poorly as the 'ludes and carpet have.  Lester Bangs would be proud.

This is not to say all that is readily available is bad.  I have become a big fan of Traffic, enabled by the fact that I could easily acquire their entire back catalog at most record stores for a song.  John Barleycorn Must Die is especially common in record stores, an album that I have learned to love and cherish.  This was a group that married jazz, rock, and folk in bold and interesting ways; I am at a loss to explain their sudden lack of support, other than perhaps a prejudice these days against the use of the flute.  (This also might explain why Jethro Tull records come a dime a dozen, too.)  Perhaps it's because they don't really fit into the seventies hard rock template, and that their style of music pretty much died with that decade.

Humble Pie
Speaking of hard rock, just about every used record store whose transom my shadow has ever haunted inevitably sold Humble Pie's double live Rockin' the Fillmore.  They're another band that doesn't seem to have been able to maintain their substantial following from back in the day.  No, not all artists can inspire the loyalty of a Barry Manilow, but that doesn't mean they have little to offer.  Humble Pie was not a great studio band, but they could tear it up good and proper, and if you are looking for a double-barreled blast of grinding boogie rock, look no further.

Fleetwood Mac, Tusk
Speaking of double albums, 1979's Tusk may be a secret rock snob favorite, but it can be found just about everywhere, usually in immaculate condition.  You get the feeling that a lot of people played this sprawling curiosity just once.  Back in '79 the Mac's mainstream fans probably expected a retread of Rumours and instead got a supremely moody double album intercut with semi-avant grade experiments by Lindsay Buckingham.  Do yourself a favor and let the lack of insight by the masses be your opportunity to get a slice of pure vinyl beauty for less than the cost of a latte.

Neil Young, Reactor
Many a time do I dig into the Neil Young section of the racks and come up disappointed after finding only a few copies of this album.  At used record stores one tends to find tons and tons of lesser albums by great artists.  I could imagine a lot of folks bought this lame record in the aftermath of Young's mind-blowing Rust Never Sleeps and felt cheated.  It looks like they got the last laugh, cuz thirty years later record stores still can't resell the damn thing.

David Bowie, Tonight
Often, when I go looking for David Bowie records, I can find only this tossed-off mediocrity attempting to cash in on his all too successful sell-out bid for popularity on Let's Dance.  Apparently a lot of people in 1984 got hoodwinked.  To quote Johnny Rotten, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Red Rider, "Lunatic Fringe"

I used to talk about having guilty pleasures when it came to pop music, but my friend Rachel L. convinced me that I should just like the stuff I like, and therefore not feel guilty about it.  I think she's right, and consequently, I feel no guilt about loving cheestastic ABBA and rock snob-approved Pavement with equal feeling.  That said, I do get a little embarrassed about admitting some of my musical preferences to the my more discerning friends.  My emotions about this less than exalted music is more sheepishness than guilt.  I hope to have a running series on this blog about sheepish musical pleasures.

What better place to start than with "Lunatic Fringe" by Red Rider?  It's a song I've heard for years, but I never knew the artist until recently, when I saw it featured on a Vh1 "one hit wonders" countdown.  The band is the north of the border combo Red Rider, featuring future "Life is a Highway" singer Tom Cochrane.  "Lunatic Fringe" is one of those songs that seems to have just been dropped out of the sky solely for the purpose of being pumped through the sound systems of pickup trucks in the heartland as it's being played on the local classic rock station.

You can tell it's from 1981, because the drums and guitars are leavened by a good dose of synthesizers, which give the song the added ingredient to put it over the top.  Like their Canadian peers Rush, Red Rider (at least on this track) figured out how to make synthesizers work in the interest of the song, rather than the other way around, especially in setting an ominous mood at the beginning.   The loud splashes of synth in the breaks raise the drama, too.

My favorite part about the song, however, is the fantastic rolling rhythm established at the beginning, which suggests a semi-truck of pure rocking power cruising down a glorious highway.  By the early 1980s, most classic rock had become completely uninteresting from a rhythmic point of view.  I also really dig the soaring steel guitar solo, which sounds like something the Edge would have played had he grown up in Winnipeg rather than Dublin.

Furthermore, I've recently discovered the political meaning of the song; the title refers to the rise in right wing, racist extremists at the time the song was written.  Very rarely can such a pointed political song ("you're not gonna win this time") rock this hard without devolving into sanctimony.

Of course, there's plenty here to make me sheepish, from the 80s production to the simplistic nature of the lyrics (lack of sanctimony only carries you so far) to the fact that this is the kind of song that Kenny Powers listens to.  But hey, I am sure there are others of discerning taste who like this song.  I know you're out there.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Death of a Piano Teacher

Tonight I learned the news that my childhood piano teacher passed away.  In recent years, I've found out that as the people from my youth get older, it's not just family members who deaths I must anticipate.  The last year has not been kind in this regard.  Ruby, the neighbor lady who used to make cookies for me in return for shoveling her walk, passed not so long ago.

My memories of Mrs. Bird are still quite vivid in my mind.  During the mid-1980s, when I was in the fourth grade, my mother decided to buy an upright piano for our house, providing the touch of bourgeois class that a working-class farm girl had always aspired to.  She soon started sending me and my sisters to Mrs. Bird's house once a week for piano lessons.  I resisted heartily at first, mostly because it was something I had been forced to do entirely against my will.  I distinctly remember throwing one of my few temper tantrums after my first lesson, banging the piano keys in frustration and anger.

Mrs. Bird's kindness and infinite patience eventually won me over, even if I was never all that great as a piano player.  My total deficit of coordination, which at time had me picked last in gym, didn't exactly turn me into Liberace, either.  The lack of confidence driven into a boy constantly bullied on the schoolyard playground contributed to my maladroit efforts at piano playing.  I did practice, at least, and I came to get some enjoyment out of playing the piano, even if I loved playing the trumpet (which I picked up in fifth grade) a lot more.  I always felt like I let Mrs. Bird down.  She enthused over my long, spindly figures and how far I could spread them over the keys.  My hands were made for the piano, but my head wasn't.

My sisters and I typically went in for half hour lessons each Thursday afternoon to the ranch house she shared with her husband, a man so quiet that I maybe heard one or two words out of his mouth in the five years I took lessons.  We always came in through a door in their garage, and went to the basement, where she had both an organ and a piano.  The carpet and furniture in the basement had a certain smell of age to them; it was all the original stuff that had been put in the house back in the 1960s.  The coach by the piano fascinated me, since it was built much sturdier than the sofas of the Reagan era.  I always went first, and my sisters followed, which allowed me time to read that week's Sports Illustrated (which arrived at our house by mail each Thursday) while they played.

Mrs. Bird was a small, white-haired woman with an odd voice which always sounded like her nose was stuffed up.  Over time, I found something very soothing about it, however.  Her patient and supportive manner probably had more to do with that feeling than anything else.  At a time in my life when I felt constantly judged and found wanting, it felt good to spend time learning with someone so helpful.  The time in that musty basement had an ofttimes therapeutic effect on me.  I loved petting her enormous black and white tom cat, his hair wiry on account of his advanced age and shrinking ability to keep himself completely clean (he also constantly tried to jump up on the piano bench while we were playing!)  I liked thumbing through her 1960s coffee table books (one on wildlife had articles on mosquitos and wolverines that I must have read a hundred times each) and comic books.

As often happens in childhood, I found out that many adults carried secret burdens and sadnesses with them, and she was no exception.  She had been married once before, as a very young woman.  Her husband fought in World War II, and died in the Battle of Okinawa.  After discovering that fact, I wondered for a long time what he had been like, and what that death had done to her.  It was a stark reminder at a young age that the world is indeed a cruel place.

My affection for her was so great that when I was allowed to stop piano lessons after five years, I felt an enormous sense guilt, and hoped that she did not take my decision personally.  Whenever I saw her in public afterwards, or at recitals where my sisters performed, I always made sure to be extra special nice.  Life is made less onerous and more enjoyable by people like her, and she'll sorely be missed.  I can only hope I inspire half as much devotion when I am gone from the students of my own who are less than enthusiastic to learn what I have to teach them.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Lament for the Kansas City Royals

I have a confession to make: I am a baseball traitor who abandoned the team of his childhood.   Growing up in Nebraska, there were no major league teams in a state where college football is religion.  Coming of age in such a place meant that many kids followed pro sports as a whole, rather than their local team, and often chose a team to be theirs based on how good they were or how cool their uniforms were.  Proximity did count for something, however.  Kansas City was the nearest "big city," their AAA team was in Omaha, and their games could be tuned on the radio, making Royals allegiance a natural fit for many Nebraskans.  I was among them, going to my first baseball game in the summer of 1984 at age eight, a double-header between the As and Royals.  My dad got me a Royals pennant at that game, which adorned the wall of my bedroom for years afterward.

I watched with glee the next season as the Royals won their first and only World Series title against the Cardinals.  Baseball cards soon dominated my life, and I strove with each set to at least get the complete compliment of Royals in my collection.  I even bought a Starting Lineup plastic figurine of George Brett.

My fall from Royals fandom did not come overnight, it happened largely due to my general falling away from baseball in high school.  I stopped collecting baseball cards, stopped watching games religiously, and spent most of my spare time in my room listening to music and reading non-baseball related literature.   In college, baseball crept back into my life during the end of the 1995 season.  Many of my mates on my dorm floor were huge baseball fans, and we all got together to see the game when Cal Ripken broke the consecutive games played record.  We later watched the exciting one-game playoff that year between the Angels and Mariners, as well as the epic playoff series between the Mariners and the newly resurgent Yankees.

That season hooked me on baseball again, but I did not really pull for the Royals, or any other team, for that matter.  Part of this had to do with my distance from my childhood loyalties, but mostly because the Royals were ten years into their current twenty-seven year playoff drought.  I did see them play the Cardinals in 1997, but mostly to witness Mark McGwire in the flesh and to attend an interleague game when they were still a novelty.

Moving to Chicago in 1998 gave me the first chance of my life to live in a major league city, and after flirting with the Cubs for awhile, I decided to commit to the White Sox.  They had a lot of exciting young players, and being there in the spring and summer of 2000 for their division-winning run solidified my support.  Although I am now ashamed of my choice, I had left behind my childhood team for one that I thought would be a winner.

It's hard to believe today, but once the Royals bestrode the American League like a colossus.  In an eleven season run between 1975 and 1985, the Royals won the American League West division five times, went to two World Series, and won a title.  Between 1976 and 1980, they won their division four out of five seasons.  During the whole 1975 to 1985 period, they finished lower than second only in strike-shortened 1981, also the only year they failed to achieve a winning record.  In seven of these eleven seasons, they won more than 90 games.  The Royals have accomplished that feat but one time since, all the way back in 1989.  During their glory years, the Royals teams had George Brett (the greatest third baseman in American League history), Dan Quisenberry (one of the era's great closers), Frank White (the best second baseman in the American League for most of his career), Bret Saberhagen (a two time Cy Young winner), and Willie Wilson (a speedster who led the league in triples five times.)  Beyond all that, they played in a nice park and sported attractive uniforms.

From 1986 to 1989, during my most intense years of childhood baseball fandom, the Royals did not make the playoffs, but were highly competitive and featured the dazzling talents of Bo Jackson.  However, the team made some epically bad personnel decisions, which combined with new baseball economics that have made it extremely difficult for small market teams to succeed, created a perfect storm of futility.  In 1987 entering into a period when low-revenue teams have no margin for error, the Royals traded future ace David Cone for career backup catcher Ed Hearn.  After their successful 1989 campaign, they made two big free agent signings that turned out to be big time busts: pitchers Mark and Storm Davis.  Once the old core of the team aged and retired, the Royals really dropped off.  From 1995 to today, the Royals have had a winning record just once, in 2003.  In that same period, they have lost 100 games in four different seasons, including three in a row from 2004 to 2006.

That run of awful seasons followed their aforementioned hope-raising winning campaign of 2003, a turn of events that would crush the souls of most baseball fans.  Making matters worse, the Royals have groomed a great deal of top talent, only to lose it to better financed teams.  Johnny Damon, Zach Greinke, Carlos Beltran, and Jermaine Dye have all flown the coop, in some cases to bring titles to other teams.  Damon led off for the "idiots" Red Sox of 2004, and Dye won the World Series MVP in 2005 while bringing Chicago its first World Series victory since 1917.  Holding onto talent has not been a priority, since in 2011 the Royals had the lowest payroll of any team in the major leagues.  They had a $35 million payroll, compared to $202 million for the Yankees and $168 million for the Red Sox.

Small market teams can indeed compete (though not always long term), that was the lesson of Billy Beane's moneyball tactics in Oakland, and Tampa Bay's success in recent years.  (Of course, Beane's stable of pitchers had nothing to do with his game plan, proving that it takes a fair amount of luck to win with a low payroll.)  However, behind each success story are teams like the Royals and Pirates mired in decades of failure.  When I look at the Royals, a once proud and dominant franchise that now is lucky not to lose ninety games, I feel relieved that I switched allegiances, but mostly sad that in baseball, as in the rest of American life these days, money equals power and success, and those without wealth will have to work five times as hard and be ten times as lucky to get ahead.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Why More Cop Shows Should be Like The Sweeney

As those who read this blog should know by now, my pop culture interests are heavily Anglophilic and 1970s obsessed.  These two loves of mine come together quite nicely in one of my favorite television shows ever: The Sweeney.  A Brit former colleague of mine turned me on to it after I had discussed my affection for the UK version of Life on Mars, a show set in the 70s that often made implicit reference to the characters and style of The Sweeney, from two-fisted cops to Ford Grenadas driven with reckless abandon.  Imagine the Beastie Boys' video for Sabotage brought to life and transported to Blighty, and you pretty much get the picture.

It's a breath of fresh air today in a television world populated by incredibly lame and predictable police procedurals.  The only American cop show worth a damn in our time has been The Wire, and that's a show that's really more about Baltimore as a city than it is about police and crime fighting.  I know the current crop of crime shows well because my wife watches them obsessively.  I jokingly call her favorite programs "dead body shows," since they usually revolve around the solving of murder through the use of forensic evidence found on a corpse.  I find these shows -the various Law and Orders, Criminal Minds, the CSIs, etc- to be dreadfully boring and full of totally uninteresting characters.  It's hard to feel any emotional connection to the police figures, mostly because they so are so two-dimensional that they make Mitt Romney look human.   The criminals are very likely to be mentally deranged; they commit their crimes because they are psychopathic rather than opportunistic.  I find this convention, which is especially pronounced on Criminal Minds, to be incredibly tiresome.  If the criminals are just monsters and demons, they can never be interesting as characters, since their warped nature is their only motivation for their crimes.  I've noticed a strange phenomenon whereby the lovers of these shows are able to sit down and watch one after the other for hours, as if in some kind of trance.  The monochromatic and formulaic nature of these shows are what makes such marathon viewing possible.

The Sweeney is something else entirely.  The two main characters, detective Jack Regan and sergeant George Carter, are fully-fleshed out people with quirks, personal demons, and an ambiguous relationship with the audience.  This is especially the case with Regan, played outstandingly by John Thaw, who often comes across as crass and thuggish.  (Just watch him action, uttering the immortal line "Get your trousers on, you're nicked!")  He seethes with working class resentment, clashing with his superior Haskins in ways that betray his anger at having to be told what to do by one of his social betters.  Carter is less volatile, but after losing his wife in the second season, he begins to act more and more Regan-like.  He is a man caught in a tug of war between the better angels of his nature and Regan's willingness to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

One thing that contributes to the show's greatness is that dead bodies are few and far between.  Carter and Regan are members of the eponymous Sweeney, which is a Cockney rhyming slang term for the Flying Squad, the London police's armed robbery unit.  The criminals (called "villains" by the cops) are not obsessed with their mothers or looking to jizz on a corpse, but are practical-minded careerists who commit robberies to make money, and for their own personal enjoyment.  Among my favorite characters in the second season are Colin and Ray, two flamboyant Australians who enjoy living the high life and making fools out of the poms.  For the most part, the criminals on the show come from the same working class roots as Carter and Regan, and tend to take a practical, hard-nosed approach to their careers in crime.  The lines between their world and profession, and that of the police, blur considerably.  The cops know the world of the criminals well, and even consort with them to get information.  Sometimes you get the feeling that the roles of cops and criminals could be reversed, and that Regan could just as easily used his wits and fists to steal and thieve as to catch the crooks.

That ambiguity reflects a general realist feel to the whole enterprise.  The people on the show look and dress like regular people, right down to the flared trousers, brown color palette, and explosion of corduroy that one would expect to find among the less sartorially sophisticated gents of the polyester decade.  The grit of the streets coats the film, and you can practically smell the stale reek of ashtrays in the police office scenes.  Characters sport thick accents, bad haircuts, and look old for their age, ground down by life.  While there is the occasional bank hold-up hostage plot and take-down of terrorists episode, the ongoing struggle between professional criminals looking to make some quid and professional police trying to lock them up feels much more real to me than any serial killer plot.

Furthermore, like few other shows of its ilk, The Sweeney excels in the ancient and lost art of car chase scenes.  The modern cop shows betray their lack of excitement when an hour goes by without a single screeching tire or bent fender.  The beginning of the episode "Stoppo Driver" might be my favorite tv cop show car chase scene ever, not least because it looks like the chase is on real streets, and the action isn't hacked to bits by overactive editing, as is so often the case today.

Last but not least, The Sweeney has perhaps the best closing credits ever.  Whereas the opening theme pulsates with energy and a skanky beat, the closing is meditative, showing the detectives putting their coats on at the end of the working day, conscious that many more days of work lie ahead.  It's a world-weary close, and it never allows the show to end with cheap triumphalism or a totally happy ending.  Carter and Regan may have nicked some villains today, but more await tomorrow.  That sense of life as never-ending toil reflects the show's working class ethos, a voice sorely lacking in American popular culture these days.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Top Ten Most Annoying Fashion Trends of the Oughties

It's hard to believe, but the first decade of the 21st century ended almost two years ago. It seems like only yesterday that I was getting annoyed with Y2K hysteria and wondering why I chose academia instead of getting in on the boom.    Even though decades are often a poor way to divide history, they do seem to provide a chronological framework for our cultural memories, both good and bad. There are plenty of bad fashion trends that we associate with their particular decades: leisure suits with the 70s, high water pants with the 80s, Zubaz with the 90s. Here are ten annoying and sometimes downright tasteless fashions that have bugged the shit out of me over the last decade.

1. Crocs

Without a doubt, crocs are hands-down the ugliest footwear every concocted by mankind. They're just plain ugly, so ugly that I cannot put into words the way they make my eyes bleed. The fact that Dubya wears them ought to be proof enough of their utter shittiness.

2. Saggin'
This trend is much older than the oughties, but it seems to have become much more brazen and common in recent years. I don't know how many times I've had to see the underwear of my students in the last year, either from saggin' or unbelted low rise jeans (see #6); it ain't pleasant.  Since my privileged private school students enjoy letting it sag, it's safe to say that this fashion trend has lost its street cred.

3. Butt Talk

If the last decade will be remembered for anything in terms of fashion, it will be remembered as the era when notions of shame and dignity in public dress died. How else can we have a society where people go around with "pink" and "juicy" written on their asses? How long before I start seeing "insert cock here" embroidered on sweatpants? Like many of the worst fashion trends and other diseases, this one started with the sororities and infected everyone else.

4. Uggs

Another sorority favorite, Uggs are unattractive in the extreme and are favored by young women who lack any sense of personal style and desperately want to conform. The name itself practically says "ugly," fer chrissakes!

5. "Irish" shirts

From the sorostitutes we go to the frat morons. During the years of my time academia I kept seeing more and more "Irish" green tees on campus. They're usually worn by douches who drink Bud rather than Guinness and would find the works of Brendan Behan, James Joyce, and WB Yeats to be "faggy." On behalf of America I apologize to the people of Eire for how we've reduced your entire rich culture and history into a celebration of lewd drunkeness.

6. Low-rise Jeans

Theoretically, low-rise jeans are inoffensive. Theoretically, Glenn Beck is just a patriot who loves his country a little too much. Theories don't always work in practice.

6. Trucker Caps

In my family there are men who've been wearing these caps for years in their capacity and truckers and farmers. Little did they know if they had worn their hats ironically instead for practical purposes they would be considered hipsters instead of hicks. The fact that Ashton Kutcher, perhaps the most annoying person in America not named Joe Lieberman, started this trend should be reason enought to hate it.

7. Lower Back Tattoos

It seems that American society has already reacted strongly against the "tramp stamp," which unlike mom jeans and polyster pantsuits, lasts forever. I get the feeling that tattoo removal is about to become a big business.

8. North Face Jackets
You often seen these paired with Uggs, and worn by the same kind of bland, entitled upper middle class preppies. This our generation's answer to the Member's Only jacket, and will be though to be just as stylish thirty years hence.

9. V-Neck T-Shirts Worn as Outerwear

One recent hipsterish trend is the wearing of white v-neck tees as outwear. Now I have my share of v-necks, but they are worn underneath my dress shirts. Like most men my age, I'm rather hirsute, and the v-neck means a patch of exposed fur much denser than the one on display above. Please fashion industry, have pitty on us hairy-chested men.

10. Flip Flops.

Memo to flip-flop wearers: I don't want to see your calluses, corns, and ingrown toenails, or hear you fwapp-fwapping up the sidewalk. These are to be worn in the shower, not in public, 'nuff said.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Late 70s Malaise Rock

Ever since I finally broke down and bought a turntable a few years back, I have been delving deeply into the music of the 1970s.  Don't get me wrong, I'd always loved disco, funk, punk, classic rock and the like.   However, I had neglected the poppier regions of the musical landscape, perhaps out of an over-developed sense of musical snobbery masking itself as refinement.  Of the many sub-genres I've found lurking in the grooves of wax from the polyester decade, none interests me more than something I call "malaise rock."  The term, of course, alludes to president Jimmy Carter's famous speech in 1979, where he responded to the energy crisis by giving America a sermonizing speech on the need for a kind of political spiritual renewal.  Even though he never used the term "malaise" in the speech, that term stuck not only as the embodiment of Carter's presidency, but of America in the late 1970s more generally.

I have vague memories of this time of high inflation, scarce gas, and international tension.  While the hostage crisis in Iran did not register with me, I have a very vivid recollection of sitting in my parents' car while they physically pushed it to the gas station a couple of blocks away so as to avoid using gas to get there.  I had no way of understanding why they were doing that, or the financial struggles my parents did a fine job of hiding from me.  

The pop music of this era reflected a nation literally and figuratively running out of gas.  Written mostly by Baby Boomers, it also spoke to a sense that the hopes and dreams of the sixties had died for good.  I normally have little use for Jackson Browne, but "Running on Empty" eulogizes the loss of a generation's dreams rather well.

More literally, The Kinks' "Gallon of Gas" from 1979 commented on rising gas prices, fitting with the theme of economic decline voiced by the album Low Budget that it came from.

On my old blog I wrote a whole essay about this song, whose dark themes are somewhat hidden by the lush production and famous saxophone riff. It's a song about those nights after days of pursuing a dream that isn't coming true, living in a place you can't stand and getting drunk to forget about it all. Let's just say that my time in Texas attached me to this song in a way that others might find a little hokey for a piece of seventies AM radio pop. The sense of exhaustion in this song mirror's Browne's metaphor of "running on empty."


You may look askance at me for adding this disco party classic to a list of malaise music, but hear me out. I've always thought this song was meant to be a little ironic. It came out in 1979, during the middle of bad economic times, evidenced by the "leave your cares behind." The theme seems to be: "it's all going to shit, so you might as well party until the whole thing goes up in flames." The catchy riff has a robotic feel to it, as if having a good time has been drained of emotion to become an exercise in pure escapism.

Speaking of late-1970s decadence, no group exemplified that era's escape into empty pleasures than Fleetwood Mac. (The sub-genre of 70s California Cocaine Rock will most likely be the subject of a future post.) During the sixties, drugs held out the possibility of liberating the mind and expanding consciousness; now they were just a means to the end of getting loaded. No single album captures the feeling exhaustion brought on by overindulgence better than Fleetwood Mac's epic 1979 double album Tusk.  To me, "That's All For Everyone" sounds like the dizzy, drug-addled stumbling of someone about to pass out.  Other songs, especially Stevie Nicks tunes like "Angel" and "Storms" rue over lost love and missed opportunities.  These songs sound like drinking to forget distilled into the grooves of a record.

And sure, many folks wanted to forget the seventies as America passed into its neo-liberal redwhitenblue Reaganite capitalist wet dream in the 80s.  But guess what, the bill for thirty years of neo-Gilded Age economics has come due, and malaise is again the order of the day.  Too bad our current Top 40 offers little of the commiseration provided over the airwaves back in the late seventies.