Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Footnote On Baltimore and History

My last post discussed the importance of knowing history to understand the protests in Baltimore, but over the last few days I've been thinking that knowing history is also necessary to understanding the backlash against them.

One of my favorite Twitter accounts is of someone embodying (you really can't say parodying) Richard Nixon, and tweeting as if the Dark Lord were still alive, commenting on current events.  Having an unhealthy obsession with Nixon, I can vouch for the accuracy of the tweets, which have got me thinking about how Tricky Dick used white racial resentment to overpowering affect in the 1968 election.  George Wallace, running as a third party candidate, made such appeals more overtly, getting support not just in the Deep South.  Nixon could claim to be more palatable than Wallace, all the while touting "law and order."

His campaign ads in '68 trumpeted this theme time and time again.  One ad, juxtaposing Nixon's words with scenes of violence in the streets and bloodied protestors over discordant music, ends with Nixon intoning "the first civil right of every American is to be free from domestic violence, and so I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States."  The uprisings in the ghettoes were, in this interpretation, to be seen merely as chaos to be stopped, not the result of legitimate grievances.  The whites who made up Nixon's "Silent Majority" felt the same way, and rewarded him with the White House.  Once in office, Nixon supported the FBI's infamous COINTELPRO campaign, which set out to destroy the Black Panthers and similar organizations by any means necessary.

That did not necessarily have to be.  The Kerner Commission, set up by LBJ to investigate the causes of the destructive urban uprisings of 1967 in Newark and Detroit (among other cities), concluded in its 1968 report that racism and economic privation were at the heart of the matter.  Instead of addressing these problems head on, the government kept spending money to send more young men from the ghettoes to die in Vietnam, and Nixon unleashed the FBI.  In the ensuing decades, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, the War on Drugs and the prison industrial complex made the backlash even worse.

Today I fear a repeat of the past.  So many in white America are still blind to the reasons why African Americans in Baltimore are so upset, and that blindness is on the tipping point of becoming fear.  When white America's racial fear buttons get pushed, bad bad things happen.  There's always another Nixon there, ready to exploit it.  The key this time is for right thinking people to be prepared to fight back.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore And The Necessity Of History

After Fort Sumter, the first blood shed during the Civil War was on the streets of Baltimore when local secessionists attacked Union troops from Massachusetts

I wrote here back in November how events in Ferguson prove the need for history, and here we are again with unrest roiling Baltimore after yet another police killing of an unarmed black person.  Yet again the news media presents the anger, protest, and violence in response as if it’s completely divorced from any larger historical or sociological context.  Baltimore proves yet again why history urgently matters.  The world we live in is the product of the past, and the only way to understand that world properly is to know its history. 

Here's a thumbnail sketch, in case you don't know:

Baltimore is not a unique city in its problems.  After World War II several factors converged there and in many other American cities.  African Americans migrated in to get a better life, only to find discrimination and that many of the industrial jobs they sought quickly going away.  At the same time, suburbanization, fully funded by the government via interstate highways and subsidized home loans, led to white flight and a massive drop in the tax base and with it, city services.  This included schools, which now did little to offer opportunities to get out.  The government, by working with “red-lined” maps, did not extend generous loans to black urban neighborhoods, abetting their physical deterioration.  To make matters worse, “urban renewal” bulldozed neighborhoods and placed people in alienating public housing blocks that were cheaply made and poorly maintained by design.

1930s housing map of Philadelphia showing redlined neighborhoods

All the while the new impoverished urban landscape was patrolled by mostly white police officers above the law with undisguised contempt for the people they were supposed to protect.  That unhappy combination of lawlessness and contempt led to cops murdering and getting off, which in many cases was the match to light the fuse of several urban riots/uprisings in the 1960s in just about every major American city.  In the aftermath of the destruction, little or nothing was done by government to repair the damage.  (I drive down Springfield Avenue in Newark quite regularly, and the scars of '67 are still there despite some of the neighborhoods being revived.)  It was as if a hurricane or tornado came through, and nothing was done to help in the aftermath.  The aftermath brought further suburban flight (now including middle class people of color) and an even bigger cratering of industrial jobs.  Then, in the 80s, came the War on Drugs and the incarceration state, which made police behavior in prior eras seem positively polite by comparison.  After that came "Broken Windows" policing, feeding more and more young people into the maw of the prison system, which came to house a higher percentage of the nation's population than in any other country.  From the 90s onward, as urban life suddenly became attractive again to the affluent classes (in large part due to the effects of the new policing policies) the less ravaged neighborhoods experienced a massive wave of gentrification, pricing many people out of their homes.

The Cross Bronx Expressway with housing blocks on what used to be a neighborhood

Is it any wonder that people living in places so thoroughly oppressed and abandoned are reacting so angrily?  As my friend Chauncey DeVega has expressed, the real wonder is that the scenes in Baltimore aren't much more common.  When the media covers urban unrest, it tends to just excise the larger historical context, which of course delegitimizes those making the grievances.  It presents the tragic deaths of people like Freddie Gray as an isolated incident, not the product of a historical and systematic system of oppression and inequality.  This misperception is incredibly powerful and detrimental.  It is up to my fellow historians to put themselves out in the public to set people straight, and for the media to actually listen.  If that doesn't happen, the fear-mongers and reactionaries will win.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Track of the Week: Head East "Never Been Any Reason"

When I say the words "independent label rock" you would normally think of edgy, punk-inflected music deliberately flouting the mainstream.  You certainly don't think of a 70s arena rock band like Head East, but they were what indie was in the days before Pavement and Superchunk.  I honestly didn't know much about them until my good friend and fellow vinyl head (and loyal reader) Brian showed me their Flat As A Pancake record cover some years back.  He noted that it was recorded at a studio in South Pekin, near his hometown of Pekin, Illinois.  (Said town is also name checked in a Wilco tune.)  Before getting a re-release with a major label in 1975, they put it out independently on their own label the year before, hence their claim to be an indie band, despite the fact that their music is a prime example of what I call "8 track Camaro music."  (It's named for the car and tape format, with other representatives being 70s Aerosmith, Foghat, James Gang, etc.)

The album's title was a self-deprecating comment about the prairie landscape of central Illinois, which is indeed quite flat.  (I lived there for six years, so I speak from experience.  I also grew up in central Nebraska, so I know from flat.)  The band didn't meet up in the Peoria area, but rather at the University of Illinois, where they were students.  Champaign-Urbana also birthed another 70s hard rock act, REO Speedwagon, which would go on to have a more storied career and eventually hit the real big time in the early 1980s on the wings of perhaps the greatest power ballad of them all.  I don't think that's a mistake, the central Illinois region just feels like the perfect place to generate a certain kind of 70s hard rock sound.

The landscape referenced as "flat as a pancake" is full of hard, sharp corners, soaring skies, and straightaway highways that seem to go from horizon to horizon.  Given that, it makes sense that "Never Been Any Reason" has a sharp hard-hitting rhythm, soaring harmonies, and straight-ahead, meat and potatoes guitar riffs.  However, none of that can explain the totally rad double Moog synthesizer solo, its far out sounds so much more organic and fascinating than the automated bleeping and blooping of the synths sounds to follow the next decade in the spandex era.

This song did not go high on the charts, reaching only 61, but I heard a lot in my teen years and early twenties when I tuned in to the local classic rock station on way too frequent a basis.  (The local hits station didn't play hip-hop or grunge until my college years, it was still stuck in the 80s.)  I actually wonder if it gets that much airplay on classic rock stations outside of the Midwest.  Songs like this are a vestige of an earlier time when popular music was much more regional in nature, where the rare regional act could generate enough buzz to get picked up by a major or get airplay outside of its region.  (For example, Seattle's mighty Sonics were huge in the Pacific Northwest, but practically unknown elsewhere.)  From what I've read, radio playlists became incredibly limited and DJs without the power or authority to spin what they wanted as FM radio entered the 1980s.  Since the massive wave of consolidation in the 90s, most radio stations are just part of some conglomerate, playing the same stuff in every town, often by satellite.

Like just about everything else in America since the mid-1970s, popular music is in a corporate cage with fewer people on the top with more and more money, and more people further down without much of a chance to get higher on the ladder.  Regional musical scenes exist, but are far less distinct than they used to be.  The heavy Moog synthesizer on "Never Been Any Reason" isn't the only thing making it a relic.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Return Of The Jedi Is Both Underrated And A Missed Opportunity

I've had Star Wars on the brain a lot recently, in large part in response to the news and speculation about the newest installment coming this Christmas.  I've also been listening to the enjoyable Star Wars Minute podcast, and recently read Chris Taylor's stellar How Star Wars Conquered The Universe.  Both have got me thinking a lot about Return of the Jedi, the film in the series that most fans (including myself) see as the start of a drop-off in quality.  It's here where some of the bad tendencies began to express themselves: groan-inducing comic relief (Jar-Jar is the spiritual child of the Ewoks), uninteresting cinematography, recycled stories (second Death Star, anyone?), and immature, unconvincing handling of human emotions.

Of course, this is not what I thought when I saw the film on opening night in 1983 as an excited seven year old.  Empire was one of the first movies I can remember seeing, and I saw the re-release of Star Wars the next year, in 1981.  I was super-excited to know if Vader really was Luke's father, and whether he would finally be a Jedi.  Vader's turn to good and unmasking blew me away, Jabba's palace fascinated me, and for a seven year old, the Ewoks were basically the greatest thing that ever happened.  It is easy in hindsight to diss Jedi, but in its time it really gave the people what they wanted: a return to the fun and derring-do of the original film after the downer of Empire.  After all, it was the 80s, and just as the second film reflected well the national mood in the midst of Carter-era malaise, Jedi's flashiness and singing Ewoks triumphing over an evil empire was made for the Reagan years.  Too often people judge this film from the perspective of having watched it twenty times, rather than that first experience in the theater in '83 after so much anticipation.  When I remind myself of its context, I can enjoy it so much more.

Of course, that doesn't change the fact that Jedi could have been a whole helluva lot better.  You could start with the fact that Lucas' co-producer Gary Kurtz was gone for this installment.  Film is an inherently collaborative medium, and too many people buy into the notion of Star Wars as the singular product of George Lucas' genius.  A lot of other people made it what it was with their unique contributions, including composer John Williams, sound designer Ben Burtt, Kurtz, and a whole host of others.  According to Kurtz, Lucas had neglected story in favor of toys and spectacle, and after clashing over the shape of the film, Kurtz left.  His vision for the third film was darker and more emotionally sophisticated, with Han dying, Leia faced with political difficulties, and supposedly ending with a more ambiguous scene of Luke walking off into the sunset.  (Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, whose work helped make Empire the great film that it is, is also on record saying he tried and failed to get this version made.)  The Taylor book also implied earlier conflicts concerning cost overruns incurred by Kurtz in making Empire.

I don't get wistful about much, but when I think about the film that could have resulted from those ideas I wish that time travel was a reality and I could somehow go back and get Kurtz and Lucas to mend fences, and to somehow broker a deal between Lucas and the Director's Guild.  Richard Marquand helmed Jedi, and there's a reason that name isn't exactly familiar.  Because Lucas had not included an opening credits sequence to Empire, the Guild fined Lucas, who then quit, making it difficult for him to secure an American director for the film.  Before that point, both Steven Spielberg and David Lynch were possibilities, and my mind reels at what those directors could have done.  Instead we got Richard Marquand's unremarkable direction, compounded by (according to Taylor and Marquand) his tendency to go along with whatever an intrusive Lucas acting as uncredited co-director wanted.  Worst of all, the film looks a little cheap in comparison to Empire, something brought about by Lucas' desire not to repeat the budget issues of the prior film.

It's easy today for Star Wars nerds like yours truly to mock Jedi, but they ought to remember the space it occupied back in '83.  When today's adult nerds were little wee ones seeing this for the first time it was giving exactly them what they wanted.  This film shows how making blockbusters for the whims of contemporary audiences is not the path to lasting relevance for a film, and how film-making is inherently collaborative.  I really hope these lessons are being heeded by JJ Abrams and those others responsible for bringing Episode VII to the screen.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Final Report On Letting The Academic Dream Die

Loyal readers of this blog may know that I once wrote quite a bit about academia and negotiating life after quitting academia.  If you look at the sidebar with my most popular posts, you’ll see that this topic has brought more readers to this site than any other.  Since this blog is not a careerist endeavor, I haven’t felt the need to keep providing more post-ac content, since that’s not where my head has been. 

I have been thinking about it again, but mostly reflecting about how I’ve begun to think of my academic life as something confined unalterably to the past.  I’m just about to finish my fourth year of teaching at an independent high school, and I have fully internalized my new career and vocation.  I don’t really think of myself as a former professor who happens to be a teacher, but a teacher, full stop.  I no longer see that as a step down or a sign of failure, or am even tempted to even think about it that way.

Four years ago, it would have been hard to think about being in this situation.  I was about to fly out to NYC for a job interview, desperate to escape my circumstances but frightened and anxious about what lay ahead.  I was elated to get the job, but in the summer that followed I often had heart-pounding anxiety attacks and was bedeviled by self-flagellating thoughts about my apparent failure to stick with academia.  I had devoted seven years of post-graduate schooling, two years of a low-paid low-respect visitorship, and three years on the tenure track to the academic dream.  I had a dental health issue I waited too long to get fixed due to grad student penury, and which still cost me an arm and a leg because my visitorship didn't come with dental insurance.  I had moved to a town 1500 miles from my soon to be spouse where I felt isolated and lost.

Thankfully I had stopped committing myself to the life equivalent of throwing good money after bad.  Four years later, I am so much happier living in a place where I want to live, with a job I love, and most importantly, with my family.  For about three years or so the nagging doubts and feelings of inadequacy would still sneak up on me from time to time, but they've passed.  This year I think that finally ended.  I taught a historiography class, and really enjoyed introducing my students to the basics of the scholarly approach to history.  It wasn't a graduate seminar, mostly because it was actually enjoyable.  Once my students found out that I had written journal articles, they really wanted to read one of them, which we did.  In their eyes I was not a failure, and it seemed pretty stupid at the time for thinking myself one for never having published a book, and letting my current projects slide.

Yes, I would love to get that book published and finally get an article manuscript out that I've been sitting on for three years, but I've got more important things to do.  I have students to teach, children to raise, family vacations to take.  When the end of my life comes, either tomorrow or in fifty years, will I really care that I never got tenure at a university?  I doubt it.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Republican-Democrat Primary Body Switch

[Editor's Note: the following is the result of my unhealthy interest in the presidential election.  It is a sick sad addiction, but please don't judge me for it.]

Remember that spate of body switch movies in the 1980s, where a younger person would switch bodies with an older one (usually a parent)?  Recent political events have brought about a real life equivalent between the Republicans and Democrats, who seem to have switched their approaches to party primaries.  As long as I can remember, Democrats have tended to have big, fractious primary battles where the candidates tear each other to shreds and unconventional nominees can emerge a la Carter, Bill Clinton,  and Obama.  Just as often, the party ends up in a state of chaotic disarray.  On the other hand, the Republicans have come into the primary with a chosen front-runner, someone who who has waited long enough for it to be "his turn."  Both Bushes, Dole, Romney, and McCain all came into the nomination battle expecting to win, and they did despite the gnashing of wingnut teeth.

In 2016, it's quite the opposite.  Hilary Clinton looks practically uncontested at this point for the Democrats, something I have never seen for that party when they don't have an incumbent president.  The Republicans have a massive number of hopefuls, but unlike in years past, there is no clear favorite.  There is an attempt by the party leaders to bestow that status on Jeb Bush, but it doesn't look like it's sticking.

On the surface this may look like an advantage for the Democrats, but I'm not so sure.  A more contentious GOP primary means more media attention, which also means that Republican issues will get more public airing.  There's a good chance that those issues will then dominate the general election, just as they did in 2012 when the Dems didn't have a primary.  While Clinton is tested, the eventually Republican nominee will already be in high fighting shape for the general election.  (Remember how both Dubya and Obama got rocked back on their heels in their first presidential debates as incumbents?) 

This also gives the Republicans a chance to deviate from their unsuccessful pattern of nominating an established candidate without the ability to attract undecided voters.  A trial by fire just might bring out the political best in one of the candidates. Basically, Democrats best not get too cocky.  Pride goeth before the fall.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Track of the Week: The Smiths "The Queen Is Dead"

I'm putting together some new lessons for my American history classes on the 1980s and the rise of neoliberalism, and I am getting some rather intense flashbacks to that period of time, which now is actually starting to feel rather distant to me.  We have been awash in 80s nostalgia for quite some time, and it seems to be reaching fever pitch, from TV shows like The Goldbergs to the rebooted Ghostbusters franchise.  Putting my classes together is reminding me just how awful that time could be, and how the reality of the time for so many people is lost in the nostalgia.  My farm belt hometown has never recovered, and neither has Rust Belt and inner city America, but we still think of it as a fun time of crimped hair and rubics cubes.

By the mid-1980s, resistance was futile, and in those pre-Internet days getting ahold of challenging music, films, and books could be extremely difficult.  In terms of popular culture, at least, I tend to see 1986 as the year that the 80s mentality finally vanquished what few traces of the counterculture of the 60s and 70s were left in mainstream American life.  Neoliberalism had become the new norm, rather than an insurgent philosophy, family sitcoms like The Cosby Show ruled the airwaves and Top Gun packed people into the theater to witness a massive ode to the military industrial complex.

I wasn't hip enough yet to know, but in 1986 the great band The Smiths (who I would discover in the early 1990s) captured the dread and ennui of that time perfectly on record.  Although Morrissey is crooning about the British royal family and the effects of Thatcherism, the spirit of it applies quite well to America at the time.  It starts with a rough recording of "Take Me Back to Dear Old Blighty" before pounding drums come bashing in and Johnny Marr announces his presence with a kind of mangled feedback rarely heard on Smiths recordings.  Strange voices echo and a paranoid-sounding bass thrums up high in the mix, driving things forward at an insistent pace.  In many respects this song is the anti- "Where The Streets Have No Name," in that it uses guitar effects and tight drumnbass rhythms in a much less anthemic fashion.  Morrissey is at his sinister best here, joking about breaking into the royal palace to have the Queen tell him he can't sing, and for him to cheekily reply "you should hear me play piano!"  It isn't just an attack on the royal family, but on a society failing to offer its youth anything real or meaningful.  Morrissey decries "the pub that wrecks your body/ and the Church that steals your money," and repeats the line later in case you missed it.  Unlike Johnny Rotten in the previous decade, he combines his vitriol with a heaping dose of wit, like a man telling jokes while his hands are clenched in fists of rage.

It is a long song by Smiths standards, and the later part of it doesn't contain any lyrics, just the same propulsive sound with a little echoey piano thrown on top of it.  I had (sadly) first heard the Smiths through compilations, so when I finally picked up The Queen Is Dead I was blown away at first listen by the title track, which was too long and too political and too divergent from usual Smiths songs to be included in a compilation.  If anything, its proof that compilations are bollocks.  That and how the 80s managed to produce some trenchant reactions to the neoliberal onslaught if you know where to look for them.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Quiet Brilliance Of Paul McCartney's First Solo Albums

Paul McCartney has long been thoroughly misunderstood by casual music fans.  He is usually thought of as the nice, cheerful Beatle capable of writing a great pop song but unwilling to experiment and push the envelope like his writing partner John Lennon.  Furthermore, McCartney's solo records are usually considered fluff, plenty catchy and all, but totally lacking in serious intent.

To reduce McCartney to "Silly Love Songs" does him a huge disservice.  In the first place, his behavior in the later years of the Beatles was not so nice and cheerful.  Yoko Ono did not break up the Beatles, McCartney's attempt to take over the band after manager Brian Epstein's suicide alienated his mates to the point that Lennon quit and the others essentially took his side.  It is telling that on their early solo records the Beatles play on each others' albums, but nobody plays on Paul's.

Those first two records, McCartney and Ram, are also more musically daring than what his bandmates were doing, contrary to stereotype.  Don't get me wrong, Plastic Ono Band, Imagine, and All Things Must Pass are all fantastic albums, and are as good as or better as Paul's output in the period.  In the period from 1970 to 1971, Paul McCartney basically invented lo-fi indie pop about twenty years before it became a thing.  He was willing to throw experiments and spontaneous stuff on records fearlessly, and for that reason both albums have a warm, homey feel to them.

McCartney announces its intentions with its beautiful, artsy, off putting cover.  Despite naming the album after himself, he does not appear on the front.  The picture on the back is a famous and endearing photo of him sheltering his daughter in his coat while sporting a lazy beard.  The front lets the listener know that this will not be a straightforward pop album, and the back signals that the man behind it is taking shelter in domesticity.  Both principles come out in the first track, "The Lovely Linda," evidently recorded on a lark while Paul was testing the rather limited equipment he used to record the album.  Make no mistake, McCartney isn't just reveling in domestic life.  The stark "Every Night" describes deep depression better than just about any other song.  He describes wanting to go out every night and get wasted to forget then not wanting wake up the next day.  It also expresses longing for Linda, who evidently endured a lot in this period of time.  This is not a silly love song, but a look into the dark night of the soul.

Other tracks sound unpolished, even unfinished.  "Momma Miss America" is missing lyrics, but has an amazing dark mood about it, like the soundtrack to an assassin heading out at midnight to do a dirty deed.  The song shows off both McCartney's drumming and guitar playing, since he recorded all of the instrumental tracks himself.  While his first solo album closes out with "Maybe I'm Amazed," a very Beatle-y love ballad, it's almost there to provide some of that old time religion for listeners who might feel lost at sea.

1971's Ram steered towards brighter shores, but maintained the same off the cuff, spontaneous feel.  It was credited to Paul and Linda McCartney, a fact that others saw as a dig at John and Yoko, but which I interpret as a tribute to how Linda had helped pull Paul back from the edge. The first song, "Too Many People," seems a direct response to his detractors, especially Lennon, with the lines "You took your lucky break/ and broke it in two."  It also rocks pretty damn hard, opening up in ways that the first album never quite did.  Some experimental touches persist, like the hypnotic "Ram On."

Once McCartney get the acrimony of the Beatle breakup out of the system he crafts some beautiful, symphonic pop songs that could have been put on Abbey Road.  "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" may be way over in the realm of frivolity that so frustrates his fans, but it is still gorgeous and supremely catchy.  The last song, "Back Seat of My Car" is just flat out amazing, and deserves to be much more well known than it is.  The 50s touches, the symphonic strings, impassioned singing and searing guitar are quite a combination.  The sheer complexity of it is really stunning, and in that respect it far surpasses what his former bandmates were up to.  You can call his music in this period frivolous, but certainly not uninteresting.  Forty-five years on it's easier to see the brilliance, removed as we are from the hothouse world of the early 1970s and expectations it brought to each new Beatle solo album.  Now it's free to just be good music, and for that I am grateful.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Chris Christie's Latest Con

Pity poor Chris Christie.  All the Republican cool kids are starting to announce their candidacies, and he's still on the sidelines with possible indictments hanging over his head and a lack of support from residents in his own state.  He's gone from potential front runner to also-ran.

In a bid to establish his relevance, he has proposed a plan to "reform" Social Security that is plain old austerity politics.  It mostly involves raising the retirement age to 69 and cutting off benefits above a certain.  He also wants to do similar things to Medicare and Medicaid.  Of course, in typical Christie fashion he has pitched the same tired conservative talking points as straight talk, claiming that "Washington is afraid of having an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid with the people of our country.  I am not."

Chris Christie proclaiming his honesty is just about as ridiculous as Madonna proclaiming her modesty or Bill Clinton his marital fidelity.  At least those other people don't insult the public's intelligence with such claims the way Christie does.  He talks as if austerity is necessary because the money isn't there to pay for "entitlements."  (Scare quotes there because I have been paying for the retirement benefits of the elderly for two decades now, but am supposed to somehow not expect the same provided to me by the next generations.)

We all know that the money is there, and that it is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.  Forget the Social Security trust fund, there is plenty of money held by the superrich in offshore tax accounts to keep the system solvent under the current rules.  It's just that the ideology of Christie and his ilk says that billionaires ought never to be made to make a sacrifice, but that the average worker ought to maintain that state of affairs by putting off their retirements or sacrificing financial security in old age.  He's also against raising the minimum wage, unions, and pensions, so I guess the future elderly with have to make do with gruel and early death.

We are the wealthiest nation on earth, and can well afford the rather modest retirement benefits our welfare state offers.  To pretend otherwise is not to engage in straight talk, but the worst kind lying cant.  Of course, Christie isn't saying these "hard truths" to get voters, but to get more of that sweet sweet Koch money.  I get the feeling that even they aren't buying what he's selling anymore.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Track of the Week: The Seeds "Pushin' Too Hard"

There are certain styles of music that have a sound that I just can't resist, a sound and feel that sometimes supersedes the songs and artists themselves.  After seeing that famed 60s underground Seattle band The Sonics had reunited and put out their first album in almost fifty years, I did a deep re-dive into sixties garage rock during my morning commutes this week.  Fuzzy guitars, caveman rhythms, bright organs, and sneering vocals make a helluva combination, one that always keeps bringing me back.

If I had to go back to the old days before iPods and make a mix CD of garage rock that could fit into a 77 minute box, "Pushin' Too Hard" by The Seeds would be one of a handful of songs that would make the cut, no questions asked.  The song starts with a demented organ line and frantic pace, putting the listener right into the damaged mind of singer and principal songwriter Sky Saxon.  (And no, that's not his real name.)  He rants and sneers about others "pushin' him too hard" in a way that captures the teenage psyche perfectly.  Before the song gets very far it jumps right into an organ solo that sounds like spinning plates about to crash and a basic, plunking guitar solo that despite its almost comic simplicity, comes across just as sinister as Saxon's voice.  I wish I had known about this song when I was sixteen, since it would have well complimented my theatrical defiance and over-inflated sense of individuality.

Garage rock was the ultimate teenage music made by young men who wanted to imitate their British Invasion heroes but were unable to match their musical virtuosity.  It is simplistic, often to the point of ineptitude, but when lightning strikes in just the right place, like on "Pushin' Too Hard," the result is so stirring that you don't notice the absence of even a third chord.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Is Rand Paul Crazy Like A Fox?

The day Rand Paul launched his campaign, it looked like it had turned into a dumpster fire in record time.  His campaign video got locked from YouTube for using copyrighted music without permission and his website was full of embarrassing typos as well as stock photos purporting to be those of his supporters.  Since then he has been extremely dickish towards reporters (especially women) who dare to ask him tough questions and his campaign has sued TV stations running ads about his old statements on Iran.  One might think that his campaign is an attempt to make Ted Cruz look sane.

To quote the bard, he may be mad, but there is method to it.  Paul knows that if he has any chance to win the Republican nomination, or even come close to it, he can't try to beat the establishment at its own game.  He has to win over the conservative wing and gain some others in the bargain, and after this week he is actually stronger rather than weaker in that regard.  As far as the conservatives go, Paul's quarrels with the media are the reddest of red meat.  It is a matter of conservative orthodoxy that the media is a den of liberals out to destroy them, and by being combative Paul is giving Right wingers something to root for.  Instead of trying to win the press with charm, a la John McCain, Paul using it as a foil.  If the major news outlets get upset, that only helps him.  Are GOP voters actually going to care what anyone besides Fox News thinks of him?

Paul knows that his appeal is in being an insurgent, so why play the same game someone like Jeb Bush is playing? Paul also has another potential trick up his sleeve, namely the Republican attempt to make 2016 about foreign policy.  This is more a desperate attempt to distract voters from the improving economy than anything else, and his want much saber rattling on the Right.  While Paul has been desperate to walk back prior criticism of Israel and American militarism, he is still the one Republican candidate not in thrall to neo-con orthodoxy.  He is surely aware that despite the party line, most Americans have tired of war and international adventures.  Promising more of them is hardly a viable electoral strategy.

I actually see Paul as a potentially very strong candidate.  He can grab multiple Republican factions, including the hardcore libertarians, the closeted isolationists, and the broader conservative wing tired of the establishment and I am sure well aware that Ted Cruz looks like a complete pompous ass whenever he opens his mouth.  Paul is a bit of an ass himself, but also appears able to communicate with others in a way that Cruz can't.  He has also attempted to reach out to African American voters in an opportunistic but I think considerable way.  In some respects Paul appears to be playing a double game: appealing to the Right while making himself appear to be the candidate best able to appeal to voters who have not been enamored with the Republican party, thereby holding out the prospect that the big money donors just might get behind him.

Folks on the Left, including yours truly, have been having a chuckle at how inept Paul's campaign has looked this week.  Now I am thinking that Paul himself might end up having the last laugh.  Goldwater managed to win the nomination in 1964, and Reagan came close in 1976.  With the public already seeming dead tired at the possibility of a Clinton-Bush election, Paul just might be able to squeak in through unconventional means.  I wouldn't put any money on it yet, but crazier shit has happened more than once.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Can Star Wars Overcome Its Obsolescence?

I've had Star Wars on my brain a lot recently.  This is partially because of reading a recent book about the growth of the films into a major phenomenon, and also listening to episodes of The Star Wars Minute podcast.  I have also become a little more sanguine towards the upcoming sequels when my initial reaction was to refuse to see them.  I still doubt that they will be anything better than just okay or an exercise in nostalgia.  (I'm basing this on JJ Abrams' track record.)

There are a lot of narratives surrounding Star Wars, and people today act as if fans turned against the prequels with the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999.  I actually think this is a bit of revisionist history.  Plenty of fans had problems with Jar-Jar and other elements of the film, but the initial response was still largely enthusiastic despite acknowledged drawbacks.  Many thought it was a great leap forward in terms of special effects, and Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 stars.  A film that makes a billion dollars isn't exactly unpopular.  Sure it wasn't what the fans hoped it could truly be, but they could be reasonably satisfied with it, and plenty of kids enthusiastically got on board.

I really think the "it's not great, but it's good enough" mentality around Phantom Menace changed when The Matrix came out later in 1999.  The special effects were much more innovative, and the story line much more compelling (and I say this as someone who can take it or leave it.)  The complete failure of the prequels did not become truly apparent, however, until 2001 and the release of The Fellowship of the Ring.  That film (perhaps the best of the LOTR trilogy) blew Phantom Menace clean out of the water when it came to story, special effects, acting, dialogue, and direction.  When Attack of the Clones came out a year later, Star Wars looked obsolete, yesterday's news.  At that point, I didn't know a single sci-fi/fantasy fan who preferred the Star Wars prequels to the LOTR films, and with good reason.  Peter Jackson showed George Lucas up.

Of course, Peter Jackson appears to have suffered from the same affliction as George Lucas, using his prior success to make a second, mind-numbingly dull trilogy that has sapped any of his audience's goodwill away.  There are legions of Star Wars fans waiting for the new sequels, but the first one will be a major test.  It could end Star Wars' obsolescence, but more likely I figure it will either be a nostalgia moment (hence the involvement of the original cast) or an updating of an old property by making it just like all the current day blockbusters, which is what Abrams did to Star Trek.  Those films aren't bad, but they're hardly inspiring.  That'll be good enough for Disney, who can be content to sit back and watch the money roll in.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Opening Day Thoughts And Links

After five long months, baseball is back.  This year the first game took place, appropriately enough, on Easter.  Both signal the end of winter, and symbolize the victory of life over death.  The older I get, the more cognizant I am of death, and the more baseball matters to me.  I get the feeling sometimes that those two things are connected.  Baseball lasts from the time that the snows melt and the first green shoots poke out of the ground to the time that the leaves fall and the harvest has come in and the sun starts going down before supper's ready.  It is my daily accompaniment during the months that life flourishes, and its return each April heralds better things.

Here are some links to things that have helped me get through this off season:

1979 All Star Game

Now that YouTube allows hours-long videos and MLB has welcomed rather than shunned it, there is an amazing number of whole vintage broadcasts online.  I found out about this one via the twitter feed of Dan Epstein, author of two good books on 70s baseball.  Unlike many full games from the time, this is not taped from a rebroadcast, and so is full of all of the original commercials, which are just as interesting as the game.

"The Berenguer Boogie" Music Video

In the wake of the Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" in 1985, all kinds of jocks decided it was a good idea to cut godawful songs and music videos.  My friend Justin, who happens to be a Twins fan, alerted me to one of the lesser known, "The Berenguer Boogie," featuring middle reliever Juan Berengeuer, aka Sen~or Smoke.  He lets others do the rapping on this truly awful song, which prominently features a whistle, which while prominent in football and basketball, has no use in baseball.  This is something that belongs in the "so bad it must be seen to be believed."  (The music video by the 1986 Dodgers falls into this category, too.)

Game 3 of the 1986 NLCS

This comes from the classic nail-biter between the Mets and Astros.  I love the broadcast because it has "man on the street" interviews with subway riders, play by play by Keith Jackson, and a hilarious imitation of Jackson by Astro Billy Hatcher before the game.

Sully Baseball Daily Podcast

Sully puts out a podcast every day, even during the off season.  Although I like a lot of other baseball podcasts, their hosts lack Sully's engaging manner of speaking and his ability to blend fandom with analysis.

Unrealized Stadiums

The great Stadium Page has a really cool section full of plans and renderings of stadiums that were never built.  Evidently there was once talk of putting a baseball stadium in the Meadowlands complex for the Yankees, and of putting a roof on Shea Stadium.

Cardboard Gods Blog

Josh Wilker's book of the same day is a must-have for any thoughtful Gen X baseball fan.  It's much more about life than it is about baseball cards, which are really just used as inspiration for digressions.  The blog operates the same way, and it ought to be a much bigger deal than it is.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Track of the Week: Led Zeppelin "Hey Hey What Can I Do"

Thursday night I went out to the store to get a gallon of milk and some fruit for my insatiable toddlers, and something just hit me.  The sun had gone down, but the air was still warm, with a certain sweetness in the breeze.  Finally, after a long, wretched winter, spring was here.  Cruising the aisles of breakfast cereal and frozen vegetables, I walked with a spring in my step and a song in my heart.

Over the years I've developed some seasonal habits in regards to music.  Once spring hits, I break out the Led Zeppelin.  Their combination of feral sexuality and mystical Celtic mumbo jumbo is perfectly suited for the months when nature wakes up and life returns.  People tend to think of them as an electrified hard rock band riding on massive riffs, but some of my favorite Zep tunes are acoustic.  "Hey Hey What Can I Do" is one of my favorites of this genre, a non-album B-side for the much more bombastic "Immigrant Song."  The wall of acoustic guitars and folky mandolin are great, but I love this song for how it show's off Zep's rhythm section.  Bonham's bashing never sounded better, and John Paul Jones' snakey bass is high up in the mix and absolutely glorious.  When the warmth of the April sun heats my car up enough that I need to roll down the window, there's no song I love more to throw on the stereo.

The lyrics are typical hard rock bravado, the song's character talking about falling in love with a prostitute, but then seems to forget emotion by the time of the "keep ballin'" chant near the end.  Perhaps that kept the song off of Led Zeppelin III, but in any case it's living proof that Zeppelin's cast-offs beat the best of what a lot of other bands of their era could muster.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Great Films I Can't Bear To Rewatch

As loyal readers know, I am a great lover of cinema.  I have a tendency to rewatch my favorite films over and over again, so that I may enjoy them on multiple levels.  However, there are those rare films that truly blow me away, but that are so disturbing or even traumatizing that I simply can't bear to watch them again.  Here's a short list:

Requiem for a Dream

I was inspired to write this list by this film, which is featured in an episode of The Projection Booth podcast this week.  It was such a viscerally affecting experience that I still remember the exact context of seeing it.  On July 4, 2001, my friend Kevin brought it over to my apartment to watch before we headed off to an Independence Day barbecue.  I trusted his taste in films, although I hadn't heard of this one.  An hour and forty minutes later, I was completely devastated.  Never before or since has a film so convincingly shown destruction of lives and dreams at the hands of addiction and drugs.  There are images from this movie still burned into my head.  Watch it, but be prepared.

The Wrestler

Here's a second Darren Aronofsky flick.  The man seems to be the world's specialist in amazing films that rattle their viewers on a much deeper level than your average shocker horror flick.  Yet again, the context for seeing this film is forever branded in my head.  I was with some friends at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, which ran a reel of old 80s wrestling promos beforehand.  That put me in a jovial mood, something the film utterly wrecked.  I watched helplessly as the main character destroyed himself and his family in pursuit of the unattainable.  (There are more than a few parallels with Requiem for a Dream.)  Both films suggest the destructive, nefarious power of the American Dream like no others have before.  Each will be viewed in future years as our era's Gatsby, if future viewers can bear to watch.  I bought a used DVD of this years ago, and still can't bring myself to rewatch a film that has moved me more than perhaps any other.


If Aronofsky is the king of great traumatic films, Todd Solondz is the master of the cinema of discomfort.  I couldn't actually finish Welcome to the Doll House because the bullying of the main character was so real that it unearthed a lot of very unpleasant memories of my own youth.  A friend made of sterner stuff than I recommended that we see Happiness, and I made it through despite my extreme desire to get up and leave the room.  The most disturbing thing about the film might be that great actors like Dylan Baker (playing a child abuser) and Philip Seymour Hoffman play horrible super-creeps in a way that makes them fully human.  Great stuff, but I can't even think about seeing this one again without shivering.

Night and Fog

Alain Resnais' unsparing Holocaust documentary is only about half and hour long, but says much more in that half hour than most three hour documentaries do.  The horror and absolute, almost inconceivable inhumanity of the Holocaust is so palpable that I cannot see it without breaking down.  I used to use this when I taught European history, but don't think I can watch it again.

Let The Fire Burn

This recent documentary concerns the firebombing of MOVE headquarters by Philadelphia police in 1985.  Unlike most others, it does not contain a single word of narration, adding to its immediacy and humanity.  It both somehow manages to demonstrate the cultish nature of MOVE and the negative effects on its neighbors, but also the absolute, craven unjust horror of a city government and police force willing to kill its own citizens and burn down one of its own neighborhoods.  It is an amazing film that left me completely wrecked.  Please watch it, but prepare to be deeply unsettled.

I feel emotionally drained just thinking about these films.  Feel free to add your own examples in the comments.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Indiana and the Shift in the Culture Wars

The culture wars have raged long and hard in American politics, at least back to the 1970s.  I certainly can’t remember a time when they weren’t.  Growing up in the 1980s in the John Paul II Catholic Church with its obsession with abortion and sexuality, I knew plenty of people who voted almost completely based on culture war issues.  In that era while there was no question that a majority of Americans were not in favor of banning abortion, it was obvious that the issue was a big winner for conservatives, since it mattered a lot more viscerally to their base.  Around the time I was in high school in the early 1990s it seemed like culture war issues were inescapable, from attacks of “political correctness” to wars over the American past.

By the early 2000s some on the Left began to see these issues as a trump card for conservatives, who could get working and middle class voters to go against their interests.  That was basically the thesis of Robert Frank in What’s the Matter With Kansas, which appeared to have been vindicated in the 2004 election, when Republicans engineered anti-gay marriage state initiatives and consequently got their base to the polls.  Exit polling showing “values” as the biggest issue for a plurality of voters just confirmed this feeling even more.

Last week, when Mike Pence signed a gay discrimination bill into law (please don’t insult my intelligence by calling it a “religious freedom law”), he was hitting that culture war bong one more time.  I’m sure he thought it would be a mostly symbolic gesture that would get the Bible thumpers on his side without making much of a splash otherwise.  Oh how he was wrong.

It has been a catastrophe for him, and also is beginning to show a major problem for conservatives.  Namely, they are not going to win the culture wars.  Appealing to people opposed to massive social changes with roots in the 1960s is a matter of diminishing returns with an aging population.  Whereas the 1960s and 1970s saw a major revival in evangelical Christianity, America today is becoming much less churched.  They have been exploiting the backlash against a massive social change, and as strong as that backlash has been, the tide of reaction has been steadily receding over the years.

The culture wars are also hurting other conservative initiatives.  Conservative state governors have been on a mission to get companies to relocate from California, the Northeast, and abroad by promising cheap wages, low taxes, and union busting.  Now Mike Pence is hearing those precious corporations come at him hard.  Many companies now seem less inclined to relocate their gay and lesbian employees to places where they will be treated as second class citizens.  Now that Wal-Mart is expressing its opposition to similar legislation in Arkansas, it looks like the governor there might be having a change of heart.  The diminishing returns at the polls from evangelical voters might no longer be able to justify retrograde policies that are increasingly anathema to mainstream American society.

Of course, that doesn't mean that the culture wars will soon be over, or that liberals will be able to turn the tables and get a trump card of their own.  In many respects, the culture war as a conservative political strategy dates before the influx of Christian conservatives in politics in the late 1970s.  Richard Nixon's campaigns in 1968 and 1972 fought a very different, but no less effective culture war.  In 1968 it was the resentment of the "Silent Majority" against the protest movements of the day.  Nixon cultivated the "hard hats" and built them up as the antidote to hippies.  In 1972 the culture angle was much more pronounced, portraying his opponent George McGovern as the avatar of "acid, amnesty, and abortion."  In effect, it was a kind of white middle class identity politics.

While direct appeals to Christian voters might need to be tabled by conservatives, they can still hope to get those same voters by fighting on a different from in the culture war.  The Right has already been amping up its appeals to racial resentment, mostly in the form of attacks on the welfare state.  I am willing to bet that in the next five to ten years appeals to anti-gay voters will fade outside of the most fervent zones of the Bible belt, and that white identity politics will be much more pronounced.  If not, the onetime Republican trump card may wind up being its downfall.