Monday, April 24, 2017

Trumpist Politics As Spectacle

I just finished teaching a class on World War I last week, and we ended with the last chapter of Modris Eksteins' Rites of Spring, wherein he connects the cultural modernism unleashed by the conflict to Nazism. Eksteins shows how fascism was politics as theater. Outside of its upper echelons its followers were drawn less by ideology and more by membership in a massive spectacle. In those torchlit parades and glittering rituals giving oneself over and turning off one's mind became a whole lot easier. The Triumph Of The Will is to this day a horrifying document in its ability to make evil seem attractive.

As I read that chapter I realized that a lot of people (myself included) who have discussed Trump in the context of fascism have missed the boat when it comes to this particular issue. I was suddenly reminded of the point when I realized that Trump's candidacy stood a good chance of succeeding. It was in September of 2015, when he gave a speech on the deck of the decommissioned battleship  USS Iowa. He did not speak for very long, and he did not seem all that coherent in what he said. The optics, however, were very good. He was positioned right below the massive guns of the ship, leaning over the podium with a red Make America Great Again cap pulled low. This man who dodged the draft bloviated about veterans, the subject of what he was saying, as always, more important than the actual content. Most importantly, he was shot from below, giving this ridiculous figure an air of command. In that moment I realized that the inchoate longings for an authoritarian ruler that have long lurked beneath the surface of American society could be called forth by this man.

Trump is described as a real estate developer, but he is in reality a television personality. His ability to manipulate the levers of television was his huge tactical advantage. He made himself into the spectacle that got the ratings, and so the news stations just aired his rantings unfiltered and unmediated. Too many journalists, happy to cash their checks, failed to take him seriously. I remember watching that speech in September, and Rachel Maddow cutting back in and laughing bemusedly at what she had just witnessed. Too many realized too late that, in the words of Morrissey, that joke wasn't funny anymore.

Trump's obsession with spectacle continues. He still attacks "fake news" even in interviews with the AP and other mainstream news outlets that give him a platform. In his most recent interview he has infamously gloated about how his ratings on cable news were the highest since 9/11. He has defended Sean Spicer's ineptitude by citing his "ratings" as well. He dropped the much-promoted "Mother Of All Bombs" in a military operation that was more spectacle that war. He has called the entire Senate to come be briefed by him in what is likely a photo-op rather than a national security summit.

However, I see signs of hope in all of this. Trump's main avenue of spectacle is indeed cable news, which would have been much more effective in the 1990s. Outside of a campaign, his rallies are only preaching to the converted. Trump may be trying to utilize politics as spectacle, but their effectiveness may have hit their peak in November of 2016. He has built a house on shaky ground, and it is our duty to provide the earthquake.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

We Need Social Democracy, not Sanders Worship

I'll take Bayard Rustin over Bernie Sanders any day of the week

There's been a lot of discussion this week about Bernie Sanders campaigning for a Democratic candidate for mayor of Omaha who's sponsored mandatory ultrasound bills and other anti-choice measures associated with the most repressive conservatives. (This is different than maintaining a moral opposition to abortion a la Tim Kaine. If you think otherwise you are blinded by your adulation.)

I find this to be the most recent iteration of a deep problem I have with a lot of people on the left side of the spectrum who support Sanders. They are willing to compromise on or ignore the issues that matter very specifically to women and people of color. (Sanders is also soft on gun control, which is another issue.)  It is the same problem many self-described socialists I know have, whereby they think that if social class is addressed all other inequalities will somehow melt away. It is a narrow and dangerous way of thinking, and it is in fact quite insulting to the people whose grievances are going unheard.

I keep hearing people talk about the Democratic primaries last year as if the party apparatus itself stopped Sanders.


He lost primary votes because he failed to appeal to the specific concerns of many voters due to the narrowness of his message. Most obviously, he failed to get the support of African Americans, who are one of the absolute pillars of the Democratic Party and its most loyal constituents. Those voters clearly perceived Sanders' inability to see their specific concerns as separate from his general bromides about the 1%. While he made efforts to correct this, it was too little too late. His recent support for Mello in Omaha and his assertion that Trump voters "aren't racist" pretty much shows that he is still trapped in a vision of social democracy that is race and gender blind.

We deserve better than this. As loyal readers may note, I have written for both Jacobin and Liberal Currents. I do not see a contradiction, because I define myself as a social democrat, and that is an identity in this country that straddles the line between liberalism and the Left. It's also one that leaves me feeling like a man without a political country. Sanders' message is inherently social democratic, but the cult of personality around him has sucked the life out of any true social democratic movement. Instead, so many people are hung up on supporting Sanders, rather than leading a movement of their own.

That must change, because Sanders' vision of social democracy is wrong and outdated. I want a social democracy rooted in an uncompromising commitment to the rights and dignity of all people. That means treating issues around race, gender, and sexuality with as much seriousness as economic ones, or, for that matter, not treating them as if they are separate, rather than intertwined. (I am not going to say "intersectional" because I want a mass movement on the left that does not resort to grad student jargon.) I appreciate that Sanders has helped popularize a more social democratic politics, but it is time for others to step up and for him to take a step back. If not the current flowering of social democracy in this country will wither and die.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Episode 9 of the Old Dad's Records Podcast, "Signs"

I finally got episode nine of my podcast up. I've decided to go "live on the nines" by having episodes about live music on those ending in a nine. This is partly because so many old cheap records are live albums, and thus deserving of a special place. In this installment I first discuss "Signs" by Tesla, a live acoustic cover of the Five Man Electrical Jam song of the early 1970s. Then I examine REO Speedwagon's double live album, Live: You Get What You Play For. It is one of the finer examples of the double live format, as well as a sign that REO were shedding their hairy hard rock ways for the corporate sheen and big bucks to be had on the FM dial in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971 Project)

The trailer makes the film seem a lot more action-packed than it is

I'd like to start off the 1971 Project with a cultural artifact that is highly emblematic of that year, Monte Hellman's film Two-Lane Blacktop. It came in that truly glorious early 1970s period when Hollywood, desperate to cash in on the success of Easy Rider and to appeal to the younger generation, gave a bunch of aspiring filmmakers money to make low-budget movies that did not fit the norm. It was something that hasn't really happened before or since, and for my money 1971 is among the most fertile years in cinema history.

The film's story is barebones. The Driver and the The Mechanic take their souped-up and stripped down 1955 Chevy across the country engaging in drag races, with very little to be said between them. Along the way they meet The Girl, a young woman who seems similarly lost and looking for meaning, trying to carry on conversation with men who only seem interested in their mission. They also encounter GTO, a middle-aged man driver the car of the same name, who engages them in a race across the country, each betting their car on the outcome. The Driver and The Mechanic were played by neophytes James Taylor (the folksinger) and Dennis Wilson (of the Beach Boys), and their acting, as wooden as the HMS Bounty, somehow works in this understated film. Laurie Bird, who would die tragically young, has a real naturalism about her. Warren Oates, a great character actor of the 1960s and 1970s, plays GTO with a cocky bravado that barely masks his deep well of sadness.

It is a deeply introspective film. As someone who has driven 800 miles at a time, I feel it captures that Zen-like feeling of relaxed concentration that one gets behind the wheel on long road trips. In Two-Lane Blacktop, that feeling of concentration also feels a lot like ennui, and ennui embedded in the world of 1971.

As I mentioned in the post kicking off this series, 1971 to me feels like the true sunset of the 60s counterculture. In this film The Driver and The Mechanic are still devoted to living outside of society, but they seem tired, and a little broken. The Girl has an air of desperation about her. None of these characters seems like they will last too long in the harsh reality of 1970s America. While they represent the counterculture, with their single-minded dedication to outfitting their own car and living outside of society, GTO is the avatar of American consumer society. He seems affluent, though we don't learn where the money comes from. Instead of putting his soul into outfitting a car of his own, he has merely bought the GTO, a mass-produced status symbol. While the trio of youngsters seems spent or lost, GTO seems spiritually adrift, and aware of the emptiness of his lifestyle but without a clue about what else to do.

Hellman seems to imply (at least to me) that America's soul in the early 1970s is empty. The old consumer values are rubbish, but those that oppose them seem headed for a dead end. Appropriately, the movie ends abruptly during a drag race, suddenly cutting out while the last frames of the film appear to burn up. The road goes on forever, as The Allman Brothers once said. Befitting a time of transition and confusion, there's no resolution in Two-Lane Blacktop, and it would feel completely false if there was.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Introducing the 1971 Project

It's been awhile since I've started a new running series on this blog, which is a shame since I tend to write better when I am thinking about a bigger topic than just responding to the events of the day.

I am a sucker for a lot of genres I should not be a sucker for, and one of them is the "The World In Year X" genre. After all, I am a sophisticated historian, and understand that historical events and trends very rarely conform to arbitrary dates on the calendar. That said, I find something satisfying about books that deal with a calendar year, especially baseball books. (At least a sports season puts greater ontological weight on viewing things by year.)

I am currently reading Heather Ann Thompson's deservedly lauded history of the Attica Prison uprising in 1971, and that triggered in me a long-held notion about that particular year. I now see it as the apotheosis of the 1960s in many respects. Not just the sixties as the time of radical protest and social change, but also the sixties as a time of resentment, backlash, and rise of the modern conservative movement. The brutally violent suppression of the Attica uprising, perhaps more than the Kent State shooting the year before, showed the willingness of authority to use its full power to destroy the voices of dissent. After all, it was in 1971 that activists broke into government offices and revealed the machinations of COINTELPRO.

On reason why I keep writing on this blog is that I lack the expertise, talent, and time to write books, but something in me compels me to keep writing. So instead of the book about 1971 I wish I could write, I'll be giving y'all a bunch of blog posts.

So I will leave this one off with "Can't You Hear My Knocking" by the Rolling Stones. It has an air of desperation mixed subtle violence that seems so fitting for the times. There's also an extended solo section in the middle, a sign of changing musical times for a band once known for its compact, explosive singles.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Palace Coup

In the Bible the people of Moab descended from the children conceived incestuously between Lot and his daughters. The MOAB name is fitting for another abomination.

This week saw maybe the most stunning presidential policy reversal I have witnessed. Just days after the Trump administration said that it was basically accepting that Assad would maintain his position in Syria, it ordered a large missile strike and started talking about regime change.

What happened, of course, is that we are currently witnessing a palace coup in the White House. Bannon and his ilk are being pushed aside at the behest of Ivanka and Jared. As I have said before, Trump is really just an old, mad king. He appears to be highly suggestible, and not quite in full command of his mental faculties. He does not want to govern, he wants other people to do that for him. That allows maximum time for television and golf. Because he does not take an interest in anything, he is easily swayed by those he thinks he trusts.

It was inevitable that Jared and Bannon were going to clash. Bannon is an anti-Semite, for one. Kushner is a fellow sleazebag, to be sure, but one gets the sense that he does not buy into Bannon's worldview, which is a mishmash of xenophobic French novels and minor fascist theorists. Throughout his entire life Trump has used people then tossed them aside when it was convenient. Did Bannon think he would be any different than Lewandowski, Manafort, or innumerable contractors? Like the mafia don that he is, Trump will protect and trust his family above all others.

Also, since he is ignorant, suggestible, and lazy, and Jared and Ivanka are equally inexperienced, Trump is now just leaning hard on the military. His statements seem to say that he will let the military leaders do whatever they want, and what they want, as always, is more war. We are killing more civilians and even friendly rebels because the generals have allowed to run wild. Presidents are supposed to be above the military, but Trump has basically let himself be their servant. Ironically, this man obsessed with projecting strength comes across now as a pathetically weak leader. He lets the leader of China tutor him on the things he should already know. He throws a temper tantrum and refuses to shake hands with Merkel. He is so clueless about war that he just lets his generals do everything, and he reverses policy because a different person has his ear.

It would be funny if it wasn't so serious. What scares me is that the current palace coup could solidify his presidency like nothing else. Americans have become so accustomed to war that those in the middle will rally around the flag if Trump makes a bigger military commitment. If you remember, Dubya was an unpopular president with questionable legitimacy until 9/11, and that coupled with the invasion of Iraq ensured his reelection. I fear that unless the pressure is kept on, Trump may well get away with recasting himself as a wartime president. Don't say you weren't warned.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

New Essay At Liberal Currents

I had a very productive spring break. My second recent article, following the one I did for Tropics of Meta, is up now at the new site Liberal Currents. It's called "Trump's Jacksonianism And Its Needed Response." I've written about the current relevance of Andrew Jackson on this blog before, but this essay is a much more comprehensive take on it.

You should also check out Liberal Currents, which I think is doing valuable work in trying to wrest liberalism from its slide into an overly centrist position divorced from the concerns of its constituents. You may wonder how I can publish with a liberal site and with a socialist one like Jacobin, but I would say in return that I believe that the left side of the political spectrum needs a healthy dose of ecumenicalism. We'll all hang together or we'll all hang separately, y'all.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Memories Of The Joshua Tree At 30

It was a gorgeous spring day today. Due to the Passover holiday, I don't have to go to work tomorrow or Wednesday, so when I stepped off the commuter train into brilliant sunshine, I felt a brush of the divine. The long dark winter seemed to melt away in an instant.  When I got in my car, I knew what to do. I rolled down my windows, and fired up "Where the Streets Have No Name" and drove home with the wind in my hair.

I suddenly remembered that the The Joshua Tree turned 30 in March. Its music was some of the first contemporary music that ever meant anything real to me. The reason isn't a happy one, though. It was thirty years ago this April that my grandfather passed away, the first person I was very close to who ever died. He lived about thirty miles away from my hometown, in a tiny rural village that required lots of backroads driving. On the many days we drove back and forth from Hastings to Lawrence for funeral preparations, the funeral itself, and to check in on my grandmother, the radio in my parents' van seemed to play "With Or Without You." To this day I still cannot listen to that song without thinking about my grandfather's death. Even though it's a love song, it's one drenched in a sense of loss and powerlessness, things I was feeling very intensely in my 11 year old soul at the time.

It is very easy to mock U2 these days, it's practically become its own cottage industry. But in 1987, in the midst of the stasis of the later Reagan years and pop music and hair metal with about as much soul as a slice of processed cheese, U2 was a breath of fresh air. As insufferable as Bono can be in his constant political moralizing that lacks a proper level of self-awareness, after years of Reagan and Thatcher and the big dumb lobotomy of 80s pop culture it was exhilarating to hear the anti-imperialist critique contained in a song like "Bullet The Blue Sky."After years of Cold War bullshit, hearing a song about the Mothers of the Disappeared, their children murdered by regimes that had the support of the United States government, felt positively revolutionary.

The songs that were warmer to America (the subject of most of U2's music from about 1984-1989), were more inclined towards the places most Americans choose to overlook. I think here especially of "In God's Country," a wonderful evocation of what it's like to drive through the expansive deserts of the American west. In their video for "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" the band wanders around Fremont Street, in the seedier, now forgotten part of Las Vegas.

It took awhile before I was sophisticated enough to know that this album was reflecting my country back to me from the point of view of outsiders. That moment I think came when I was in college, when through my Latin American history classes I learned about the real Mothers of the Disappeared. It's also when this album took on another meaning. My friend Lorna really loved it, and back then, I had it on tape, a tape that pretty much lived in my car. On more than one occasion we'd be driving back to the dorms (I was one of the few car owners in our circle of friends on an urban campus), and she'd demand we drive around the block until the last song on side one finished. That song was "Running To Stand Still," a ballad ostensibly about heroin abuse. I hear it now, twenty years after those young and free days, and only think of the blazing fire of college friendships, a fire that lives on in my memory, a fire that those old photos on Facebook can only barely represent.

The Joshua Tree may be the only album in my collection with two such powerful memory triggers spaced ten years apart. It's a wonderful record and it still holds up. Forget every annoying thing Bono has done in the last twenty years and the fact that they put that crappy album on your iPhone without your permission. Give a new listen, and hear the dreams of a time not unlike our own.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Old Dad's Records 8: Bette Davis Eyes

Episode number eight of my podcast has finally dropped! The theme for this one is "Reagan Dawn," a concept I have discussed on this blog before. Basically, this is the period from 1979 to 1981, where popular culture has a foot in the seventies, but is looking to the eighties. I discuss "Bette Davis Eyes," Genesis' Duke album, and Tim Curry's "I Do The Rock," a forgotten artifact of that time.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

New Article at Tropics of Meta

As readers of this blog know, I have often talked about America's recent history as its Brezhnev Years. Well, I finally got off my butt and wrote about it for a better venue than this one. They published it over at Tropics of Meta, and I hope you check it out!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Sheepish Musical Pleasures: Red Rider "Lunatic Fringe"

[Editor's Note: I've been swamped with work, a commute made difficult by a train derailment yesterday, and writing and editing articles to be published on more renowned websites than this one. So it's time for the equivalent of a Notes From The Ironbound clip show. This is a post from when this blog was new and a series I need to reanimate.]

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 sheepishmusical 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.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Iggy and The Stooges, "I Got A Right"

I finally got to see Jim Jarmusch's documentary about The Stooges this week (yay spring break), and it was interesting to see them in the context of their time. I've always thought about Iggy and the Stooges as being timeless, their music so unique and strange and exciting that it just doesn't exist in my mind as a cultural product of the 1969-1973 period when they put out their records. This is also because they set such an obvious template for punk, and that their music was so radically opposed to the trends at the time. It became clear to me that they were in some respects the most radically oppositional musical product of the counterculture more famous for producing hippie bullshit.

"I Got A Right" may be their one song that managed to seamlessly combine both their potential for catchy riffs and total rocknroll mayhem. At this stage in his life Iggy was rock's true Dionysus, making people like Jim Morrison look like Gene Pitney by comparison. The song is also the closest thing the Stooges had to a manifesto: "I got a right to move."

The sound is also appropriately grimy and immediate. It sounds like a caged wolverine being prodded by electric shocks, whirling and lashing but still not totally out of control. By this time James Williamson had replaced Ron Asheton on guitar. Asheton's style was even trashier (and the one I prefer), but Williamson could play with flashes of truly jaw-dropping dynamism, which you definitely hear on this song and classic ravers like "Search and Destroy." The craziest moment of the documentary for me was finding out that Williamson, who always looked super tough and scary in the Stooges, went on to be a computer engineer and corporate guy after the band broke up.

I doubt I will ever run for public office, but if I do, I will have two campaign songs ready for the moment I hit the stage: "(For God's Sake) Give More Power To The People" by the Chi-Lites, and this song.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Thoughts On Baseball's Imminent Return

As loyal readers surely know, I love baseball. I understand if you don't like it, of course. It is a slower game, not great on television, and has fewer exciting athletes compared to other major American sports, so if you don't like it, I understand. Being the contrarian I am, I guess it's fitting that baseball is my favorite sport. For me baseball's beauty lies in two elements: its rich history (always a plus for a historian like me) and its dailiness. During the season I have my wonderful, daily friend to be with me, just waiting there after I get home from work. Every day of the off season feels oddly empty without it.

Although baseball may not be as popular as the NFL, it is connected to America's history and culture in ways that other sports aren't. That's why Jackie Robinson mattered so much. That's why they still make more and better movies about baseball than other sports. And that's also why very president since Taft has thrown out the first pitch to start the season. In olden times the stout Taft merely stood up and threw the ball to a player on the field. Starting with Reagan, presidents have taken to the mound and thrown the first pitch. I actually find this to be a very undignified thing for the chief executive to do. Just look at George HW Bush, once the captain of Yale's baseball team:

So as critical as I am of our disgrace of a president, I actually don't have a problem with him declining to take the mound. If throwing the ball from the stands was good enough for FDR and LBJ, it's good enough for me.


He, as of yet, is not even doing that. It may sound like a minor thing, but I think it matters a great deal in a symbolic sense. The president has still not attended a public event since the inauguration (his rallies, where entrance is controlled, do not count.) He seems afraid (or perhaps his handlers do) of actually seeing the subjects that he rules over. We all know that if he throws out the first pitch in DC, he will be booed and heckled mercilessly. His rather inflated ego will not countenance such behavior by the peasantry.

The American presidency is a strange institution. The president is both the driving force in our national government, but also the head of state, much like a monarch. We expect the president to make symbolic gestures, to participate in the symbolic life of the country. The opening day of baseball season is one of those important symbolic days, and if Trump does not show up for it he is proving himself (yet again) to be uninterested in the symbolic power of the presidency. This does not surprise me in the least. He has and will continue to care about only one person: himself.

The silver lining, of course, is that I can enjoy an opening day of baseball untainted by the tiny orange fingers of our dear leader. It seems strange to care about baseball while the world is on fire, but I need my daily friend to give me needed solace when the enormity of it all threatens to overwhelm me.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Billboard Top Ten March 28, 1981

You may have noticed that a lot of my top tens have come from the very early 80s. That's partly because of nostalgia, since that was the period when I first became aware of popular culture. It's also because of a recent fascination I have with that period, which I like to call "Reagan Dawn." After the 60s and 70s there was a real transvaluation of values going on in that period (which I date from 1979 through 1981), creating the new neo-liberal order that has pretty much been dominant since my early childhood. This countdown comes two months after Reagan took the White House, and the shape of the 80s is becoming very apparent, even if vestiges of the 70s are clinging on. So now, on with the countdown!

10. Barbara Steisand and Barry Gibb, "What Kind Of Fool"

Speaking of vestiges of the 70s....Barry Gibb and his disco mane are still going strong as Reagan's America is dawning, although without his brothers. People forget that during the late 70s and early 80s Barry Gibb was a world conquering songwriter and producer. This song is soft rock at its most languid, more sugary than a Peep sandwich. By 1981 the survivors of the 60s wanted to mellow out, but without a trace of the stems and seeds of even milquetoast acts like Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The Me Decade of the the 70s began the inward retreat, the greed of the Reagan years would complete it.

9. Hall and Oates, "Kiss On My List"

Hall and Oates are very much the emblematic artists of the Reagan Dawn. Their music bridges the gap between the decades, maintaining a 70s groove but definitely locked into 80s pop modes. By 1984, when Reagan had his landslide, they went all in on the 80s with big gated snare drums and metronomic beats as on hits like "Out Of Touch." I much prefer them at this moment. This song is super catchy, and it also has one of Hall's most affecting vocal performances. It still has soul, which would be drained out of Top 40 music in the decade to come.

8. Grover Washington Jr. (with Bill Withers) "Just The Two Of Us"

Smooth jazz was a perfect genre of music for the Reagan Dawn. The tumult of the sixties over, this was a million miles away from Coltrane or Bitches Brew. Now I am a big fan of both Bill Withers and the saxophone, so this song isn't all bad. Withers gives it his always wonderfully warm and intimate vocal style, but the whole thing is just so light and lacking in any kind of immediacy. It's not jazz so much as relaxation music, ideally suited for shopping malls and dentists offices.

7. Dolly Parton, "9 To 5"

This is a fantastic song from a timely movie. Parton sings it with her country affectations, but the backing is decidedly pop, even soul, rather than country. She way she sings "pour myself a cup of ambition" is just perfect. The song and the film it comes from reflect the growing number of women in the workforce, as well as their marginalized position. Of course, in typical 80s fashion the focus is on individual struggle, rather than collective action. Before I get too "woke" I will say that unlike a lot of music on this countdown, "9 to 5" holds up really well.

6. Neil Diamond, "Hello Again"

In the early 1980s, the Jewish Elvis reached his apotheosis with The Jazz Singer. The soundtrack album was his biggest hit, but the movie is wretched as all hell, including Diamond in blackface in an entirely unneeded call back to the Al Jolson original. I like Neil Diamond's early stuff a great deal, but by this point he was just getting cheesy. On an early tune like "Solitary Man" you believe his lonesomeness, but not on this overwrought number. The Reagan Dawn period was the last gasp of relevance for a lot of artists from the 60s and 70s, Diamond included.

5. Don McLean, "Crying"

Speaking of last gasps, I had no clue that the author of "American Pie" scored another top ten hit, much less one a decade after his signature tune. It's a cover of the Roy Orbison song, perhaps his most impressively operatic. ( I LOVE Orbison, but that's a conversation from another time.) This is an okay cover I guess, but doesn't add anything or offer any kind of interesting take on the original. I've detected a lot of schmaltz on this countdown so far, a musical mode I have theorized coincides with periods of political reaction.

4. REO Speedwagon, "Keep On Loving You"

REO Speedwagon managed to craft the first truly great power ballad with this song, and it made them huge after a decade of woodshedding. They started in the early 70s doing Camaro rock that was a mix of Humble Pie and Deep Purple, but never had a hit album until they popped up their sound a bit in the late 70s with tunes like "Roll With The Changes" and "Time For Me To Fly." This song is a truly brilliant example of fire and ice, Kevin Cronin's lover's lament running smack into Gary Richrath's soaring, shredding guitar solo. (He was one of the most underrated guitarists of his generation.) This was a song that you could both slow dance and pump your fist to. It's a song that launched a thousand fumblings in the back seats of cars in high school parking lots across the nation. I don't think any other power ballad ever managed to top it.

3. Styx, "The Best Of Times"

Coincidentally, "Lady" by Styx could lay claim to being the first power ballad (though it was not nearly a hit on the scale of "Keep On Loving You.") "Best Of Times" comes from the Paradise Theater concept album, one that spoke to a sense of decline in the midst of the shock of deindustrialization. (Remember, Styx are working class guys from the South Side of Chicago.) Styx started off doing an amalgam of hard rock and prog, but this time Dennis DeYoung's songs were getting more theatrical and ballady. This isn't a great song in my book, but the chorus is a nice pop sugar rush and Tommy Shaw and James "JY" Young can play a mean guitar. At the same time, I'm skeptical of the nostalgia undergirding this song, as it fed into the "Let's Make America Great Again" slogan of the Reagan campaign.

2. John Lennon, "Woman"

Lennon was murdered a month after Reagan's election, which I think may have put the death of the 60s in even higher relief. Double Fantasy had a lot of solid songs on it, including "Watching The Wheels," which is one of the great commentaries on middle age to ever hit the charts. "Woman" isn't bad but is, dare I say, schmaltzy. I have the feeling that 1966 Lennon would've mocked this song if he'd heard it. But hey, I do like the sentiment in this sentimental song, and I even believe it.

1. Blondie, "Rapture"

With the number one song, we have the ultimate example on the countdown of the decades being bridged. The backing is disco funky, all mirror balls and mirrors with lines of cocaine on them. However, Debbie Harry attempts a "rap" in the middle of song. It sounds pretty lame by today's standards, but was one of the first examples of rapping on a big hit. When I hear this song I hear New York at the turn of the decade, a city full of grime and crime in the 70s, but also home to amazing music and art. It was about to be swept away by a wave of big money, AIDS, and gentrification. Fitting with the time, Debbie Harry's singing never sounded more decadent, a kind of Weimar moment in a sense. Blondie had eight top 40 hits in America, all in the period between 1979 and 1982, making them perhaps the quintessential Reagan Dawn band. Their arch knowingness, New York sophistication, and genre-bending fit the mood of growing cynicism and general exhaustion, but once the Reagan years' day-glo dreams of shining cities on the hill took shape, there was no place for a band like Blondie.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

What's A Congress For, Anyway?

As I mentioned last week, I've gone down a bit of a LBJ rabbit hole. My visit to his presidential library has prompted me to tackle Robert Caro's famous multipart biography. Reading about Johnson's work as a staffer for a House member in Washington in the 1930s while Trump's attempt to get the AHCA through Congress crashed and burned was quite a contrast. In the section I was reading with CSPAN on in the background, Caro's book discusses Sam Rayburn's ability in getting legislation through committee, a reminder that those who sought power in Congress once actually had a clue about how to exercise it.

I was very excited that the AHCA failed so miserably. I experienced levels of Schadenfreude on par with watching Duke lose in the tournament or that time that Fox News reporter got waterboarded on TV. However, I am beginning to wonder how long our country can continue to have its highest levels of government be such an unmitigated shit show. In the case of the presidency, this is a new thing, but Congress has been on this path since 2010, and shows no sign of changing.

Since the Tea Party wave in 2010, Congress has been dominated by a gang of right wing Bolsheviks who hate the very government they're supposed to be managing. President Obama was able to pass legislation during the first two years of his presidency despite unprecedented opposition, after 2010 that opposition had the numbers to bring everything to a halt. These ideologues used the debt ceiling to hold the country hostage, and voted several times to repeal Obamacare.

Today it is obvious that those votes were made without a single clue as to what was going to replace Obamacare. Once they actually had to come up with something they were like the student who's been skipping class all semester who thinks they can handle an intense written final test, and hand in the test after about twenty minutes because they know they have no clue and just want to go home.

A majority of the Republican congressional delegation has come in since Obama's election, meaning that a majority of House Republicans have no memory of a time when they were actually passing legislation. I don't suspect they will ever learn how to do it, since their main path to holding onto power is to get positive coverage from Fox News. Paul Ryan is the avatar of this new political modus operandi. He was never someone who successfully passed important legislation, but a corporately feted ideologue whom the media has been inexplicably fawning over.

Back in early 1964, after he had come to power after Kennedy's assassination, Johnson discussed with his advisors his desire to get the long delayed and filibustered civil rights bill through Congress. They were a bit taken aback by this, knowing what a minefield it could be. Johnson's retort was "What's a presidency for, anyway?" And for all of that man's many, many faults, he understood his fundamental job was to get power and then use it.

Congressional Republicans have proven very adept at getting power, but very maladroit at using it constructively. A lot of this has to do with ideological rifts within the party, for sure. I also think that the dynamics of Congress' relation to its constituents have changed in significant ways. The number of representatives has been frozen at 435, meaning that members must represent larger and larger constituencies, with much less time for contact with their voters. (The need for politicians to spend all of their time fundraising has compounded this.) As local media across America has been hollowed out, representatives don't need to answer tough questions from local reporters, and if they are conservative, can get a bigger platform by playing to Fox News and talk radio. (Gerrymandering has also made such a media strategy effective.) They don't need to deliver the goods to their constituents, who are increasingly alienated from what their representatives are doing. What they can do effectively is block their opponents from using power.

I know I have said this before, but it really is time to reform our out of date, failing model of government. While we often think of the Senate's two Senators per state rule as the prime example of this issue, the House has a lot to answer for, too. It's supposed to be the "people's house," the one part of the national government where voters can actually be heard. After all, that's the point of the two year election cycle, which in today's environment only increases the focus on fund raising. I would love a system where the number of representatives in the House was tripled and the Senate was done based on population where each state has several at large seats chosen through proportional representation. That's never going to happen, so I guess we'll just have to persist with a completely dysfunctional Congress until sanity or collapse happens.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 7 (The Gambler)

The seventh episode of my podcast is now up!

After my trip to Austin, where I bought a bunch of country records, I thought it was time that I do a country music episode. I am also feeling homesick right now, and this music is always a good taste of home for me. I get into "The Gambler," a Merle Haggard record, and Neko Case. Delving back into country has also been refreshing, since country music is music for adults about adult problems from an adult perspective.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Old King Trump

Trump recalls an aged Henry VIII in my book

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Thoughts On Visiting The LBJ Library

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

X, "We're Desperate"

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Classic Music Videos: Genesis "Land Of Confusion"

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Can Republicans Hold Together On Health Care?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Old Dad's Records Episode 6, Baker Street

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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Billboard Top Ten March 13, 1976

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

10. Larry Groce, “Junk Food Junkie”

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

9. Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, “Sweet Thing”

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

8. Nazareth, “Love Hurts”

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

7. Rhythm Heritage, “Theme From SWAT”

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

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

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

5. Gary Wright, “Dream Weaver”

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

4. Eagles, “Take It To The Limit”

The Eagles suck.

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

3. The Miracles, “Love Machine”

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

2. Eric Carmen, “All By Myself”

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

On Trump's 91% Approval Rating Among Republicans

There's a Quinnipiac poll today that confirms something I've long thought: Republicans are still devoted to Trump. In fact, 91%, according to the poll, approve of his performance in office.

On the surface, this ought to be perplexing He has failed to pass any meaningful legislation thus far. His attempt at a travel ban was a complete shitshow. His National Security Advisor had to resign, and his Attorney General has also been implicated in the Russia scandal. Every day brings a new scandal for an administration that has failed to fill key government positions. He is shitting the bed worse than any president at the beginning of his term I've ever seen. He is shitting the bed so thoroughly that it ought to be a matter of simply observed objective reality.

But it apparently is not. Republicans so far are very pleased, and that is something worth examining. The main factor here, of course, is partisanship. We've seen this already in Kansas, where Brownback has been driving the state into the ground, but Republicans would rather cut off their left arms than vote for a Democrat, even if their Republican governor is breaking their state.  However, I do not think partisanship accounts for everything here. The vast majority of conservatives consume news from right wing organs. Anyone who has spent a lot of time dipping their toes into Fox News or talk radio soon feels as if they have entered some kind of alternate reality. Not only is this world a topsy-turvy place where Trump's failure turds are polished and the level of opposition to him downplayed, it is one that many conservatives see as part of their identity.

They feel that these organs are giving them the truth, and that the "mainstream media" is the enemy. Trump is feeding them the raw chum of resentment, and they are eating it up in a frenzy. Here's what Quinnipiac found:

"American voters disagree 58 - 39 percent with Trump's claim that certain news organizations are "the enemy of the American people." Disagreement is 86 - 10 percent among Democrats and 60 - 38 percent among independent voters. Republicans agree 81 - 17 percent."

That's right, 81% of Republicans buy his "enemy of the people" schtick. Unlike previous Republican presidents, he has fully embraced the fever swamps of right wing media. His main adviser is Steve Bannon, after all, former mastermind of Breitbart. The vast majority of Republicans are excited because they see Trump as fundamentally "one of us." Whereas Bush gave us "no child left behind," Trump is giving us an enemy of public education, in the form of Betsy DeVos. Whereas Romney called for "self-deportation," Trump is building a wall. He is the id of a talk radio host given life and allowed to run the country, and Republicans by and large love it.

Over the years, conservatism has become perhaps the most radical political movement to gain high levels of power in the American government. The conservative movement is effectively a right-wing equivalent of Bolshevism, seeking a total revolution in American society. They want to strip away the twentieth century, destroying the social state, public education, and equal voting rights. With the white nationalist wing embodied by Trump in charge, it also seeks to end America's role as an arbiter of global peace and to massively restrict immigration.

In terms of the right, Trump gives something for everyone. He keeps the neo-cons happy by building up the military. He is calling for tax cuts for the wealthy. He delights the bigots with practically every thing he says. The religious right loves him for his attacks on Muslims.And most of all, no matter how badly he messes up the country, his voters seem confident that even if they are hurt by the shitstorm that liberals, immigrants, people of color, gays, and transgender people will be hurt a whole lot worse. As long as Trump keeps smiting the people that his base hates, they will love him forever.

Trump's opponents need to reckon with these facts. They need to realize that trying to poach his voters is a fool's errand, and that when they oppose him, they are also facing Republicans as a united front. The notion that Trump is somehow separate from the Republicans is a false and pernicious one. He is their champion, their avatar, and when he succeeds in flushing the country down the toilet, I sure as hell do not want his right wing enablers and followers to be let off of the hook.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Baseball Stuff To Beat The Winter Blues

Pitchers and catchers have reported, the spring training fields of Arizona and Florida are once again bustling with the anticipation of a new season, and my copy of the new Baseball Prospectus has arrived in the mail. Last Saturday I was sick as a dog, but the sun was out and the thermometer hit 70 degrees. I got some needed fresh air sitting in a lawn chair out back, listening the Mets' spring training game on the radio. It was a taste of summer, and it felt wonderfully sublime. Since then the temperature has dropped. Today it was down in the teens, freezing cold under a hard, clear sky, the sunshine taunting me with its inability to give warmth. Summer feels far away, but I also know that baseball starts in earnest in four weeks. Here's some fun stuff to tie over my fellow seamheads.

Sid Bream chugging home to win the 92 NLCS 
The great Sully Baseball podcast has a new feature series on the teams from all the franchises that should have won the World Series. He was talking about the early 1990s Braves, and reminded me of this moment. It's one of the most amazing baseball moments I ever saw live on TV. The rather lumbering Bream chugs around third base, running with ridiculously swinging arms, like a cartoon character version of an old timey sprinter. Yet somehow he beats the throw of the mighty Barry Bonds off of a rather shallow single from Francisco Cabrera to beat the Pirates and put the Braves in the Series. The play at the plate is one of the most exciting things in sports, and a good riposte to those who think baseball is boring.

1986 Mets Song
After the Chicago Bears' "Superbowl Shuffle" in 1985 every sports team needed to make their own music video. Instead of the players doing a terrible rap, they hired a bunch of butt rockers to yarl out phrases like "We've got the team work/ to make the dream work." Oh yeah, there's Joe Piscopo, too. It's all a huge potpourri of 80s pop cultural garbage. So of course I love it. And hey, things turned out pretty well for the '86 Mets.

1970 Phillies Yearbook Cover
I love old baseball yearbooks, and have come dangerously close to spending too much money to acquire some of them. I love this one for the juxtaposition of what was supposed to be the ultra-modern Veterans Stadium with the ol' knothole. I always love stuff that touts something as the future (in this case, multipurpose stadiums) that now looks like a hopeless relic of the past. It's a reminder not to be seduced by novelty in our own time.

1960 Topps Wally Moon
Thanks to my friend Brian, I own this beautiful card. Proof that manscaping wasn't a thing back in 1960.

Dick Allen, 1972
Great baseball photo, or greatest baseball photo? Dick belongs in the damn Hall of Fame.

Billy Martin Throwing Dirt 

Another thing I love about baseball is manager ejections. Few other sports have arguments between officials and coaches as often and colorfully as in baseball. Today's managers are pretty tame compared to the likes of Dick Williams, Earl Weaver, and yes, Billy Martin. Martin was by all accounts a terrible human being, but he was perhaps the last great practitioner of baseball as warfare, a style shared by such disparate players as Ty Cobb, Don Drysdale, and Jackie Robinson. I remember seeing this as a kid and being amused that Martin was unable to kick dirt on the umpire because it was too wet, so he just bends down and picks up a handful and throws it on him. I also have fond memories of seeing Cookie Rojas get ejected by three umps at one.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Radiohead, "No Surprises"

Whenever the world feels like it's stopped making sense to me, I find myself listening to Radiohead. I see their magnum opus, Ok Computer, as perhaps the greatest late 20th century prophecy of the 21st. Not for nothing did I listen to them almost exclusively in the weeks after 9/11, since it was the only music that seemed appropriate for the confusion, paranoia, and disbelief I was feeling at the time.

I returned to Radiohead this week, prompted by the media's fawning reaction to the Groper in Chief's speech to Congress. For merely being able to read off a teleprompter while not acting like a shitgibbon for an hour he was lavished with praise by the same press that he had called enemies of the people only days before. It reminded me so much of Bush spewing lies and misinformation to justify an unnecessary invasion with the fourth estate breathlessly passing his bullshit along.

No Radiohead song fit my mood this week better than "No Surprises." It is a gorgeous song, starting with a delicately pretty chiming guitar from Johnny Greenwood that sounds like a music box. Thom Yorke sings in this song as a kind of Everyman character that appears on lots of Radiohead songs. He is apprehending the world with quiet shock and dread, desperate for an inner peace that never comes. The song is a plea for tranquility: "Such a pretty house/ And such a pretty garden/ No alarms and no surprises please."

In the 1960s this song would have been more of a satire, mocking the suburban squares freaked out by all the changes in the world. In the case of Radiohead, there is obviously a lot more sympathy for those overwhelmed by modern life. Ironically, the music they've made to describe the postmodern world's ennui is exactly the thing I find the best balm for it.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Requiem For A Small Town Movie Theater

Yesterday  I got the sad news that one of the two movie theaters in my hometown of Hastings, Nebraska is shutting down. It’s the Imperial Theatre, a three screen theater build separate and behind the once bustling but now rotting Imperial Mall. The theater also happened to be in my part of town, so it's especially sad to see all the commercial development in that area go under.

The theater opened in 1983, and looks it, constructed out of dark brown brick with the kind of earth tones inside so favored in the interior design of the era. It was the theater of the future back then. One of the two downtown theaters dating to the 1920s soon shut down after the Imperial Theatre opened and became office space, the other shut down soon after. (The Rivoli was later remodeled and reopened in the 1990s. Now it is the downtown theater that has ultimately stood the test of time.) It is hard for me to believe that something built in 1983 can now be an obsolete ruin, but I guess I really am getting old.

Return of the Jedi was the first movie I saw there, right after school got out my first grade year. It was something I had been looking forward to with religious fervor since seeing Empire Strikes Back, and did not disappoint. Many of my favorite movies of my youth were first viewed in that theater, from The Karate Kid to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It’s also where my folks took me to see Platoon, my first rated R film in the theater, which put a damper on my Reagan-era militarism.

In those years when I was old enough to go out on my own but too young to drive, I seemed to be there all of the time come summer. This meant seeing a lot of crappy movies among the good ones, mostly because I just wanted to see a movie. That trend sadly continued even after my access to a car expanded my options. The Imperial Theatre is also where I saw stinkers like Batman and Robin, The Karate Kid III, and Crocodile Dundee II. Then again, there was some delightfully cheesy stuff too, like The Last Starfighter and Monster Squad.

The theater was located in an area that was economically booming when I was younger, but now all the economic activity in the town has moved out to he cancerous growth of box stores on highway 281, the same boring collection of bland retail and Applebee's that sits outside of every American burg with over fifteen thousand residents.

I guess it was doomed to fail, sitting on the wrong side of a town that's on the wrong side of the interstate, which passes through the much more commercially swinging Grand Island, 24 miles to the north. And what should I expect? The town where I haven't lived full time for over twenty years is not the same place it used to be, and it would be silly for me to expect it to be. No, I can only sit with the memories of an aging man of what life used to exist inside the walls of a ruin. I also think ruefully of a town where more things seem to close than to open anymore. It's a tale that can be told in lots of small towns across Nebraska. I wonder what will be left of that world in twenty years.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Trumpism Is White Baby Boomer Generational Warfare

For pretty much all of my adult life I have seen generational warfare afoot in this country, but never on the level of Trumpism. Trumpism is white baby boomer generational warfare at its most acute, as Trump's recent budget proposal proves.

This budget would add tens of billions of dollars to the defense budget, a military buildup likely to lead to a war (they always do) where the youth of America will be sacrificed. At the same time, social and environmental spending will be slashed, while Social Security and Medicare will remain untouched. The elderly white middle class will thus retain their entitlements and be protected unto their deaths, which will likely happen before the effects of mass pollution take hold for everybody else.

The aging white population came out for Trump in a big way. They are basically fine with making everyone else suffer as long as they are protected. Back in the 1980s, Reagan had also figured this out. He too sheltered Medicare and Social Security while slashing away the parts of the safety net that helped the young and poor. Reagan was a shrewd enough politician to know that his free market hocus pocus didn't wash with the great masses. He also knew that middle class white people would support him if they knew that other people were getting nailed harder than they were. It's a tale as old as time in this country, my friends.

Those of us below a certain age will likely find out that the tiller is empty when we come to collect our retirement. In the meanwhile we'll be breathing polluted air and watching the thermometers rise. That's been par for the course for the older generation, of course. They grew up with a robustly supported education system that made it cheap to attend public universities. At the same time, they could get good jobs still without higher education. Then, once they reached adulthood, they decided they'd rather not pay the taxes their parents did, and made public universities insanely expensive right as they became more essential for entry into the middle class. They were the first generation and in fact the only generation to benefit from the post-New Deal state from the cradle to the grave.

The generational war is over now, and those of us not fortunate enough to be on the winning side are going to have to face a bitter defeat who consequences still can't be foreseen.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Episode of the Old Dad's Records Podcast: Bowie, Pop, Berlin

I've just put up episode five of the Old Dad's Records Podcast. In the interest of keeping things lively I will be breaking from the usual formula every fifth episode. This time, instead of highlighting an overplayed song, a cheap album from my collection, and a new song I'm currently digging, I talked about some of the more prized records in my collection. In this case, it's three of the records that David Bowie and Iggy Pop made in their Berlin period: The Idiot, "Heroes," and Lust For Life. This happens to be some of my favorite music of all time. It's also very difficult to disentangle this music from a specific time in my life. I delved deep into it while rooming with my friend David in Chicago, he the "rocker" preferring Iggy and me the "mod" preferring Bowie. He died very suddenly four years ago, and it is still difficult for me to believe that he's not here anymore. As I say in the podcast, if there's a close friend who lives far away that you haven't talked to outside of social media, give them a call or write them a letter.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

World War I On My Mind

At my school we have five short terms instead of two semesters, which allows more room for short electives. I'm teaching a class starting tomorrow on World War I, at long last.

World War I was the historical event that first got me into history. I picked up a book about it at the school library at the age of 9, and I was shocked and intrigued by the images. Some of them still stick with me, like Gavrilo Princip being mobbed after his assassination of Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, with quaintly dressed police with swords and fezes in the shot. 

Or a photo of a corpse with its face eaten away, but its hand held up to shield from certain death.

I was a morbid child, what can I say? 

It is an event that still fascinates me above all others, even if I never ended up making it the subject of my dissertation. As my course prep has shown me, too much time spent in this world of useless death and suffering makes me too depressed. I am not capable of immersing myself in the trenches with any sense of emotional remove.

In this year of our Lord 2017, I also feel the pull of World War I in different ways. It was a truly cataclysmic event, one that broke empires, inspired revolutions, and sent Victorian notions of culture and propriety to the grave. It was the ultimate catalyst for the 20th century in all its feats and horrors. I feel that I am now living in times more tumultuous than I have ever witnessed in my lifetime. To paraphrase Marx, all that is solid is melting into air. The post-1945 international order looks doomed. Our president is a kleptocratic ruler (not office holder) who does not adhere to the norms of democracy. Nationalism of the worst kind is on the march around the world, from America to Russia to France to India. 

I can feel the tectonic plates of history shifting, as surely as the Red Guards felt them in Petrograd in 1917 or the Arab army when it took Damascus. I do not know where it will end, and I seriously don't feel like I have any control over it. We have been cast into the whirlwind, I only hope it will be without as much bloodshed this time.