Friday, November 17, 2017

Cranky Bear Says You Don't Need To Fight With Your Conservative Family This Thanksgiving (Or Find Common Ground, Either)

[Editor's note: my friend Cranky Bear hasn't written here in awhile. His last piece was pretty controversial, and ruffled a few feathers. Anyway, I'm too exhausted to write, so I let him say his piece.]

Cranky Bear here folks, coming at you while having some coffee and chocolate to keep my mind strong.

In the last few years I've kept seeing all these takes on the internet telling liberals and progressives who come from conservative families that they are supposed to fight with their family members at holiday gatherings, or else they are somehow cowards unworthy of the cause. The argument goes like this: if you can't challenge your conservative family members, who can you challenge? And it also goes like this: you're in their family, so you're the kind of person who can change their mind.

These takes are invariably written by people who are not the progressive minority in a conservative family. If they were, they'd know just how ridiculous their arguments are. I know, because I have been pretty openly opposed to the politics of most of my family for the past twenty-five years, and shockingly, I haven't changed anyone's mind by disagreeing with them. A lot of folks don't seem to get that we HAVE BEEN FIGHTING against long odds for a long time. Usually political "conversations" in these contexts involve getting ganged up on by everybody else in the room. Those folks also tend to blend their arguments with a healthy dose of elder condescension. It turns out that a younger family member who perhaps does not live in the same region anymore is the last kind of person able to change their mind. The discussions end with them feeling confirmed in their beliefs, rather than questioning them. In these circumstances avoiding political discussion is a perfectly fine thing to do. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Of course, I do draw the line at openly expressed racism and bigotry, I just won't let that shit slide, and neither should you.

The way I see it, my energy is best spent not getting red-faced and angry while stuffing turkey in my mouth with my beloved family members. I am not interested in "winning" arguments at the dinner table. (Or even having them in the first place. I want to enjoy their presence and be happy!) My efforts are aimed at my neighbors in my own community, and getting them to get out there and vote for the right things and the right people. I save my energy for the streets and for letters and phone calls to politicians. My objection to their malfeasance matters a lot more than getting apoplectic over a relative arguing that tax cuts for the wealthy will bring prosperity for all. In fact, our emphasis on Thanksgiving political fracases and not on the work of everyday political engagement is having a negative effect on us. I don't want to beat my family members in verbal arguments, I want to defeat the politicians and the ideas that they support.

While you should not feel any kind of obligation to fight with your conservative family members, neither should you listen to the takes that say that you need to find "common ground" or "understand where they are coming from." Yet again, the people with those takes don't actually understand the dynamics of how being progressive in a conservative family works. We have been hearing their side of things for our entire lives. In fact, we were raised in their politics, meaning that once upon a time we bought into it to a greater or lesser extent. I "understand where they are coming from" because they used to be me. I know enough to know I can love them and still absolutely despise the people they vote for.

I know that they think their way and I think mine and we aren't going to convince each other otherwise. What I can do is fight hard for the things I believe in, in a variety of contexts. I can teach my students this country's real history. I can organize my neighbors. I can knock on doors for candidates. I can call and put pressure on elected officials. I can get my body in the street and protest. I don't want you to "call out" your reactionary uncle. I want to you to join the general strike when the shit goes down. Because trust me folks, that's the call we are going to be asked to answer pretty soon.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Comeback Elvis Is The Best Elvis

A couple of years ago one of my daughters was sick and I had to stay home from work to take care of her. She was three at the time, and she liked it when I would show her old clips of musical performances. I was exhausted and a little sick myself, so I decided to cue up a video of the complete center stage performances from Elvis’ comeback special. These performances, where he is clad head to toe in black leather, have more than outshined the big productions numbers from his 1968 special. My daughter was enraptured. I also tried to show her Elvis’ Aloha From Hawaii concert film, when he was in his 70s sequined jumpsuit period. My daughter would have none of it, exclaiming “I want rock and roll Elvis!”

She was channeling a feeling that I am sure was common in 1968. The rock and roll Elvis was back, snarling and sassy, ripping it up on songs like “Lawdy Miss Clawdy.” The years and years of stupid movies and worse soundtracks were over. This was not the smiling lug in a blow-dried haircut romancing a generic starlet with wholesome woo, but a dangerous, sexy molten hot hunk of burning love. Of course, by 1970 he was in Vegas and the fiery spark of the comeback had faded into the ochre tint of black velvet.

This gives his comeback music an elegiac quality, which is perhaps why I find myself listening to it in November, the month when all around is dying. The fall colors are nature’s most beautiful burst before going dormant, much like the comeback years were Elvis’ greatest music period, but came right before stasis and the end. So with that in mind, here are five songs that are not so much a top five but five reasons why comeback Elvis is the best Elvis.

"Don’t Cry Daddy"

“In The Ghetto” is probably Elvis’ most maudlin song, and it is positively cringe-worthy in 2017. Elvis makes the maudlin work better on “Don’t Cry Daddy,” a song sung from the perspective of a man who has lost his wife. (Both songs are written by Mac Davis, which is not a coincidence.) He wakes up in the morning, his son coming to him and giving him strength, telling him not to cry. Elvis was famously close with his own mother Gladys, who died soon after his rise to fame. I don’t think there’s another song where that lingering pain comes out stronger. The hiccups in his voice would be corny coming from someone else, but Elvis makes me believe this song.

"Suspicious Minds"

OK, this one is kinda obvious, but it’s obvious for a reason. Elvis really sank his teeth into this song about a collapsing relation, perhaps because it mirrored his own disintegrating marriage. It still sounds great. I mean, what kind of love song starts with “We’re caught in a trap”? It is a thoroughly adult song, a million miles away from the “That’s Alright Mama” abandon of the Sun years or the aw shucks romance of the movie years. One of the things I like best about his comeback music is that it is indeed so mature in its themes. As I get older it just gets better for that reason.

"Trouble-Guitar Man"



This is the song that started his comeback special. "If you're looking for trouble/You've come to the right place." BAM! Elvis snarls into the camera, blowing away the insipid image he had built in his movies in a matter of seconds. And sure, the jazzy, splashy arrangement of "Guitar Man" and the accompanying production number are very Hollywood, but Elvis is giving the song a rough layer of grunt and sweat. It has the vitality of his youthful music, but also the toughness of experience, a sense of the quiet confidence of an older man. I love it.


This comes from Back In Memphis, the lesser successor to From Elvis in Memphis, which is by far my favorite Elvis album. Nevertheless, it's really good. There's a real groove here and a toughness in his voice and an obvious connection to his own life. He had left Hollywood behind, but obviously felt ambivalent about his hometown of Memphis. It is one of the few times that Elvis really seemed to let his inner life come out in his music. You can hear it in other comeback era songs. 

"One Night With You"



The best part of the comeback special are the songs Elvis plays with his old bandmates, sitting on chairs. It's loose and fun and raw and he is having a hell of of a time, especially on this number. I will never ever forgive Colonel Tom Parker for hiding the lamp of his talent under the bushel basket of godawful movies and their insipid soundtracks.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Old Dad's Records Podcast Is Back, Baby!


After a month-long hiatus, I recorded another episode of my podcast. This episode was framed by the fact that an old professor and friend passed away on Friday. This prompted thoughts on death, autumn, war, and what it means to leave friends behind. You know, cheerful stuff!  I discuss folk music, specifically Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" and a greatest hits record by Ian and Sylvia. November and winter generally have always been perfect for folk music, as far as I am concerned.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Take Action On Grad Student Tuition Waivers


This post is not one where I am going to analyze politics or riff on pop culture, no sir. I know most of my readers are academics or former academics, and so y'all know that the new tax bill would tax graduate student tuition waivers. This would have prevented most of us, including yours truly, from going to grad school. I know that they are whipping votes for this tax bill in the House next week, and I think we need to flood our representatives with letters and calls about this. I know my rep in New Jersey has my back, so I wrote the representative for the district where I went to grad school, who happens to be a Republican. I will share that letter below. However, I also plan on contacting my alma mater to demand they get off their asses and lobby said rep to do the right thing by his district. I recommend that the rest of you do the same. Kvetching about it on social media alone doesn't solve a damn thing.

Anyway, here's the letter:

I am a proud graduate of the University of Illinois, where I earned my PhD in history. My six years in Champaign-Urbana were some of the best and most fruitful of my life. My graduate degree allowed me to become a university professor and a now teacher at a private high school. The knowledge I learned at Illinois is something that makes in impact on young people every day I go into the classroom, and it is one of the things that I am most grateful for.

It is thus with great trepidation and sadness that I have learned that the current tax overhaul proposal in Congress would start taxing tuition waivers granted by universities to graduate students. Without my tuition waiver there is no way that I would have been able to complete my studies. During my graduate education I worked as a teaching assistant, earning less than $20,000 a year and barely scraping by. Having to pay taxes on a much larger amount of money than I was actually earning would have ended my graduate career.

There are literally thousands of graduate students at the University of Illinois in this situation. The U of I, as I am sure you are aware, is one of the biggest economic assets that the 13th district possesses. It draws in people from around the country and around the world, many who fall in love with central Illinois and become great assets to its economy and communities. The so-called “Silicon Prairie” would not exist without a fresh group of graduate students in the computer sciences.

What does the government actually gain by taxing poor graduate students? The revenue will be slight, but the negative impact will be tremendous. It is also morally outrageous for a tax plan to do this to graduate students while simultaneously making it so wealthy children can inherit more of their parents’ money or for massive corporations to pay the same tax rate that I, the teacher and spouse of a teacher, will be paying under the new plan.


While it might be a lost cause to persuade you to reject such giveaways to the richest Americans, I at least hope that you can see that the tax on graduate student tuition waivers will have a horrible impact on thousands of your constituents and be extremely bad for the district whose interests you have promised to represent. If you cannot reject the current tax bill wholesale, at least work to eliminate the tax on tuition waivers. If you refuse, I must assume you serve masters other than the people of central Illinois.

Monday, November 6, 2017

"Code Red" And Crying At My Dinner Table

Tonight at dinner I witnessed one of the biggest mood reversals in my life. Sometimes I play jaunty music at dinner, and tonight it was uptempo fifties doo-wop. My daughters were loving it, getting up from their plates to dance manically to "Blue Moon." It was one of those too perfect moments, like something out of a movie about a carefree, happy family. A minute later I was crying.

They were telling us about their day, and started to tell us about how they did a "code red" drill at school today. With the same wide-eyed manic energy they were demonstrating how to hide under a table if a shooter was in the room, and I lost it.

It was something I already knew theoretically, but now the harsh, disgusting reality set in: my little five year olds live in a country where mass shootings are so common that they have to prepare for them at school like they are tornadoes or fires.

We have become so accustomed to this, so resigned, that rather than doing anything to actually stop these things, we have just accepted them as a fact of life. Our schools and our communities have gotten used to seeing little children as targets of carnage. We have collectively decided that we would rather sacrifice a few children now and then than do anything that would require taking away anyone's guns.

After Sandy Hook the die was cast. We will keep sacrificing our children to the Moloch of our moral corruption and indifference. It has to stop. If this bothers you, go beyond posting anti-gun memes the day after an attack. Vote and get out the vote for people trying to stop this. Get out into the street and put pressure on the politicians who condone it or who are too cowardly to fight against it. After looking into my children's eyes as they told me how they would hide if a shooter was in their school I know that there is nothing else that I can do and still be capable of living with myself.


Friday, November 3, 2017

Classic Music Videos: "West End Girls"



Growing up in rural Nebraska in the 1980s and early 1990s, MTV was absolutely essential. In those pre-internet days, it was my main conduit to the hip world. (That and the magazine rack at the library and Walgreen's were it.) When I was older I would sit enraptured on Sunday night to 120 Minutes, taking notes on songs that I liked and then hoping the albums were available at the local Musicland.

Before that point, MTV still mattered in the ways it presented the pop music I liked on the radio. A great example is the Pet Shop Boys' "West End Girls." I knew the song, I thought it was super cool (mostly because my older cousin who had good taste liked it), but the video was like a trip into another world. Even though I've been there, when I think of London, I think of this video. At first it doesn't show the London of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace, but the London of boxy modernist buildings, cluttered streets, and turned up collars. Later, when we see some of the monuments they look washed out, faded.

The song itself is about the feeling of disconnection and quiet alienation that one can feel in the city, perfectly embodied by the gorgeous synths and Neil Tennant's wonderfully arch, emotionally detached delivery like Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. In the video he strides in a determined fashion, his long overcoat flowing with Chris Lowe in a tough black leather jacket, quietly half scowling.

At the time I did not know anything about Tennant and Lowe's sexuality, but I definitely put them in the context of other British New Wave/synth acts of the time, who did not project the over the top masculinity of hair metal, the dominant musical genre in my hometown. These men were less testosteronal, and being a nerdy kid who tended to fail to conform to masculine ideals at school, I found that attractive. (It should come as no surprise that the second CD I bought was Depeche Mode's Violator.) I could watch this video and imagine myself in a big city, striding down the street in an overcoat. That's perhaps why when I finish my morning commute by walking up Broadway from 72nd street, I pop this song in my headphones and feel like my life took me in the right direction.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Mueller Won't Save You

Donald Trump put hard times on us, but we gotta fight

I wrote last week about the difference between nice liberals and fighting liberals. In the days since the nice liberals have been having a field day. The nice liberals really really want to believe that our institutions work, that the real world is like The West Wing or Mr Smith Goes To Washington. So when George W Bush and Jeff Flake and Bob Corker criticize Trump these people swoon despite the horrible damage they have done and the reactionary nature of their politics. And when the Mueller indictments came down, my oh my these folks creamed their pants. They think they are seeing their faith in the system confirmed, and that they will not have to have their hands sullied by actually doing hard political work.

I have some bad news for the nice liberals: Mueller won't save you. Anti-Trump Republicans won't save you. Hilary won't save you. Bernie won't save you. Chuck and Nancy won't save you. The FBI won't save you. The courts won't save you. The military sure as shit won't save you. Only concerted, mass action has any chance of stopping this. As someone who is on the fighting side of the left, I implore all the nice liberals to put down their copies of What Happened and get out into the streets. And more than that, be prepared to join a general strike, or a bank boycott, or any other kind of collective action that demands something more.

If the Republicans control Congress after 2018, Trump's agenda will continue without a check. If the states stay Republican, we will see even worse gerrymandering after 2020, even worse voter suppression, even worse union busting. The Republicans know that their ideology is inherently unpopular. Most people don't want tax cuts for the rich and broad entitlements like Social Security and Medicare to be slashed. Yet that is conservative orthodoxy. Even using xenophobia and racism Trump still lost by three million votes. They need to rig the system permanently to maintain control, and in two years, I think that they will have it. If that happens all the indictments in the world won't mean shit.

Just look at what happened last year. All the nice liberals kept refreshing the page for 538's election prediction while others on the left went to Twitter to accuse Clinton of being a neoliberal. Look at what that got us. If the nice liberals as well as the socialist left refuse to unite against fascism and actually fight it, I guarantee you that fascism will triumph, indictments of not. So get out there and fight.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

"Gettysburg Address" At Tropics of Meta

The kind folks at Tropics of Meta have yet again given me a platform for my stuff. It's a new and improved version of the piece I did imaging Trump giving the Gettysburg Address. Check it out here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Nice Liberals Versus Fighting Liberals

The most harmful TV show in American history

In the past year much has been made of rift between the left and liberals. This is mostly due to folks on the left proclaiming said rift. The word "liberal" is of course notoriously fuzzy and porous, and can mean all things to all people. Looking at the current political world, I think the rather random use of the word "liberal" has blinded us to a deep conflict within the ranks of liberalism.

This rift is between those I would call "nice liberals" and those I deem "fighting liberals." The main thing that distinguishes them is that nice liberals have conflated morality with politics, while fighting liberals better understand that politics is a power play, not a war of virtues. Nice liberals have watched too much West Wing, and think that our system's institutions will somehow save us because they are manned by good people with our interests at heart. Fighting liberals are more likely to identify with Veep, with all that implies. Nice liberals are more interested in maintaining institutions and norms, fighting liberals are more interested in winning. This division also has little to do with Bernie versus Hillary. Though Sanders had a social democratic message, the vast majority of his supporters, like Clinton's, were liberals.

My realization of the nice versus fighting rift came while attending many protests this year. At the those I've been to, the vast majority of attendees have been liberals, not leftists. However, they are most definitely of the fighting variety. The first protest I went to was organized by labor unions to call to protect health care, all the way back in January. It was a liberal crowd, but of fighters. Cory Booker and Robert Menendez even got raked over the coals for failing to support a bill to lower drug prices.

If you want a clear distinction between nice liberals and fighting liberals, just look at the response today to Jeff Flake's speech. The nice liberals were falling over themselves to give praise. This speech is catnip to their West Wing sensibilities. They want to believe that there is some kind of basic decency shared on both sides of the aisle. Fighting liberals responded differently. They tended to point out that Flake still votes for Trump's agenda, and that his dropping out of his Senate race was more a reflection of his unwillingness to face a primary challenge than anything else.

If the Democrats are to be successful going forward, they need more of the fighting spirit and less of the "nice." That nice was "when they go low, we go high." That nice was expecting the Trump campaign to collapse on its own accord. The fighting spirit has been awakened since last November, it needs to be the dominant mindset among liberals if they are going to have any hope for change.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Tax Cut Shell Game


Well folks, it looks like the Republicans are going to play the tax cut shell game yet again. It's rather ingenious, and for some reason they still keep getting away with it. This is how it works: they tell everyone that if taxes for the wealthy are cut, libertarian magic powder will fall from the heavens and the economy will grow. Not only that, the increased economic output will increase revenue. The tax cuts will pay for themselves!

This is, of course, a bunch of carny bullshit. What astounds me is that we have now had 36 years of proof going back to Reagan's 1981 tax cuts that this simply does not work. What actually happens is that the deficits balloon and debt piles up. For years critics of the GOP tax cut theology have failed to see, however, that the deficits are a feature, not a bug.

Conservatives know in their heart of hearts that the Laffer Curve is horseshit. They also know that so many in the media take their deficit hawk malarkey seriously, which allows them to be portrayed as Very Serious People instead of irresponsible servants of the wealthy. This gives them cover, since what the deficits do is force unpopular cuts in social spending down the road. Once they kick in, conservative politicians claim that austerity is The Only Option. (Just witness what happened when Republicans got back Congress during the Obama years.) Raising taxes is rarely popular, so the deficits tend to force Democrats to either acquiesce to austerity or to risk political suicide -a la Mondale in '84- by telling people they will have to go back to paying more taxes. Over time this means massive cuts to the social state, as we have seen in the last three decades.

Anyone with half a brain can see this dynamic once it's presented to them. Why then does our media persist in playing along as if this is not the clear, long-term intent of tax cuts?  Why is someone like Paul Ryan, the chief instigator of the shell game, always shown as a Very Serious Person? Is the media that afraid of calling things what they are, lest they be accused of lacking objectivity?

And we wonder how we got into this awful mess.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trump at Gettysburg


[Editor's Note: something imagined in response to the president's recent call to a military widow.]

Four score and seven years ago…I invented the word “score” to mean 20 years by the way… our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation…very true, very true… conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal…but people are saying, I won’t say who the are, but people are saying that might be fake news…Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure…but we will endure, because we are the best, we are the strongest…We are met on a great battle-field of that war…very great, the biggest, the best…We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives…even though they knew what they were getting into…that that nation might live…very true, very true…It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this…Trump always does the fitting and proper thing, but those dopes in the fake news media won’t report it…But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground…but we can have the greatest celebration, the best…The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…but I am sure there are some very good people on the Confederate side, too…The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here…just kidding, everything I do is the biggest and most important… but it can never forget what they did here…very true…It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced…even if they knew what they were getting into…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain…even if they knew what they were getting into, it’s still a shame…that this nation, under God…that’s right, I said God, the Democrats won’t say it but I will…shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth…but the fake news media needs to be stopped from ending it first, people. And those NFL players who won’t salute the flag, I say fire them! And wasn’t this a great speech people? It will get the highest ratings, believe me.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Billboard Top Ten: October 19, 1985

I've been spending a lot of late nights looking up old 80s music videos, and have found peak 80s to be in the 1984-1986 sweet spot. At this point the funk of the 70s had been completely erased, and Reagan's "morning in America" schtick was at its most popular. The top ten chart from this week in 1985 is just about as 80s as it gets.  On with the countdown!

10. Tears for Fears, "Head Over Heels"

By 1985 the post-punk British explosion and all that new wave jazz had evolved (or devolved, depending on your perspective) into a group like Tears for Fears. Their music was very poppy, but still personal and lyrically more deep than the average top 40 fare. (That's probably the reason it made it onto the Donnie Darko soundtrack.) At the time I really liked it.

9. Sting, "Fortress Around Your Heart"


This is another song I really dug back in '85. People forget what a big deal Sting was at this point, his name iconic as the other one-name-wonders Madonna and Prince. His solo music was not even as close to being as good as The Police, but this song had a little magic in it. The grayscale video and vibe of the song reflected the renewed 80s Cold War situation. It's better than anything else Sting would manage in his solo career.

8. Mick Jagger and David Bowie, "Dancing In The Street"


Ohhhhhh boy. This song and video has now become shorthand for lameness. It was a song put together for charity, so I can't be too critical, but man, this is a classic case of being too big to be told no. The 80s butt rock behind this track is as obviously tacky as the color of Mick's shirt and the print of whatever the hell Bowie is wearing. At this point Bowie's momentum from "Let's Dance" had crashed and Jagger was inexplicably feuding with Keef and trying to pass himself off as a solo artist. If you ever want to show anyone how bad the 80s could be, just show them this.

7. Dire Straits, "Money For Nothing"


Here's a song in that genre new to the 80s: songs that became megahits due to their videos. Gather 'round, kiddos, and I will tell you of a time when the sub-screen saver animation of this video was a revelation to us oldsters. The song and video were so meta because they were also commentaries on the ubiquity of MTV. The use of the awful word "faggot" in this song, even in a satirical context makes it difficult to listen to these days. That word was still flung around with ubiquity back then, so much so that on the playground I had no clue that it was a very specific slur. As bad as shit is nowadays, I would never want to go back to 1985.

6. John Mellencamp, "Lonely Ol' Night"


Back in my rural Nebraska homeland growing up there was a holy trinity of contemporary rock music: Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, and John Mellencamp. The latter's rural Midwestern origins oozed through his music and really resonated with me. Even his minor hits got saturation airplay on local radio. This was one of my favorites, since it captured the feeling of being in a small town with no action and trying to find that spark of human connection.

5. Jan Hammer, "Miami Vice Theme"


Oh God did I love this song and this show. It was on Saturday night, so I could stay up late enough and watch it. It just made me feel so mature and cool just to be associated with it. The show also had one of the great all time opening credits sequences, which makes Miami look like the hippest place on earth, at least in 1985. The show and synthesizers were so cool in 1985 that its theme could make the top ten. Funny how what we thought was the future is now such an obvious relic of the past.

4. Ready For The World, "Oh Sheila"

I had totally forgotten about this song. The drum and synth sound is pure Prince. I even had to look up if this group was produced by him, but nope. It's a pretty clear version of "drive it like you stole it," but I think it still works.

3. Stevie Wonder, "Part-Time Lover"


This one is sultry and bouncy like a Hall and Oates song. It's a weird kind of thing where the man who originated the sound is imitating the people who imitated him. It's a decent pop song, but pretty lame compared to what Wonder was doing in the 70s. At least he's not embarrassing himself a la Jagger and Bowie.

2. Whitney Houston, "Saving All My Love For You"

I know it's not popular to say this, but Whitney Houston was one of the great wasted talents in musical history. She had an amazing voice, and would often use it in thrillingly creative and surprising ways. It was a shame that her voice was paired with consistently boring, insipid songs and arrangements. If only she had come up in the 60s and 70s, and not in the 80s, which was a dark decade for the poppier side of soul music.

1. a-ha, "Take On Me"

Oh boy, here it is. This right here just might be the most 80sed thing that ever 80sed. The keyboard hook alone makes this a true relic of its time. How in the hell did a Norwegian synth pop band hit the top of the charts? By making perhaps the most bitchin' emotional roller coaster of a video yet seen. Once MTV could take a band like a-ha to the top of the charts the mighty M was truly king. How long did that reign last? It's hard to say, but it as long as it did, it never captured the zeitgeist quite like in did in 1985.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Old Dad's Records 20 (Tom Petty)


This week I hit episode 20 on the Old Dad's Records Podcast. As I do with every fifth episode, I discussed a record of mine that's actually highly regarded and well-known. The choice this week was pretty obvious: Tom Petty. As I discuss in episode, I was a fan of his from around the time I was listening to popular music seriously. As I got older, I also realized what a great band the Heartbreakers were, and talk a lot about that, too.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

America's Year Of Living Dangerously


Events in the past year in the United States have helped me understand events in other countries I used to have a hard time wrapping my mind around. Having grown up in a stable democracy that had maintained the same Constitution for two centuries, it took effort to understand how people reacted to events in less stable countries.

Now, there are a lot of things I get. When there was a military coup in Egypt during Arab Spring, I was shocked at the popular support for it. How could the military taking over possibly be a happy event for people who wanted more of a voice? Now I realize that when it is a choice between an authoritarian trainwreck and a military takeover that many people might prefer the latter. This is the first time in my lifetime in America that I've thought this was a possibility. Hearing what I am hearing about Mattis and Kelly's responses to working with Trump I wonder if the praetorian guard scenario will play out.

Another thing that makes sense to me now is election boycotting. In many countries supporters of the candidate opposing the leader boycott the election when they feel that it isn't fair. I've usually wondered about this, since it seems like giving up before the battle is fought. Now I get it. If an election is rigged, boycotting it undercuts the legitimacy of the government. This action also helps rally and solidify the opposition. With gerrymandering and voter suppression rigging our system, a boycott in the worst hit areas does not sound like a far-fetched idea.

I am having these thoughts, of course, because I can feel America's democratic stability crumbling. Our president is threatening to shut down critical news outlets. In many states the vote is suppressed and districts drawn to ensure a Republican victory. The president is using his pardon power to forgive political cronies. Meanwhile little to nothing of substance is being done to stop this. Before long I predict we will see the kinds of events we normally associate with "troubled" nations. 

Monday, October 9, 2017

Life During Wartime


I got today off from work, but my wife did not, and my kids are in school. Because our dog passed away recently, this meant I was going to be home totally alone today, something that I had not yet experienced in this house.

Initially, I barely noticed. I spent the early morning grading papers and banging out letters of recommendation, but after awhile I needed to take a break. At that moment I started to think long and hard about the state of the world. Nowadays when there is nothing to distract me (which is rare with my hectic schedule) I am paralyzed with despair over the state of this country.

At that point I realized I needed to get to the gym. I exercise only enough to avoid a heart attack and to balance out my love of bad food, but the endorphins are a nice side benefit. While I tried to listen to my favorite podcast while I was on the cardio machine, my eyes could not help looking up to the bank of TVs hanging from the ceiling. Since the advent of streaming I've pretty much stopped watching anything live on TV that isn't sports or TCM or Maddow or Rockford Files re-runs on MeTV. I had forgotten about the awful, disgusting horror of daytime television. There were insipid talk shows, dumb game shows, infotainment local news, lamebrain cable news, and worst of all, sports opinion shows. All I kept thinking about is how our country is being run by a homophobic, transphobic, racist, sexist, poor-hating, administration headed by an ignorant, lazy, traitorous, kleptocrat.

My mind kept going back to the DREAMers who are being used as hostages by Trump to extract his stupid fucking wall. I kept going back to the fact that each day brings evidence of how Russian intelligence manipulated our soulless internet companies to help put this horrible person in power. I kept thinking about the invisible people in Puerto Rico fighting for survival. I thought most of all about how our president is treating threats of nuclear war as a reality TV show.

Looking at that bank of atrocious television, it was clear to me more than ever that Trump is the perfect byproduct of this nation's worst tendencies. In other nations when autocrats try to grab power the people take over the main square. Here in America we have immersed ourselves so thoroughly in the cesspool of our empty, soulless consumerist nightmare that we are actually comfortable with a man like Trump in office. This goes even for those who don't like him, who chew their popcorn as they watch yet another episode of the Trump Show on Twitter, shouting their objections into the void but sitting on the couch rather than doing anything real.

Things are bad. They are getting worse. I have zero confidence that we are prepared for that. I feel like yelling out, like a GI from a Hollywood film from 1944, "Hey, don't you know there's a war on?!?"

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Nostalgia Rock And The Reagan Dusk


I've talked a lot on here about what I call the "Reagan Dawn," that cultural period from 1979-1982 where the transvaluation of values in favor of neoliberalism took place. I have also begun to theorize what I call the Reagan Dusk, which I date roughly from 1987 to 1991. This was a time when the promises of the Reagan Era appeared to have been false, and when the end of the Cold War forced a reckoning with the consequences of valuing missiles over people. There were contradictory forces to this self-reflection, such as the Gulf War and the peaceful collapse of communism. While these events seemed to say that America had triumphed, the social problems of the time appeared to expose them as Pyrrhic victories. (Neil Young's searing "Keep On Rocking In The Free World" and Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" both hit in 1989 and were calls to action after years of neoliberal regression.)

Culturally, this was a time when the day-glo of the 80s had muted into earth tones, primary colors, and baggy sweaters. (Watch the original Twin Peaks and look at the clothes and you'll know what I am talking about.) Rap music was confronting the realities of American life under Reagan, but the only acts to get played on the radio were the likes of MC Hammer, Young MC, and (yikes) Vanilla Ice. There was too a growing underground rock scene, but it was far left of the dial. Culturally the nineties started in late 1991, once "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped and NWA's second album went to number one.

During the Reagan Dusk, things in the rock music world were more confused. Hair metal was the most popular genre, but was despised by anyone over the age of fourteen with five working brain cells to rub together. The rest of us, searching for "authenticity" fed on a diet of what I would call "Nostalgia Rock." This was music rooted in the 60s, often by musicians from that era, which consciously or not opposed the values of that era to the ones of the late Reagan years. Some of this music was purely nostalgic (like George Harrison's "When We Was Fab"). Sometimes the artist simply played original songs in the mode of older forms (like Chris Isaak.)

The curtain-raiser on this phenomenon was the Traveling Wilburys, a supergroup formed out of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers touring with Bob Dylan. Jeff Lynne had produced friend George Harrison's hit Cloud Nine, and Roy Orbison somehow got roped in, too. Petty was the only artist of the now, the others were long in the tooth. This band of geezers cut some hits on their first record in 1988, including "Handle With Care," which still holds up. (I love the contrast between Dylan's late period quack and Orbison's soaring opera tenor.) It also happened to be the beginning of a Bob Dylan renaissance, as evidenced by 1989's Oh Mercy. This Wilburys supergroup album, which might have been dismissed in a time less starved for authenticity, went multiplatinum and won a Grammy.

Soon the deluge followed. In 1989 a bunch of sixties artists hit the road, including bands that had broken up, like the Who. The Rolling Stones toured behind Steel Wheels, inevitably prompting "steel wheelchairs jokes." (The joke's on us, since it's almost thirty years later and the Stones are still rolling.) There was a lot of Boomer nostalgia involved, but also a lot of curiosity by younger people (like myself) who rightly thought "Paint It, Black" far superior to "Cherry Pie." The Stones' current music was mediocre at best, but Steel Wheels was showered with accolades and sold very well.

Other legends managed to find their way back into the charts in this late 80s era, like George Harrison, Roy Orbison with "You Got It", and the aforementioned Neil Young.  Hell, even the damn Grateful Dead had a big hit with "Touch of Grey." Younger artists who borrowed from older styles also broke through. REM became the sole band of the pre-"Nevermind" underground to surface into mainstream MTV and radio play with a Byrds-y sound rooted in the sixties. Tom Petty's Full Moon Fever spawned several hits also with a very retro Byrds-y sound that departed from the more electronic, progressive music on songs like "Don't Come Around Here No More" and "You Got Lucky." Chris Isaak's pompadour, reverby guitar, and Orbison-esque vocals made him look and sound like a lost rock and roller who had fallen asleep in 1962 and woken up in 1990. The Black Crowes emerged big time in 1990 with a sound deeply rooted in early 70s southern rock and had a hit with a cover of Otis Redding's "Hard To Handle."

By 1990-1991 things got meta, and songs like "Black Velvet" and "Walking In Memphis" began to comment on the music of the past and its authenticity. Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" was about Elvis while never saying his name. The song itself was a sultry blues, rather than Elvis' rockabilly, but recalled a music that could change the world. In 1990, that felt like a long time ago. Marc Cohn's "Walking In Memphis" made all kinds of references to American soul, gospel, blues, and rock n' roll but the song itself was built around a catchy piano hook that was very 1991. Cohn's love for this music is pretty obvious in the lyrics and his passionate reading of them.

But living in this time the years and years of nostalgia for a past music that mattered wore thin on youngsters like myself. I wanted my own music, and had been digging to find it. Public Enemy, Ice Cube, NWA, and Eric B and Rakim all energized me far more than what I was hearing on the radio. The music that mattered to me and felt important was not rock music. That changed in the autumn of 1991, when Metallica's black album and Nirvana's Nevermind dropped. Suddenly punk and metal were going from the losers and glue sniffers to the mall. Even the excesses of Guns n Roses' Use Your Illusion albums (released in late 1991) felt like a jolt to a rock scene desperately in need of one. Pretty much from that point forward the aping of the 60s lost its charm, and the new music made by the legends was immediately cordoned off into the geezer rock pastures. (Except for Neil Young and Tom Petty, who put out great stuff in this era.) For a teenager desperate for HIS generation to have its own musical heroes, it was a kind of deliverance, and marked the end of the Reagan Dusk and the dawn of the nineties.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Get Ready To Head Into The Fire



Two weeks before inauguration I wrote probably my most pessimistic piece for this blog: "Into The Fire":

"In a little over two weeks, Donald J Trump will be the next president of the United States, and I fear that we don't stand a chance. In conversations I've had with those who voted for Trump, both online and in person, they simply do not have any concerns or reservations about what this man has done or anything he is about to do. In most cases they are people who want their version of America to triumph, and that's a version where gays are in the closet, immigrants deported, bosses control their workers, people of color are invisible, and women are in the kitchen. If Trump has to break a few laws and break a few heads for that to happen, they simply do not care."

I stand by that because Republicans have stood by him. His corruption, unstable behavior with nukes, and championing of Nazis has not swayed them, which means that nothing will. As long as the Republicans control Congress, his agenda will win, and due to suppression, gerrymandering, and Democratic ineptitude, I will bet money it will continue after next November.

Right now, though, it looks like we are headed into the center of the fire. The Trump administration is intentionally destroying Obamacare, after being unable to pass new legislation. The Iran agreement is about to be torn up. And today, the president joked about the possibility of a coming nuclear war with North Korea. He called this "the calm before the storm," which means that he is planning on unleashing a storm. 

After being unable to get a legislative win, and after he has been losing advisors and cabinet members left and right, this famously impetuous and lonely man is deciding to go it alone, without any annoying restraints. He is psychologically tormented by the need to "win," and he will do whatever he can to get those "wins." He burning desire to destroy anything built by Obama means he will trash the health care marketplaces and tear up the treaties that his predecessor signed. Perhaps he will get his "win" by starting and winning a war. Isn't that the ultimate presidential "win"?

Things have been bad. They are about to get a lot worse. I want you to ask a question: what am I going to DO about it? That's a question not enough people have been asking.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

After Las Vegas, We STILL Need To Talk About The Dysfunctions Of White Masculinity

The movie Targets from 1968 may be the most prophetic in history

Sunday night I was thinking to myself about mass shootings, and about how we live in a society whose cruelty, lack of community, and worship of empty consumerism make it fertile ground for such things once easy access to firearms is put in place. I was thinking about this specifically in terms of white men. I know so many fellow white men who are middle class and seemingly doing okay for themselves who have his inexplicable nihilism. They seem obsessed with tearing a system down that benefits them, driven by intense resentments that they can't articulate. I sensed this nihilism in some of the folks I know who voted for Trump. "At least he will shake things up!" is easy to say when you're not the one being put in front of the firing squad. 

Sunday night I was also thinking about Puerto Rico, and the cruelty of a president and a nation so indifferent to the suffering of fellow Americans. I was remembering my time in Germany, and that as many things I did not like about German society, at least there was a sense of common good. Trump is the avatar of the worst of this country, its crass materialism and solipsistic selfishness. Those values are very powerful, and it is worth noting that they resonate especially with white men.

In any case, I went to bed Sunday night, exhausted but ready to face the week. I woke up Monday and immediately saw a news alert about Las Vegas. It freaked me out a little that I seemed to have had a premonition the night before. This shooting is, of course, the result of America failing to face many of its problems. One of the biggest is the dysfunction of white masculinity. I wrote the following essay in 2012 after Newtown. I am posting it again because every single word is just as relevant now as it was then.

****
Whenever a horrible event like the massacre in Newtown takes place, we try to find ways to explain it. This is often a futile exercise, because many people merely superimpose their larger beefs with society onto these events, rather than examining them with any real analytical and factual framework.  Hence, we have people like Louie Gohmert saying the teacher should have had her own assault weapon, or Mike Huckabee lamenting the loss of God in public schools.  We should be very careful of monocausal explanations that oversimplify things.  There are a lot of factors at play in the Newtown massacre, from the perpetrator's mental state to the availability of semi-automatic weapons.  However, I would like to echo others out there in the blogosphere who want to examine the role of white masculinity in all of this.

Of course, there have been other mass shootings in other countries, and the worst such shooting in this country was perpetrated by a Korean student.  That being said, this country has witnessed the lion's share of mass shootings, and disproportionate seventy percent of the shooters have been white men.  I hardly think the connection is coincidental.  Ever since the Aurora tragedy this summer, I have been contemplating this issue, trying to connect the dots to explain the connection between white masculinity and mass shootings.  I finally feel like I have some speculations worth sharing.

Masculinity more generally in this society is defined to a great extent by violence and control, and violence used as a means of maintaining control.  I have long been amazed and appalled by how many public figures in this country who have abused their wives and girlfriends have been allowed to stay on the pedestal.  That sad fact is to me evidence that masculine control through violence is implicitly accepted as legitimate in America.  Action movies predominate at the box office, and the orchestrated violence of the NFL is America's most popular sport.

Furthermore, white men in this country are taught that they are the masters of their own destiny, and are usually not confronted with the same limitations of possibility that men of color are.  When white men fail, an experience our society gives them few resources to confront,  they often lash out at those they hold responsible, or turn inward and commit suicide.  Most mass shooters seem to want to do both, as Adam Lanza did. 

The completely atomized nature of white middle class society contributes as well.  Shooters are usually described as "loners," men disconnected from others and hence unable to empathize with the human beings they kill.  We are an increasingly individualized society, which means that those mentally unstable, frustrated white men with access to deadly weapons are so rarely stopped before they kill.  They sit on the margins, alone, without any kind of cohesive social structure to bring them in.  Adam Lanza had stopped going to school and interacted with few outside his home, Eric Harris was able to plan his rampage in a home where his parents took evidently little interest in his doings, James Holmes had been expelled from his university and lived alone in a city far from home.  While atomization is occurring in all groups of American society today, in middle class, white culture it has probably been the most egregious and damaging.

We have a situation where white men are socialized to be the masters of their fate and able to use violence to maintain control over their lives.  These same men lack the tools to handle adversity, and are often left to their individual resources, even if they are mentally disturbed.  When some of the most mentally unstable of these men experience soul-shattering setbacks and are given access to semi-automatic weapons, we can only expect the worst.  We need to educate young men (especially white men) to not see violence as the answer to their problems, or to phantasize violent solutions.  We need to equip them with the tools to withstand failure, and to keep the more troubled of their number from slipping through the cracks.  Last, we need to talk seriously and openly about the nature of American white masculinity, and stop pretending that it isn't problematic.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Episode 19 of Old Dad's Records


I just uploaded episode 19 of my podcast, Old Dad's Records. I have decided to go "live on the nines," meaning it's all live music this time. I am also drawing all the way through on 1970s rock music. I start with "I Want You To Want Me" by Cheap Trick. The live version of this song was much better and more popular than the studio version, and a great example of how a tight band sounds much more vital and real when they get on the stage. From there I pull out Grand Funk Railroad's Live Album from my pile of old records. This is the first record I've done that I just plain don't like, mostly so I can use it as a jumping off point to talk about other stuff. Last but definitely not least, I discuss seminal underground band Television's The Blow-Up.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Warriors, Rockers, And The Last Days Of Rebellion In The American Teen Film


The kind folks at Tropics of Meta have yet again allowed me to grace their wonderful website with my presence. This time I wrote about a troika of teen movies from 1979: The Warriors, Over The Edge, and Rock n' Roll High School. All showed teenage life in ways that were soon to be verboten in the 80s. In fact, The Warriors and Over The Edge were basically deep sixed by the studios that made them. I hope you enjoy, and also check great work by other folks on the site.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Requiem For A Dog

As a child I feared dogs. I am not sure about the origins of this fear, but I had it from a very young age, to the point that I cannot remember when I was not afraid of them. It did not help that I grew up in a place where trashy people kept their miserable dogs tied to a tree in their back yards, where they would bark and growl menacingly. Or that people let their dogs run wild, like the house on the corner with a massive doberman. There was also the time that I went to the park about age nine and some idiot had their huge dog running unleashed. I ran out of fear and the dog chased me and tackled me to the ground. My friends who had dogs would mock me for my demands that the dog be kept away from me. I interpreted their attempts to jump up and greet me as threats.

In adulthood I learned to be able to barely tolerate dogs since my outright fear was too embarrassing. It was thus an unpleasant surprise ten years ago when I found out that the woman I was wooing long distance had a big dog. (We had met in a third location.) I knew for our relationship to work I would have to be able to deal with the dog, and I wasn't sure if I would be able to.

To my surprise, I fell in love with the dog. She was a border collie-Bernese mountain dog mix, a big furry friendly animal who did not bark or jump. Instead, she would just come up to me and nudge my hand with her snout, encouraging me to give her some attention. Hannah melted my heart and made it possible for me to love dogs, something that I never thought that I would ever be capable of doing.

I'm sure you know the rest of the story. I ended up marrying her owner. After two years in long-distance marriage limbo, I was able to move to New Jersey and live with my wife and our dog. I am not sure how it happened, but at some point the first year I arrived I became the primary dog walker. Every morning the first thing I did was to take Hannah on a walk around our Newark neighborhood. She was a local celebrity, especially when I walked her after work. Little kids would run up and beg to pet her, or look out the windows of their cars and shout "bow wow!" She also made a new improbable friend: my cat Stella. The two kept each other company while my wife and I were out at work, and when I came home neither animal seemed starved for attention.

Hannah was ecstatic to have two parents rather than one. Her nightly ritual was to take a flying leap into our bed and nestle herself between the two of us, despite her sixty pound weight. The next year, that changed in ways I still feel guilty about. As we welcomed two girls into our life, Hannah was now permanently demoted. The first night we had them at home she was at least fiercely protective of the girls. However, as they grew older and started crawling, we had to keep her separate with a baby gate, something that she very obviously resented. I still kept walking her, and would slyly brag to my spouse that Hannah had switched her primary allegiance to me.

At least when our children were a year and a half old we moved out of our Newark apartment into a house. Hannah obviously enjoyed having more space, both indoors and outdoors, but sadly her feline companion died a year later. Her health took a deep dip, to the point that we thought Hannah was going to follow her into the grave. She managed to recover, and my daughters even began to develope a more sympathetic relationship with her.

Unfortunately, Hannah's health went into decline, as your would expect from a old dog. She had issues with incontinence that often frayed my patience and meant some very unpleasant surprises when I came home from work, stressed and exhausted. Some medicine helped with this, but she was not the enthusiastic dog she used to be. Instead of dragging me down the block on our walks, I had to cajole her to get out of the house. Last Thanksgiving I was seriously frightened at her health, but she managed to rebound to give us another year together.

Sluggish but cheerful, I hoped that Hannah was going to see another spring. But it was not to be. On Wednesday, as I was riding the train home from work, my wife let me know that she could suddenly barely stand, and was going into seizures. We both knew it was time. At the vet's office, it was obvious that she felt the same way too. In those horrible minutes of having to wait for the doctor to come in, I just kept petting and petting her, all while her face held the same panting grin that had melted my heart years ago. Her eyes had were now clouded, but she was still the same loving dog I'd known for a decade. I soon gazed into that face for the last time. When we came home we had to tell our daughters the news. One was nonplussed, the other shrieked a shriek of grief and despair that let me know that she understood what death meant, probably for the first time in her young life.

I'm trying not to let those last moments dominate my memory. Today, as the time for our usual late afternoon walk came around, I felt such an absence. I remembered all those walks with Hannah dragging me around. I remember her delighting all the neighborhood kids. I remembered a dog companion who made me capable of loving dogs. I do not think I will be able to love another one the same.

Friday, September 22, 2017

What Katy Tur's Book Inadvertently Reveals

We need more reporters like Bugs Raplin

I am just over halfway through Unbelievable, Katy Tur's breezy memoir of covering Donald Trump's campaign last year. I picked it up with great interest, wondering what somehow who covered him day in and day out would have to say. So far, I have been very disappointed.

There is little to zero insight in this book about Trump, his campaign, his supporters, or the way the media covered him. Instead, it's a self-serving story of Katy Tur Intrepid Reporter. Now don't get me wrong, she put a great deal of work into covering Trump and endured some really rotten treatment from him. At the same time, there has been ten times as much space devoted to the food at various events than the reasons Trump won the election.

I guess I should not have been surprised, since the journalists in the higher echelons of the media, as Tur's book inadvertently reveals, are only interested in The Game, and will never, ever question it. She talks with horror at the way that Trump insulted her at campaign rallies in ways that made her fear for her safety. She famously talks about the time he planted a kiss on her without her consent. She discusses Trump at different times as if he is a transparent fraud. However, when it came to her reporting from the trail, it followed the rules of The Game. She reported the horse race, never flat out telling the country that she thought the man she was covering was entirely unfit to be president.

I don't mean to single out Tur here, since she is just one member of the press corps that plays by the same rules. At least she's given some sense of what she really thinks of him, the others never do. Trump for them is not a moral catastrophe, he is a career, he is ratings, he is money. In the summer of 2015 I remember Rachel Maddow, someone whom I greatly respect, treating Trump's rallies as an amusing joke. This was the same man, of course, who had just called Mexicans murderers and rapists and was openly exploiting racial resentment. As true as that was, he was also a cash cow, something the head of CNN even admitted.

In being a cash cow, Trump played the media during the election like a fiddle, and continues to do so. Yes Trump is a failed businessman, but he is a very successful media figure. During the election he got the cable stations to broadcast his rallies unexpurgated, giving him an insane amount of free airtime on a scale that should not be allowed in a functioning democracy. (Oh for the days of the equal time provision.) He still finds ways to get the cable stations to hang on every word he has to say. HE sets the tone, HE sets the terms of debate. In any debate the side that fights on its own ground is halfway there to winning.

Worse than that, he knows The Game and knows the roles of the other people playing it. Trump constantly engages in dominance via humiliation. He attacked Katy Tur's reporting while she was in the room with his baying mob. John McCain endured years of rotten treatment as a POW, but had his sacrifice denigrated. He doxxed Lindsay Graham. He called Chuck Schumer "crying Chuck" after the Senator wept when recalling his relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. He claimed that Ted Cruz's father was involved in JFK's assassination. Despite all of this all of these people have gone on to either cover or work with him as if he is a normal person WITHOUT DEMANDING AN APOLOGY. The Game and playing it matters more than their integrity, something that Trump, who wants to place himself at the center of The Game. gleefully exposes with his behavior.

As long as our media and political elite value The Game above all else, it is useless. I've said it before, I will say it again. This is all in our hands. No one is going to come and save us, so we need to get to work.