Sunday, March 18, 2018

Old Dad's Records Podcast #25

Well, I've managed to get the podcast back on track again. Episode 25 is all about country music, which has been a comfort to me in recent days. I look specifically at how 70s artists embraced other genres in interesting ways. In this case I talk Waylon Jennings, Buck Owens, and Terry Allen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Cold War Is Finally Over (Both Sides Lost)

We tend to think that the Cold War ended in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, or in 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I tend to think nowadays that it finally ended with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency.

The Cold War was, in many respects, a conflict destined to destroy both of its participants. It just so happens that the Soviets lost the war of attrition first. Their stagnant economy could not sustain its military and imperialist commitments as belief in communism eroded. While America claimed to emerge victorious, its society was already crumbling into steep inequality and cynicism in the 1980s. Those trends have only continued to the point of absurdity to the present day. The Cold War demanded a massive level of spending and multiple wars. As America's military might increased, the standard of living for its people took a dive. America may have "won" the Cold War, but people are drinking poison in Flint, and parts of cities across this country still look like they've been bombed. Much like Britain after the two World Wars, victory does not save the empire.

Meanwhile, in the international arena, America tried to extend the life and reach of Cold War institutions, rather than replacing them. Hence NATO moving into Eastern Europe, for example. The post-1989 presidents still maintained America's commitment to a global projection of power, changing the enemy from communism to Islamism after the 9/11 attack.

As awful as the United States behaved during the Cold War, it at least had a somewhat idealistic self-conception of its behavior. Trump has set about shredding the institutional webs of the Cold War world, not out of ideals, but out of craven nationalism. Beyond that, of course, he was supported in his quest for power by Vladimir Putin. The ex-KGB agent got the last laugh, avenging the end of the Soviet Union by helping to install a destructive idiot at the head of America. Obama tried to repair the damage done by Shrub to America's standing in the world, Trump has torn that work to shreds. Now that damage will be permanent. I don't think there's any going back from this.

In 2018, that aforementioned idiot is driving the nation into the ditch. Despite this accomplishment, Putin's Russia is still economically weak and irrelevant. The USA and USSR both managed to bury each other, making way for an ascendant China. The Cold War is finally over, and both sides lost. 

Saturday, March 10, 2018

World War I On My Mind (Again)

A medal for "The Great War for Civilisation" 

I have been thinking a lot about World War I recently. It's the historical event that I probably have the most sustained interest in. It is so immense in scope and importance that I am always finding a new wrinkle or side to do a deep dive into.

I am usually most preoccupied with thinking about that event as a moment of breakage and turning. Most historical changes come slowly, but the Great War was a cataclysm that smashed old empires, spurred revolutions, and redrew the map of Europe. There has yet to be an event quite like that in my lifetime, even the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.

I've been thinking especially about what the war meant to those who participated in it. Despite having read about it for years, I only recently (while reading Dos Passos USA trilogy) realized that the full name used at the time in Britain and the United States was "The Great War For Civilization." Civilization was, of course, an incredibly loaded concept in the English-speaking world in the early 20th century. It tended to be invoked to justify imperialism and colonization, treating the violent subjugation of other people against their will as a benevolent act.

While the war was viewed as a monstrous waste of human life and devoid of meaning in famous works by Sassoon and Remarque, that point of view was not shared by millions in the Allied nations who felt that they had helped make the world a better place. The positive view of that conflict has all but perished. There's a reason that the Wonder Woman movie was set in the first world war rather than the second: if she is opposed to war itself, few wars are as unsympathetic as the Great War.

I guess this has me thinking that we can interpret earth-shattering events in real time in ways that will seem alien or silly with the passage of time. After World War I there really was a sense that a better, less violent world was going to be brought into being. The Great Depression, of course, helped shatter that feeling.

I feel similarly when it comes to the collapse of the USSR. Even though the Cold War had, like the Great War, involved a great deal of government deception and needless slaughter (Vietnam, Pinochet, etc.) there was a general consensus in 1991 America that it was "worth it." There was also a general notion that "tyranny" had been defeated, and that the postwar order would be one of peace and democracy.

There was indeed a general increase in democratic nations around the world, but the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia were a clear sign that nationalism had not been tamed in the New World Order. In recent years the nationalist wave has been cresting, and the post-Cold War order (which was more an attempt to extend the life of the post-WWII order in the West and project it around the world) has been shaken to its core. Populist nationalism with an authoritarian streak dominates Poland and Hungary, two countries whose fledgling democracies had also failed to survive the post-World War I wave of nationalism. In Britain Brexit, in India the BJP, in China Xi an authoritarian populist for life, in American, Trump. The latter's shredding of trade agreements and attacks on NATO might well be part of a tectonic shift in world politics.

Nowadays the notion that the Cold War was somehow a great victory against tyranny ensuring a long-standing peaceful world order should be starting to sound as ridiculous as people saying that kind of thing about World War I. I think the events of 1989 have made a lot of us (myself included) complacent about the fragility of democratic forms of government. We are like the sturdy middle class Brits who thought that the sacrifice on the Somme somehow meant a blow for civilization. Now I look about, and think of Sir Edward Grey's famous comment after Britain opted for war: "The lamps are going out all across Europe, we will not see them lit again in our lifetime."

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Playlists Within Playlists To Survive The Trump Presidency

55 years later, the prophecy is being fulfilled

At the suggestion of my friend Chauncey DeVega, I am sharing some songs that have been important for coping with the current Trumpian nightmare. These songs are spread across multiple playlists I've made, here I decided to make a playlist with playlists inside of it. Enjoy, and feel free to add your own.

Late Night Dread
Some nights under Trump I sit in front of my computer, speechless and sad, unable to believe this is all actually happening. I call this "the late night dread." Here are songs I listen to in those moments.

"Weightless Again" by The Handsome Family
This alt-country band likes to keep it dark, and no song has spoken to me in recent months like this one. Dread personified.

"Windowsill" by Arcade Fire
It was written as a response to the Bush years, but now things have returned to that state, but worse. Key line: "I don't want to live in America no more."

"Mind Playing Tricks On Me" by The Geto Boys
A song about ghosts and questioning reality. The feeling that nothing makes sense is a big part of the late night dread.

"Footsteps In the Dark" by the Isley Brothers
Not a political song, but the feeling of midnight doom is pretty thick on this one.

"Smiling Faces Sometimes" by The Undisputed Truth
One of the all-time great early 70s dark soul songs, about the feeling that snakes are everywhere and honest people are hard to find.

"Backstabbers" by The O'Jays
The song definitely resonated with Watergate, when it came out, and with our own current Watergate echo.

Time to Cry
Sometimes I need to have my emotions really shaken up to the point of tears. I have found it cathartic, a way to get all the negative feelings out of my system so I can conquer The Fear and be ready to get back out and fight again. These songs help bring the tears.

"Intervention" by Arcade Fire
"Working for the church while your family dies/ Singing hallelujah with fear in your heart." The song I listened to as my commuter train entered the tunnel the day after the election and I lost it.

"End of the Rainbow" by Richard and Linda Thompson
A song of a father sung to his infant child about how this world is a vail of tears. Gets my every time.

"Adagio For Strings" by Samuel Barber
Classical music hits emotional places for me that other music can't reach. This song, written in the dread on the eve of World War II, seems to scream the undying scream of the universe.

Third Movement of Shostakovich's Symphony #5
In the midst of a symphony meant to appease Stalin after being threatened with being sent to the gulags, Shostakovich wrote this dirge as a way to mourn his friends who had been cut down by the Terror.

Reflecting On Absurdity and Greed
Other times I feel less like crying, and more just staring out at the greed and awfulness and absurdity of our current situation. Some songs help with that, too.

"Lawyers, Guns and Money" by Warren Zevon
The song's narrator is a callow rich kid abroad who gets caught up far too deep in international intrigue, and is calling his dad for help. Always reminds me of Jared Kushner.

"Political Science" by Randy Newman
Newman is famous for writing songs from the perspective of reprehensible people, in order to satirize the stupidity of their outlook. This song, about nuking the world, is a parody of dumb American nationalism that sounds frighteningly like Trump.

"For The Love of Money" by The O'Jays
The filthy, throbbing crotch of our current administration is greed most foul. This is perhaps the best anti-greed song every written, and a helluva tune.

"Mad World" by Gary Jules
I like this cover of the Tears for Fears song, which has a more melancholic tone than the original. The corrosion of greed we were warned about in the 80s has met its full flowering.

Other times I need to be ready to fight. When it's time to get my protesting shoes on, there are certain songs that I turn to.

"Fight The Power" by Public Enemy
I blasted this one during a "drive by" protest at Trump's Bedminster, New Jersey, course.

"Fight the Power" by the Isley Brothers
I blasted this one going back the other way for good measure.

"For God's Sake Give More Power To The People" by The Chi-Lites
Great message, great marching beat. I listened to this one on the way to the Bedminster protest.

"What's So Funny About Peace Love and Understanding" by Elvis Costello and the Attractions
This song was originally meant to be kind of a parody of hippies, but in this incarnation I take it as a call for all of us to come to our collective senses. Sometimes after listening to the late night dread songs I'll throw this one on and pump my fist.

"Keep On Knocking" by Death
These Detroit proto-punkers laid down many scorching tracks, but this is one I put over my headphones when it's time to get out there and fight.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

New Episode of Old Dad's Records

After a bit of a hiatus the Old Dad's Records podcast is back for episode 24. This time around I went with music that hits me right in the feels. The song this week is The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony," which I blogged about awhile back. After that I delve into a Carpenters compilation record. Their music more than any other transports me back to my early childhood. I also tend to listen to it in times like now when my spirit is feeling a little tired. I end the episode by raving about the band Hooray for the Riff Raff, which have a unique and engaging sound.

Recording the podcast made me realize how my mental state has probably not been too great recently. This time of year usually makes me miserable, but the fact that I had been deriving less pleasure from music and talking about it was a sign of a deeper issue. Hopefully you all are weathering the doldrums of late winter well.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Gun Control and Social Democracy

In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, the president of the United States has endorsed arming teachers. Others have proposed turning our schools into armed camps. School children are doing even more "Code Red" drills.

However, the biggest modern mass shooting in America took place at a concert. Many others have happened at restaurants or churches, yet we do not see a call to require armed pastors or to turn every Applebee's into a fortress.

The reason for this is pretty simple: the people who want gun proliferation hate public schools. They want to make public schools miserable places because public schools go against their ideology, which claims only the private sphere is good and matters.They want a society where everything public is gutted and personal violence is the ultimate law. In this dystopic understanding we should all have guns, and then ultimate peace will prevail.

Gun control matters because it is a fight against a pernicious worldview. Fighting for gun control isn't just about saving lives, it is about combatting an absolutely sociopathic understanding of society, one that I think is related to this country's wealth inequality, killer cops, rotting infrastructure, underfunded schools, lack of social safety net, and general crappiness for those not fortunate enough to be rich.

If we are to have a more social democratic society, more people in this country need to have a more social democratic outlook. Those opposed to it have used guns very effectively. They sell a seductive narrative of individualism, one where the government is an impediment and armed citizens should be empowered. 

As with health care, however, guns are an issue where social democrats can easily point out how our lives can be made so much better with a collective solution. After decades of neoliberalism, it is time for a social democratic moment, and social democrats can seize it on issues like guns, which do not first appear to be of a traditionally social democratic nature.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Feel Bad Hits of the 90s

While driving home last week from our trip to Virginia I decided to play DJ on my Spotify while in the passenger seat. I eventually settled in to playing downer hit songs from the 90s. Before I had tried to keep the mood light with some cheesy 80s tunes my wife and I could sing along to, and on an overcast day in Delaware, the Purgatory of states, my wife said she wanted the 90s instead. So I put on "Crucify" by Tori Amos and we were off. We talked a lot about how so many hit songs of that era dealt with minor key emotions, whereas the pop of the 80s and the pop of the 21st century has been all about partying and Reagan-era self-affirmation. Why were we so depressed in the 90s? That period of time looks like a golden age compared to the shit we are mired in now.

Inspired by that DJing I made a playlist, and here are some highlights for your weekend consumption.

Paula Cole, "Where Have All The Cowboys Gone"

Cole would have a bigger hit with "I Don't Want To Wait," but that song hewed a bit too close to the adult contemporary formula. This one has a cool backbeat and some dark, reverby guitar. It's meant to be a kind of critique of traditional gender roles, although the lyrics are probably a bit too heavy handed. That said, the lyrics mean a lot less than the mood, which is damn near perfect. The kind of inner chill I get from a Smiths song on a February day is present in this song.

Sarah McLachlan, "Adia"

Sarah McLachlan was the 90s answer to Carole King (that is a huge compliment coming from me.) This lament of lost love embodies the draggy feeling of heartbreak so perfectly that I would find myself about to break down and cry behind the wheel of my Mazda Protege while driving through the Omaha suburbs in the summer of '98 when this was all over the radio. And I didn't even need a montage of abused animals behind McLachlan's music to get me to that place.

REM, "E-Bow The Letter"

In 1996 REM put out New Adventures in HiFi, their last with Bill Berry and their last truly great record. They were big enough at the time that they could put out a song with a John Cale-worthy drone and still get airplay out of it. The sound is one of dread personified, "Aluminum Tastes Like Fear." Patti Smith coming in at the end is a wonderful surprise.

Counting Crows, "A Long December"

Counting Crows are one of those bands who will be destined to be a metonym for a decade. When folks want to evoke the 70s all they have to say is "Foghat" or "Humble Pie." When they want to refer to the 90s, they just have to say "Counting Crows." Their first record was solid front to back, a kind of ersatz The Band filtered through Prozac. The second one was spottier, but "Long December" was a keeper. It actually came out in a December when I was working at the rubber parts factory over Christmas break from college to get some extra scratch. When it came on the radio in the injection press room where I toiled over the machines, it meant far more to me than it should have.

Eels, "Novocaine For The Soul"

I get emotional thinking that once upon a time songs like this were on the radio. Or at least they were in Omaha in 1996, where there was a vibrant music scene multiple quality radio stations. It still sounds great and fresh today. The lyrics, of course, evoke depression pretty accurately. This song came out when I was in a bit of a down time (my friends later said they almost did an intervention), and it kind of helped me steer into the skid, so to speak.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Track of the Week: The Verve, "Bittersweet Symphony"

There are some songs that bring chills, there are some that bring tears, this is one that brings both.

Picture this: it's the autumn of 1997. A college senior has just survived a hellish summer of working two jobs (factory and telemarketing) in his humdrum rural small town. He also had his heart broken pretty badly. He is on the cusp of spreading his wings, but doesn't know how to fly.

There is drama, he suddenly finds himself attracted to a friend who is the girlfriend of another friend, and there's still another friend who secretly burns a candle for her. (When she leaves her boyfriend and embraces our hero the drama will go into overdrive.) There is much yearning and much angst and much tension of the kind that only people in their early 20s can experience.

And at this age, he experiences it through music. Our young lad is a ridiculous Anglophile, and last year fell in love with The Verve, a band as popular on this side of the ocean as black puddings and steak and kidney pies. A Northern Soul and its trippy grooves have spent a lot of time in his CD player. When Urban Hymns hits his local record store he goes out and buys it immediately, before hearing a song. He knows it's going to be amazing.

And it is. The first song, "Bittersweet Symphony," casts a spell on him. It is unlike The Verve's former psychedelic spacefunk. The strings, practically banned from modern pop music, touch something in his soul. The lyrics, about the day to day survival that life demands and the need to break the chain, speak to him like nothing else. It is his anthem. It is his fight song. For a couple of weeks in the autumn of 1997, it is his everything.


I used the third person because that person who I was in the autumn in 1997 is dead. He was silly and naive but also romantic and hormonal and idealistic in ways I no longer am. The hardness of the road I traveled after that point made me a harder person, but also wiser. When I hear "Bittersweet Symphony" the chills come because I am instantly transported to such a fraught period. The tears come when I mourn the purer, softer version of me who is gone, never to come back. He could be touched by a song like "Bittersweet Symphony" in ways no song will ever again be capable of touching me.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Gen Xer Reflects On Kurt Cobain's Birthday

Nirvana in their fullest glory at the Reading Festival

When I got into my car this morning I was listening, as I usually do, to Clay Pigeon on WFMU. His morning show, which you can stream if you are unlucky enough not to live in north Jersey, takes a lot of the old morning show conventions (school lunches, this day in history, etc.) and has fun with them between spinning righteous tunes. When he got to famous birthdays he mentioned that today would have been Kurt Cobain's, then dropped the needle on "Very Ape."

This got me thinking about my generation. We were born in the Baby Bust amidst skyrocketing divorce and Reagan era reaction against the youth. In a one-two punch our society wanted to shackle us (for poor kids of color this was literal) while our families had less time for us. To be blunt, we weren't wanted. For someone born in the mid-1970s, the early to mid 90s promised deliverance. This was especially the case in terms of music. Punk and rap, two genres once kept in the basement, burst forth into the mainstream. By the late 90s both had been homogenized and drained of much of their thrill. Cobain and Tupac were both dead by gunfire, one a suicide the other murdered. In the late 90s stupid pop music, godawful Limp Bizkit rock and hip-hop drained of political consciousness ruled the charts.

This reflected a general feeling, at least by me, of missed opportunity. There are three days in what I would call the "long 1990s" where I felt my hope for the future die. The first was April 8, 1994, the day Cobain's body was found. The second was April 20, 1999: Columbine. The third was September 11, 2001, when I knew the bloodshed of that day was going to unleash far worse.

You may have your own days, mine are definitely contingent on me being a midwestern cishetero white guy. The other days I mourned with others who were also shaken, but Cobain's death I mourned alone.

Other students at my high school were just confused. Why had someone who had it all, who was rich and famous, killed himself? Their stupidity and lack of depth on that day made me insane with sadness and fury. I was, shall we say, not the happiest person in high school, and prone to depression. I fully understood why someone would take their own life, because the thought had crossed my own mind a few times. I idolized Cobain not only for his music, but for his sarcastic wit, his lack of rock star macho bullshit, his obvious humanity. I was an outcast and a weirdo and he was to me the weirdo messiah. Because other people thought an outcast like him was cool, that meant perhaps an outcast like me could somehow be cool, too. He was to me a sign as well that my generation was capable of making something new under the sun. His death seemed to tell me I was wrong, both about outcasts and my generation. For this reason I have a hard time listening to Nirvana and a lot of the loud indie rock I loved back in the 90s. It reminds me too much of the death of my youthful hopes for the world.

It's with this in mind that I am thinking of the Parkland students, who are filled with the same zeal I had at their age for wanting to become an adult in a better world than the one I was raised in. I'm middle-aged now, but I will be following their lead and getting my protesting shoes on. My generation was derided as complacent, now the media pretends we don't exist. It's time to prove them wrong on both counts.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Postcard From Virginia Beach

Perfect song for a rainy night in the Tidewater by one of its native sons

I'm writing this at night with my wife and daughters asleep, next to a window overlooking the crashing surf of the Atlantic Ocean. We made the extremely necessary decision to get out of town over a long weekend, and opted to go to Virginia Beach. It was far enough away but not too far of a drive, and more importantly, well south of New Jersey. The off season beachfront hotels are so desperate for business that I am paying less for this room than I did for the one at a roadside hotel in Dover, Delaware, last night, whose stunning view consisted mostly of an empty lot and a Pizza Hut.

This trip has been incredibly therapeutic, as good travel often can be. The rain-slicked, wind-chilled streets are empty of beach goers, and instead a great backdrop of quiet contemplation and escape. The ocean itself, as it never fails to do, puts my soul in the right mood. Perhaps it's because I grew up in the landlocked prairies of Nebraska that the ocean has a special pull on me. It is not in the mountains but by the ocean that I truly feel awed by nature. Staring out at its massive size and never-ending horizon I feel the hand of the divine and the reminder of my small place in this universe. That reminder is actually comforting, since it is also a reminder of the smallness of my own problems in the grand scheme of things. If I get to retire, I want so badly to live in a seaside town.

Buoyed by the warmth in my soul that the ocean is giving me, we have been enjoying the small pleasures that make life bearable. Looking at the gorgeous expanse of ocean while driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, during lunch today with an old friend and her kids, watching my daughters' joy at the local aquarium, and washing some fresh oysters down with a crisp beer, I have been happier than I have been in months. All I can do tonight is wish that I could feel this way on an ordinary day, that I did not need the promise of vacation to get through so many frustrating, regular weeks of my life. Now I guess I understand why my dad always seemed so happy and excited on our family vacations. I'm feeling thankful tonight that he gave me an example to follow.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

To Win On Guns We Have To Fight

People who want gun proliferation and want to stop gun control are a formidable force not only due to the NRA lobby. They care a lot about the issue, a helluva lot more than the average proponent of gun control. Progressives who want gun control get incensed after the latest shooting, then forget about it next week. Sometimes they even refer to the cycle of "thoughts and prayers" leading to nothing in an entirely self-defeating way. "Nothing can be done' they.

Well, I for one am sick of the excuses. I am furious, not only at the politicians bought by the gun lobby and the gun humpers who support it, but also by liberals and progressives who do all of their political fighting on social media and never turn out to do something more meaningful. And you know what? I am also sick of the hand-wringing folks on the left who greet every gun control proposal with a "well actually this is all caused by xyz structural issue in the American polity." OK Mr. Smarty Pants that's nice, but how in the hell do we stop the bloodshed?

You know why I am sick of it? Because people keep dying. Because two weeks ago I had to spend four hours after school getting drilled on what to do if a shooter came into my school. Because my five year olds are doing exercises already. Because we as a nation have essentially agreed that we expect students and teachers to be slaughtered like hogs in their schools from time to time as if it is a natural and unavoidable fact of life.

Stop whining about the NRA and put your shoulders to the goddamned wheel. There are a lot more of us on this issue than there are of them. Organize! Mobilize! Make it so that Republicans crossing us more than they fear crossing the NRA. Until that happens, nothing changes. Instead of seeing this as too daunting, take up the challenge!  We simply cannot keep living like this, and the only way forward is clear as day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Thoughts Provoked By Reading John Dos Passos' USA Trilogy

World War I was the event that first got me interested in history. I have maintained that interest, an interest so pure an abiding that I have never wanted to sully it by formally researching and writing about it. (Yeah, I'm a weird guy) This means that I occasionally fall down a Great War rabbit hole and have to keep digging until I come out on the other side.

Recently my interest in that conflict combined with my love of modernist fiction, and I picked up John Dos Passos' USA trilogy. So far, I have not been able to put it down. The forty minutes in the morning and afternoon I spend reading it while riding my New Jersey Transit commuter train to and from New York City have become cherished to me. It tops out at well over a thousand pages, and I am already half-way through.

It is a book famous for its devices, including stream of consciousness "Camera Eye" interludes, several interlocking narratives from the points of view of a broad range of characters, "Newsreels" os scraps from actual newspapers, and best of all, impressionistic biographies of key figures of the age.

I love this aspect of the book because what I call the "contemporary historical novel" is one of my favorite genres. These are typically novels where the author is recounting a recent past that the audience has lived through, and attempts to make sense of it. Dos Passos wrote the three novels (The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money) in the 1930s, but wrote them about America right before, during, and after World War I. We get an amazing sweeping view of a certain time and place, and it's the kind of thing we had in the 21st century about our own recent past. If I had the time, talent, and inclination, it's what I'd write. Alas, I am no one's idea of a novelist.

Reading the trilogy I have been struck by how the modernist art of the early 20th century has maintained its power to provoke. When I show my students early abstract paintings they still get shocked or put off by them. It is great and a little sad that writers and artists so long ago can be so fresh. It says a lot about how timid and safe so much of what we consume today can be. Relatedly, I am flummoxed at how these books these days are not rated much, and have become an afterthought. call me crazy, but I'd put them above what Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis were writing at the time, and I like all of those authors.

In terms of the content of the books, I have made another sad realization. It used to be when I read novels written in the early 20th century that the chasms of class differences between some of the characters seemed quite alien to me. Nowadays those differences feel all too relatable. After four decades of neoliberalism American society has practically gone back to its New Deal self, a small band of affluence sitting above the toiling masses. At least Dos Passos is deeply concerned with those disparities and revolutionary ideas. Few writers today seem to be.

One of Dos Passos' motifs is the larger story of America's rise to global political and economic power. His trilogy is partly a meditation on the start of the so-called American Century. It is interesting to read it when we are now in that century's twilight. I only hope that there is a historian or novelist or film-maker out there who can document this era in all its tragedy and messiness the way that Dos Passos rendered his.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Warning Signs That Your Elders Are Watching Fox News

Be on the lookout for pushers like this!

[Editor's note: I am giving over my blog today to Dr. WH Bear, an expert on the scourge afflicting our citizens in their golden years. Be vigilant, and don't forget to report seniors with dilated eyeballs.]

As we all know, the so-called "golden years" bring all kinds of emotional adjustments. Elders may start acting out for the first time, they may change so much that you barely recognize them anymore. I know that this can give many young people anxiety, and they never want to believe that the elders in their lives, perhaps even their parents, are using and addicted to Fox News.

Now you may want to dismiss this, and see it as just a phase they'll outgrow. After all, you'll say, "don't all old people need to have some time to experiment?" Or you might say, "I dabbled a little in Fox News, and it didn't hurt me!" You may say that now, but soon enough your sweet aunt will be talking your ear off about "chain migration" and will be ruining family events by going on about president Obama's birth certificate. You might think that your neighbors are harmless when you hear Sean Hannity's voice coming out of their windows, but soon they will be putting "Blue Lives Matter" signs on their lawn. You also might not be aware that the current strains of Fox News are five times more powerful and addictive than they were twenty years ago.

While some elders loudly proclaim their Fox News addiction, others may try to mask it. Here are some warning signs to look out for:

They use strange new lingo, like "Benghazi" and "Solandra"
One notable effect of Fox News addiction is that its victims become passionate about obscure issues embedded in larger contexts they don't understand. For example, most of them do not know that Benghazi is a city in Libya, or can even locate Libya on a map. However, they will use it in conversation as much as possible.

They have a sudden interest in buying gold
Fox News conditions its viewer to lose their sense of reason and to accept whatever claims, no matter how outrageous, are made on that channel. Many unscrupulous types know this, and like to peddle all kinds of rip-offs to Fox News viewers whose minds have been weakened. Those promoting the buying and selling of gold seem to be especially active, so beware.

They lack of awareness of major news events
If people watch news all day, you would expect them to be very well-informed by what they are watching. However, a Fox News addict will be strikingly ignorant of major news events, especially those that present the president in an unflattering light. If they talk at length about "Operation Fast and Furious" or "Solandra" but don't know about the latest Trump scandal, they are likely Fox News addicts.

They are scared of Antifa, the New Black Panther Party, and the "knockout game"
Now it is normal for elders to have heightened fear and anxiety about the changing world in their old age. However, Fox News addicts seem to show peculiar fixations on very minor and insignificant left-wing organization or moral panics with a subtext of violence committed by young people of color. Addiction to Fox News has been known to trigger increased levels of paranoia.

Once you know that your elders are addicted to Fox News, it can be very hard to know what to do. This is not the kind of thing any child imagines that they will have to deal with. Remember, the parental controls on your television are for your use, and your elders will likely not be capable of changing them back. They may protest, but some "tough love" is needed to save their minds and souls from the hell of addiction.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Trump's Media Enablers

The Emperor has no hair

Politically this last week has been one of the most depressing of the Trump administration. Last week the wannabe despot gave a state of the union address that received a level of media hype of the kind I have never witnessed for any president. The cable news networks were desperate to get eyeballs on the screens and ratings in their pockets. The speech itself was hardly notable, except for its complete lack of policy proposals.

Of course, the media tried to polish Trump's turds, as they always do. They talked, yet again, about pivots. Why? Because the media CANNOT admit that this is not situation normal. They cannot admit that this is not a regular president, not even a bad regular president, because acknowledging reality would actually force them to stand for something. We are living in a Twilight Zone episode where millions are crying out about how the emperor has no clothes, but those in charge of the media, who are supposedly the most suited to see this, refuse to do so. They are not equipped to deal with what this man truly is: a wannabe despot consumed by ego and sociopathy who is totally unfit for the job, and who owes his position due to the bigotry of wides swathes of America, as well as the assistance of a foreign power.

And, as one could easily predict, after Trump was done reading insincere nonsense off of his teleprompter, he went back to being his usual self. In a move reminiscent of Mao or Stalin, he accused Democrats who did not stand and clap for him of treason. He released a classified memo in an attempt to thwart a criminal investigation against him, and that memo actually turned out to do nothing to exonerate him. Did any of the pundits who fawned and talked of "reset" apologize or admit they were wrong? Of course not. I am sure that when Trump has his stupid military parade they will be fawning again, going out to talk to dipshits at lunch counters in the backwoods and reporting that people just love seeing their leader supporting the troops.

As much as I hate Trump and his minions, this week my rage is reserved for the media. The president has called them the enemy, has declared war on them, and they have responded by shirking their duty. Trump claimed to have had the best state of the union TV ratings in history, which simply wasn't close to being true. And yet the Times called it a "boast" rather than a "lie"! The media are simply too chickenshit to defend their integrity. Trump is a goddamned ignorant, bigoted moron, but he is extremely smart at manipulating the media. He used the media to get hours of free publicity in the primaries. Every week a new scandal emerges from his administration, but he just keeps shotgunning them out there and putting on the Trump Show. A tweet will get more news than evidence of corruption or collusion.

So please folks, pull the plug on the Trump Show. Play the long game. Donate, vote, canvas, write, call, fundraise, protest, and strike and for God's sake turn off cable news.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Classic Albums: Pink Floyd, Animals

[Editor's Note: It's been far too long since I've done a classic album on here, so here it goes.]

There was a certain time in my youth where I listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall album pretty religiously. I can even locate it: late winter of my junior year of high school, 1993. Roger Waters' curdled sensibility and rage against school and society was tailor-made for angsty teenaged me. That was actually my first Floyd album. The following summer I picked up Dark Side, and found myself totally entranced by the more proggy, psychedelic band I found on that album. The two tapes alternated in the stereo of my Mazda Protege, depending on my mind. When I felt good, it was Dark Side, when I felt rotten, The Wall.

Later I developed a taste for the early Syd Barrett Floyd, as well as their gonzo material that bridged their 60s sound and their 70s stardom. Only much later did a friend introduce me to Animals, a true bridge album from Pink Floyd the band to Pink Floyd the Roger Waters apparatus. It's an album that has The Wall's social commentary and anger, but maintains the old prog religion. In fact, it's a far proggier album than anything the Floyd had done since Meddle. Listening to it now it sounds like a missed opportunity, as The Wall would take the band into a more conventional musical direction and more overblown conceptual direction. 

Animals starts and ends with two parts of a simple, mournful acoustic song called "Pigs on the Wing." It's about love, not society, but makes for a soft takeoff and landing on a difficult album. The rest of side one is taken up with "Dogs," about those people who obediently follow the rules of society while seeking to dominate others. Richard Wright's organ is subdued, but provides an eerie, horror movie mood underneath the proceedings. Gilmour's fast acoustic guitar is like the sound of a dog bounding quickly after a ball, but the mood darkens when his voice comes in. While the song is credited to both Gilmour and Waters, it definitely has more of a Gilmour feel to it, especially the amazing, typically searing guitar solos interspersed. The lyrics are very dark and reflective of Waters' new direction. There's talk of backstabbing and duplicity, all so one can grow to be old, alone, and dying of cancer. The stretch in the middle of unsettling music and dog noises is pure prog and adds to the somber and off-putting mood.

Unlike other Floyd albums, this one will put me in a down mood pretty fast, and I usually only listen to it when I am feeling in the dumps. I don't exactly need to be reminded these days of how cruel and mean-spirited people can be, or how careerists and opportunists are constantly poisoning just about everything. I happened to buy it on a trip home over the holidays from grad school in December of 2000, precisely when I was in a bit of a down period. Perhaps that's why it took hold of me so fast.

Side two starts off with "Pigs," which if we know our Orwell is talking about all those self-appointed "leaders" who constantly engage in parasitic, sociopathic behavior. Unlike your run of the mill dog, a pig is secure in their power, and has no need to backstab to climb the ladder because they are already at the top. The song itself is loud and punishing, perhaps a riposte to the punks who had deemed the Floyd and their contemporaries dinosaurs. It's also rather relevant these days. Former PM David Cameron is purported to have had sexual relations with a dead pig in his youth as part of one of those Oxbrige groups where everyone grows up to run the country like it's still 1890. And of course, the president of the United States is as piggish as they come, from his porcine body to his tiny, groping hands.

The music of "Pigs" is simpler than usual Floyd, a sign of the direction the band was heading. At this point, however, it's not overly simple. The last long song, "Sheep," ends things in a rousing fashion. It starts, however, with a nice jazzy Wright keyboard number, really the last time he was allowed to fill that kind of space on a Floyd record in their classic era. (After this Waters would cruelly demote him to the status of a sideman, rather than a full band member.) The sheep, of course, are those people who go meekly about their days, living lives of quiet desperation being ruled by pigs and bossed by dogs. While the whole "the people are sheeple" thing has gotten out of hand these days, in the late 70s it was not yet fully played out. In addition to organ this song has some fine bass work from Waters, which gives it a pulsing groove a la "One Of These Days." In this version of things the sheep actually do rise up and take down those who presume to dominate them. 

I do not find "Sheep" as musically cohesive as the other tracks, but right now its theme speaks to me. In this era where pigs run our politics and dogs overwhelm our workplaces, I'd like to think that they finally get theirs. Animals may not be in the Floyd pantheon, but it gets at some of the realities of modern life in ways that other allegorical renderings are rarely able to elucidate. Other Floyd records may be better, but there will never be one more relevant. 

Friday, February 2, 2018

The Exquisite Propaganda of NFL Films

It's Super Bowl time, and although I have soured on watching men bash their brains into mush for my amusement, I did watch a lot of the playoffs. There were some good games, and they reminded me why I once really cared about NFL football.

My interest in the game was certainly fueled by watching matches on television, but perhaps just as much from the programming produced by NFL films. In the days before ESPN's NFL primetime, I would watch their weekly half-hour show summarizing one of the week's games. The high quality film stock, booming soundtrack, slow motion clips, and John Facenda's unmistakable voice entranced me. By being at the field level, rather than from above as on TV, the NFL Films programs provided a stunning intimacy. Later on, when my family got ESPN, that content-starved network would just run all of the half-hour NFL Films summaries of the games. NFL Films is a salient example of how the NFL was so much better at promoting itself than other sports, once of the key reasons it became the most popular spectator sport. Nowadays from CTE to protests the NFL no longer seems capable of controlling its own narrative.

As false as the old NFL narrative was, NFL Films mythologized it perfectly. Here's a few clips I still remember fondly.

Super Bowl XII

I hate admitting this, but in my youth I was a Dallas Cowboys fan. This is because my best friend was one too, and they had cool uniforms and the city of Dallas had prestige in my eyes due to the TV show of the same name. I used to love watching this doc about the Cowboys creaming the Broncos in 1978, especially the section that starts at 18:40. There's what can only be described as a heavy metal symphonic score as the Cowboys defense mercilessly blitzes and tackles. The music and field-level slow motion turn what look like routine plays on the broadcast into gladiatorial combat.

"Autumn Wind"

Steve Sabol, who went on to head NFL Films after his father, wrote this bit of verse. Yes it is overblown but it also captures something of the spirit of those rough and tumble 1970s Raiders teams.

"Ice Bowl"

Perhaps no game cemented the NFL's mythos more than the 1967 championship game, better known as the "Ice Bowl." The Packers and Cowboys battled in temperatures well below zero, the game one on that gut-checkiest of plays: a quarterback sneak. NFL Films turned each game into a kind of balletic war where men strained under harsh circumstances to push themselves to the limit. This one seemed to defy human limits of endurance. Games like this gave the NFL a masculine mystique compared to other sports.

Super Bowl IV

I always loved the doc for Super Bowl IV because they mic'ed Hank Stram, the gabby Chiefs head coach. You can get a taste at minute 3. With his suit and demeanor he always struck me as a kind of old timey, fast-talking hustler.

"Round Up"

OK, this isn't a video, but a great example of Sam Spence's music for NFL Films. It's like Ennio Morricone but more martial. I like to listen to it on the tail-end of my morning commute on Mondays so I can get psyched for the week ahead.

Willie Brown's Interception in Super Bowl XI

This might be the most iconic NFL Films moment. Willie Brown, the great aging defensive back known as "Old Man Willie" by his teammates, made a great interception that he ran back for a touchdown. It sealed the game for the Raiders. I have always been struck by the great close-up, slow motion shot of Brown running it back. The look of sheer determination mixed with quiet triumph on his face is really something. You can see it at 18:25.

Best of Football Follies

When I got my Sports Illustrated subscription for Christmas in 1988, I also got a VHS copy of this exquisite compilation of bloopers and oddities. NFL Films took even routine blow plays and fuckups and turned them into high comedy. At minute 34 is some classic footage of mic'ed up coaches getting salty.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

How Anti-Government Rhetoric Became The Tool Of Despotism

Remember when the press stood up to despotism in America?

I have been thinking a lot about Watergate lately, partly because I just finished the Slow Burn podcast about it, and partly because we are mired in a similar presidential scandal. In retrospect, Watergate ended up being a case where conservatives lost the battle, but won the war.

Sure, Richard Nixon was removed from office, but that was done with the cooperation of other Republicans, who could then wash their hands of his crimes.Watergate added to the thinking after Vietnam and the actions of police and law enforcement in the 1960s that "the government can't be trusted." Conservatives then used this impulse to attack liberalism, which used the government as an instrument to enact social legislation. For those in the middle, who rarely think very deeply about politics, it was easy to translate Watergate into being pro-tax cuts and deregulation. (Of course, using cloaked racism a la Lee Atwater was also crucial to this.)

Soon in popular culture the government became a force of evil, even in family films like E.T.. Who's the biggest human villain in Ghostbusters? An EPA regulator. Later years saw much more explicit connections, such as in films as Enemy of the State and Absolute Power. This all perhaps culminated in the execrable House of Cards, which feeds every mediocre Beltway apparatchik's fantasy that they are genius, behind the scenes masterminds.

Folks on the left and the right distrust different parts of the government, from the left's skepticism of the military and CIA to the right's constant calls to end the Department of Education. Again, for the vast American middle of political ignorance (you know, the kinda people who say "I'm socially liberal and fiscally conservative), all they hear is "don't trust the government." After forty years, that message might be the one general political statement with broad support in America.

Republicans and Donald Trump are currently using it to their advantage. The whole Nunes memo and rhetoric about the "deep state" keys into this notion that government institutions simply can't be trusted. While the left is right to be skeptical of the FBI (hell, I am for sure) that skepticism has also been manipulated into a Glenn Greenwald-ian obtuse moral stance that says "As bad as Trump is, I refuse to defend the FBI." (Greenwald is not a good influence. Go ahead, fight me.)

This is why the White House's cynical strategy to undermine the investigation will work. A lot of folks on the left won't fight it, conservatives will believe a conspiracy if Fox says it's so, and those in the middle will default to their usual "well, you can't trust the government."

One fact that has been chilling me for years is that the military and police are our most trusted government institutions. We now have a wannabe despot in charge of the military and federal police power who has been rhetorically attacking other government and public institutions. In typical despotic language, he is fond of saying "I alone" can solve the problems that face the country. This means we are heading into some dangerous territory, folks. We've been sleepwalking through history, unaware that our post-Watergate path has been leading us to this point all along.

Monday, January 29, 2018

A Few Thoughts On The Most Depressing Day Of The Year

It may not be official, but I am now calling the last Monday in January "The Most Depressing Day Of The Year." Well, at least in the northern hemisphere.

On this day I am feeling very tired and sick at heart. Some of this is personal, some of it is political, and some of it is the intersection of the personal and political, like my shitty New Jersey Transit commute. Sometimes when I get down I try to cheer myself up by watching old music videos and favorite sit-coms from my youth. Other days I steer into the depression and let it ride, and today is one of those days.

As I sat in my grimy New Jersey Transit train today I was reading a book about the memory of the World War I in Great Britain. The author talked about how some of the battlefield monuments eschewed Christian imagery, mirroring how the war had shattered the faith of so many of its participants. While some may have sought a comforting narrative of redemption and heaven's reward, others could never believe in a God that would allow such senseless slaughter to occur.

For some reason, at the very moment I was reading that passage, a memory popped into my head. I remembered a road trip I took to from Omaha to Chicago during my senior year of high school. We left on a golden Saturday morning, and after my friend got into the car, I read aloud Carl Sandburg's poem "Chicago" to inaugurate our journey.

That memory suddenly made me extremely sad. The kind of person who did dorky, romantic, spontaneous things like that is dead. Life has made me harder, more cynical, and far less trusting. It's not a matter of wanting to restore that person, there really is no way to go back.

Then I remembered that there are places when the spirit of that person lives on, even though he is dead. In the classroom I am willing to put myself out there and be vulnerable and dorky, but not outside of the walls of that classroom when I am out of my house. I also remembered my children brought that out of me too. When my daughters got home today, about ten minutes after I arrived, I swept them up and smiled. I talked with them about their day and had one of my daughters read a book to me. She also insisted on talking in a robot voice. I played along, she laughed. On days like this such silly games are therapy.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Guided By Voices, "Motor Away"

[Editor's Note: I am so tired and burnt out right now that I am going to be aiming small for awhile here. It's high time I brought back The Track of the Week, which gives me great pleasure.]

There is some music I love that I don't listen to enough. 1990s indie rock definitely falls into that category for me. Why? Well that's the music I associate with being "my" music in my formative years in the 1990s, years when I thought my generation was unique and was going to make a difference. Instead, we turned into an afterthought between the Boomers and Millennials. I am now fairly certain that there will never be a Gen X president. Listening to 90s indie rock is always a reminder of the stupidity and short-sightedness of my youth.

And yet, it is so good, and reaches me so deep. One of those songs is "Motor Away" by Guided By Voices, a group that specialized in songlets rather than songs. At two minutes and seven seconds, it is the fourth longest out of 28 (!) songs on the Alien Lanes album. They are all about feel, and "Motor Away" has such a great feel to it, it perfectly describes the small elation I get driving down the streets in winter time, longing for any kind of escape, no matter how small. The song drives forward clankily, like the hail-damaged 1990 Honda Accord I drove way too far into this century. It's a life-affirming song, one I often turn to in these dark days of winter.

Two days ago I was bringing my daughters home from aftercare, and this song came on. One of my daughters got excited and asked me what it was, since she really liked it. "My music," the music of my generation and my youthful hopes was being embraced by my own daughter without me even trying to push it on her. This music, so reminiscent to me of a bygone time, was fresh and fun in my daughter's ears. In a tough and grueling week, her enthusiasm was exactly what I needed.

Monday, January 22, 2018

New Series (The Age of Restoration, 1976-2001)

I've decided to start a new series on this blog: The Age of Restoration, 1976-2001. I have spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary history, and I want to put some of my thoughts down on cyberpaper.

I have long thought of the mid-1970s as a secret turning point in American history, but enough time has passed now that I am more certain of what changed and our current relationship to those changes. To start with, I think I should explain my periodization, as well as why I am using the phrase Restoration.

In the first place, the term is meant to be somewhat ironic. Political conservatives started their ascent in the late 1970s, and they promised to bring back an America defeated by Vietnam, divided by the 60s, and enduring economic crisis. The military, shaken by its failures, would be rehabilitated to the point that the public would willingly acquiesce to endless war. The culture wars and backlash against the 1960s would first be exploited in the 1970s, and would give a crucial advantage to conservatives into the 21st century. The mass incarceration that began in the mid-1970s kept growing and growing in power and legitimacy. That mass incarceration was part and parcel of a racist backlash against the changes wrought by the civil rights and black power movements. During that whole period, no progressive Democrat would ever be president. It appeared that conservatives had won.

That "Restoration" was ironic because the election of 2000 exposed the deep political divisions that had supposedly been solved. The bust of 2001 put lie to the promises of endless economic expansion. The 9/11 attacks caused a massive rupture that actually gave the rising restoration of faith in the American military a massive boost, but also showed the dreams of international stability that the Restoration promised were meaningless.

The neoliberal economic model fully took over in this period, and in that respect too it was a restoration of a pre-New Deal mindset. In the late 1990s, as the economy truly boomed in a way that seemed to lift all boats for the first time since the golden age of 1947-1974, this model seemed to have succeeded. The stagnant economy from 2001-2008 ended with an outright crash. The signs were pretty obvious in 2001.

So I guess it's obvious why I end in 2001, but why start in 1976? I see it as the start of Restoration after a period of extreme upheaval in the mid 1970s. 1973 saw an oil crisis that plunged the nation into recession. 1974 brought the resignation of Richard Nixon. In 1975 came the fall of Saigon. 1976 however brought the Bicentennial, which I will argue was an important point in creating the Restoration narrative. That year also put Jimmy Carter in office while showing the rise of Reagan. Both would establish the template for their respective political parties for the next 25 years.

I hope you can come along with me on this journey, and who knows, perhaps it will turn into something bigger.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Wintertime Baseball Musings

This winter I thought I had managed to avoid my usual off-season baseball withdrawal. I have been watching more basketball and hockey again, and am remembering why I enjoy those sports. The NFL playoffs have also been more compelling that usual this year.

And yet...

It hit me this week as hard as it always does in January. Why isn't there any baseball to watch? And so, yet again, I try to dig up some old baseball artifacts and start thinking about the larger metaphors of baseball. For example, the way the New York Mets have conducted themselves this off season is a like a middle-aged person whose life has gone into a holding pattern. The Mets didn't make any major moves, didn't shake things up, and are certainly not going to be challenging for the World Series. They made enough small moves, like claiming Adrian Gonzalez off of the scrap pile, to keep anyone from accusing them to have given up. And so the Mets, who so recently looked ready to be a contender for many years, will once again settle for mediocrity. As I have entered middle age, I know this temptation all too well.

So this middle-aged mediocrity will distract himself from contemplating his loss of passion by digging up some artifacts.

Hard to believe it's been almost thirty years since Fleer and Billy Ripkin accidentally took part in a baseball card with an obscenity. Ripkin had written "Fuck Face" on his bat, and didn't realize he had grabbed that particular bat for the photo shoot. Sadly, I was only able to find the censored version of the card. I think about this card today, and how once our society took obscenity more seriously. Now a human obscenity is our president and 1989 feels like a million years ago.

Buck O'Neil, player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs and later path-breaking major league baseball scout, ought to be in the Hall of Fame. If not for his managerial and scouting career, at least for his abilities as an ambassador of baseball. He is the star of Ken Burns' series, and I love this scene, where the old scout talks about how only a few very special players could make such a fearsome sound with the crack of their bat. Here he is talking of Bo Jackson, one of my childhood baseball heroes.

When Chris Chambliss hit his walk-off homer in the 1976, it finally put the Yankees back in the World Series after a very un-Yankee drought. The fans rushing the field, not allowing him to hit home plate, is such a great scene from the scary, anarchic chaos that was New York City in the 1970s.

Chicago folkie Steve Goodman wrote the Cubs anthem "Go Cubs Go," but he also write "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." It's sad that he died at the young age of 36, but perhaps more profoundly sad that he died without ever seeing them in the World Series, like a lot of other Cubs fans. Fandom is a kind of faith, and like a lot of faiths, it can be cruel in how it refuses to answer prayers.

One thing that sets baseball apart from other sports is the role of the manager. (Notice, they are not called coaches, that title is for lower members on the manager's staff.) Unlike in other sports, the manager wears the uniform of the team. Baseball also allows a level of argument between the manager and officials that you don't just see in other sports. Some managers, like Earl Weaver, were masters of the art.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Why The Sweeney Is Still My Favorite Cop Show

Last night I watched an episode of The Sweeney for the first time in a bit, and remembered how much I love it. I have a strange obsession with the grimy, broke-down, grey world of 1970s Britain. It's a society in decline, like ours, but it's got more panache. Dingy pubs choked with tobacco smoke, boxy cars, and flared trousers paired with wide lapeled blazers and loud ties. It's a shitty world I like to spend time in to escape from the shitty world I live in now, which is a lot worse with a lot less character. As I was thinking about the show, I remembered that I had written a thing about it a few years back. So here's a goodie from the archive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

My Letter To Phil Murphy

Today was Chris Christie's last day in office, a true cause for celebration. I was going to write an angry, schadenfreude-laden epitaph for that bastard, but I think I will leave that for later this week. Instead, I decided to keep it positive, and to write a letter to the new governor, Phil Murphy. Here's what I sent him:


Dear Governor Murphy:

Just writing the phrase “Governor Murphy” after the last eight years brings me a tremendous amount of happiness. I am a daily commuter to New York City, and my wife is a public school teacher. Needless to say, my family has not fared well under the leadership of the last eight years.

I was glad to vote for you in the election, and your sign was the first one I ever put on my lawn for a state-level race. You have promised a great deal, and I now ask that you do everything possible to come through on those promises. I especially want to see my wife’s pension protected, improved mass transit, less test-driven education for my children, and access to reasonably priced state university tuition when they graduate high school. I’d like those things for all children in New Jersey, which has some amazing public schools but also horrific levels of racial and economic segregation. I hope you can address that, too.

My parents’ stories are very much like your own. They were both the first people in their families to go to college, and they came of age at a time when our society offered working people a hand up instead of cutting them down at the knees. I look at my two daughters and fear that they are entering a world where opportunities are more and more scarce. I often wonder if my own family’s journey into the middle class will be a temporary blip in a longer history of emiseration. You have the power to do so much to keep opportunities open, I ask you please to follow up on these promises.

Like you, I made the choice to live in New Jersey. I grew up in Nebraska, and bounced around the country, from Chicago to Texas and points in-between. Lucky for me, I fell in love with a Jersey girl and have finally put down my roots in the Garden State. For that reason it is a very important place to me, because I am here to stay.  I am well aware from my years here of the difficulties of New Jersey’s politics.

For that reason, I ask you to be bold. It is obvious to me at least that if we want to provide high quality public services while not adding too much to the tax burden that New Jersey needs consolidation. Our state’s patchwork of tiny clusters of towns is the result of a bad policy from the 1890s. Consolidating school systems, fire departments, police, and other public services has the potential to ease the tax burden without punishing the poor or the rank and file public workers. We should also, as you have proposed, increase taxation on the wealthy.

You will also need to do your best to fight the machine. Little has disheartened me more than seeing bosses like Norcross and DiVincenzo put their support behind Christie in a corrupt bargain. Their graft has been bad for the state and only helped their cronies. Instead of making deals with them I would like to be part of a movement to get them voted out and their power broken so that our state works for the people and not for the machine. Make deals with them if you must in the short term, but in the long term please do not accept the status quo.

I also ask you to be bold in promoting New Jersey. The ridiculous rent prices in New York City ought to be a boon to our state. Yet, as you know, our transit infrastructure hampers our ability to exploit the desire by so many in New York to find a better place to live. New Jersey has so much to offer, and instead of having an inferiority complex (as so many in this state sadly do) you should project what is great about this state. We have high performing schools, wonderful diversity, amazing food resulting from that diversity, mountains and the glittering sea shore. I truly feel that this state is one of America’s best-kept secrets, and we ought to be proud of what we have here.  You can be this state’s ambassador and cheerleader, and hopefully project a far more positive image than the last occupant of the governor’s mansion.

Of course, I am well aware of how the recent tax legislation in Washington will make it hard to fulfill the promises you have made. At the same time, if we are to defeat the president and his Republican minions, we have to show the people a better alternative. The best way to do that is to make positive changes in people’s lives, and the only way to do that is to be bold. As you have said, I think that we need to get down to work on that right here in New Jersey. If you do your part, I pledge to do mine.


Dr. Werner Herzog's Bear

Monday, January 15, 2018

MLK Day Thoughts

Martin Luther King Jr died fifty years ago this year at the age of 39. I can't get over the fact that I am three years older than he was when he was murdered. This was a man with so much potential, so much ahead of him, and on the cusp of a movement that was aimed at bringing the strands of race and class together into a powerful force for change.

I was born in 1975, and my entire life has been a story of backlash against the changes wrought by Dr. King and others. As Ibram X Kendi pointed out in his recent and superlative work Stamped From The Beginning, racial progress has been met in American history by racist progress. The forces of racism may face occasional defeat, but they keep coming back and recalibrating their mission and appeal.

While so many well-meaning but deluded white people thought that racism had been consigned to the dustbin of history by MLK and the election of Barack Obama, the first Klan president was elected in the form of Donald Trump. In 1924 the Democratic Party, dominated by segregationist Southerners, actually managed to prevent the Klan from getting their preferred candidate the nomination. The Republican Party in 2016 gladly and proudly managed to give the nomination to the Klan candidate. Just eight years before the fatuous voices of our media were telling us that America was a "post-racial" nation.

For things to get better we have to abandon our narrative of progress and face things truthfully. People like to quote Dr. King's lines about the moral arc of the universe bending towards justice, but when he was analyzing the situation rather than rallying the troops, he very much questioned the narrative of progress. His "other America" speech at Stanford in 1967 expressed this very well. Here he addressed very directly the backlash against the changes wrought by the movement and the difficulties remaining. In doing so he recalled how the changes wrought be Reconstruction met a similar response.

 My entire lifetime has been a litany of racist backlash, from mass incarceration to murderous policing to "welfare queens" to Willie Horton to Trump. The complacency that so many white people in the middle have on racism is partly due to their misbegotten understanding that the problem was solved back in the 1960s. As a teacher of American history I am reminding myself on this day to fight that horrendously damaging myth in the classroom at every opportunity.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Billboard Top Ten, January 14, 1989

As I have said before, I have a very powerful seasonal memory when it comes to music. When the weather turns a certain why I will remember times in the past just like it, and often the music I was listening to then. Today for some reason reminds me of the winter of 1989, when I was a seventh grader. In that spirit, I thought I would look at what was on the charts then. Now, on with the countdown!

10. Karyn White, "The Way You Love Me"

I had totally forgotten about this song. That's probably because its New Jack Swing groove sounds like a lot of hit songs from the era. I remember the music of the late 80s being a kind of nadir, but here is a taste of the decade to come, when R&B especially got a lot better. At the time I really liked this sound, I have to say.

9. Annie Lennox and Al Green, "Put A Little Love In Your Heart"

I remember liking this song a lot, but I was young and ignorant and had no clue 1. Who Annie Lennox and Al Green were and 2. That this was a cover version. At this time I was really digging sixties soul music because of a copy of the Big Chill soundtrack a friend had dubbed for me onto a blank cassette. While the sound of this song is totally 80s-ified with shimmering synths and gated snares, enough of its classic sixties melody survived for me to glom on to.

8. Boys Club, "I Remember Holding You"

Here's a song that has NOT stood the test of time. It's a George Michael rip filtered through an 80s production machine with maybe the last appearance of Sultry Sax at the top of the charts. The backing sounds like something out of the Muzak they used to play at the dentist. Awful.

7. Michael Jackson, "Smooth Criminal"

This song in some ways marks the end of the King of Pop's dominance of the 80s. It's also so obviously superior to everything else on the chart so far. It's a tough, hard-edged groove with a slightly sinister minor-key feel. It's in the same mode as "Bille Jean," in that last respect. Believe it or not, this is where the song peaked on the charts. Unfortunately it also has drums that are over-amplified and wooden, which seemed to be a requirement in late 80s pop.

6. The Bangles, "In Your Room"

Oh my God, a song with an actual backbeat! This song has a kind of New Wave bounce to it that sounds much more appropriate for 1982 than 1989, although the same awful production techniques are slathered over everything. It's not a great song by any means, but I'll take a well-crafted, bouncy rocker any time.

5. Def Leppard, "Armageddon It"

I didn't like Def Leppard then, I don't like them now. Speaking of 80s production techniques, their music on their Hysteria album, which was EVERYWHERE in my hometown sounded like heavy metal Kraftwerk without the human charm. We needed grunge so bad in 1989.

4. Taylor Dayne, "Don't Rush Me"

Taylor Dayne is an artist who had a ton of hit records in the weird interzone of the Reagan Dusk and the early days of the 90s. She was never a star like Madonna or Whitney Houston, but kept churning out chart toppers. The musical backing is very standard and unadventurous, but her voice has this tough, husky quality that I have always liked.

3. Poison, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn"

God I hate this band so much. Is there a band that represents the cultural bankruptcy of the late 80s better than Poison? They were the kings of processed cheese metal, but then expected us to take them seriously on this ballad. At the time I guess I liked the melody, though. I have a very clear memory of this song from the time. It's a dark, cold winter morning in shop class, and the teacher would let us listen to Sunny 108, which played mostly "softer" hits, and this was pretty much the only song that came on that morning that kids my age actually liked. When "Smells Like Teen Spirit" dropped I thought this garbage had been consigned to the dustbin of history, but all the people I grew up with who had terrible musical taste now turn out to get a nostalgia high by paying to see Bret Michaels in concert.

2. Phil Collins, "Two Hearts"

Nostalgia for sixties soul wasn't just about covers like "Put A Little Love In Your Heart." Phil Collins, the most inexplicable idol of the 80s, penned the lyrics, but the music was courtesy of Motown super-producers Holland-Dozier-Holland. Here they employ the same formula they used with the Supremes and Four Tops. The 80s production washes it clean of any grit, and Collins is far too reverential in his approach. He, like a lot of other people on this chart, was approaching the end of his relevance, and he didn't even know it.

1. Bobby Brown, "My Prerogative"

Here's the song that taught me the meaning of the word prerogative. It's got that New Jack Swing, but touches of early 80s Rick James electrofunk. It's a groover, built on a totally insistent riff that carried it to the tippy top of the charts. I am not sure who exactly is keeping Bobby Brown down that he has to insist on his prerogative, but it's still a banger nonetheless. Brown would also be a victim of the changing musical landscape of the nineties, and his last hit records would come a mere three years later, in 1992.